A Gentle Guide to Keeping Promises to Ourselves
If I were to have one super power right now it would be the ability to keep my promises to myself and follow through. It would be an amazing (and useful) power to have.
The important things I commit to and the things I actually do can be two different things. When it comes to outside commitments, I do my best to keep my word and get things done. But when it comes to commitments to myself, it’s a different story.
I’ve been making progress and getting better, but I still feel I don’t have enough drive to keep going. And I judge myself harshly for it.
Today I’m sharing with you a different approach, something that is the opposite of judgment and pushing through. It’s a gentle way to move forward and honor our commitments to ourselves.
How to keep your promise to yourself
Let’s start with the first and most important idea.
1. Loving yourself for wanting to express life
We normally judge ourselves for not following through. And we feel worse. Let’s look at it from a different perspective.
Imagine your older self (say 20 years from now) looking at you today, with all the things you want to do and all the promises you didn’t keep.
Let your older self give you a big comforting hug for being well intended … for being full of life. Your older self assures you that you are loved deeply and you’re appreciated for being you, for trying, or for wanting to try new things. It’s okay that things didn’t work out.
Love and compassion towards ourselves are more helpful than reacting impulsively by either giving up or forcing ourselves to jump into something for the wrong reasons.
2. Reflecting on the past
If you didn’t keep your promises in the past, take a step back and look at the experience from a distance. What happened?
- How and when did you commit?
- Did you do anything?
- If you started, when did you stop?
- Do you know why you stopped?
- What have you learned from the experience?
Looking at the promises you made to yourself in the past:
- Were your promises vague and unclear? A couch potato wanting to get fit is vague and general. Committing to walking for 10 minutes a day is something we can work with.
- Were your desired goals too big and overwhelming? Same as above
- Did you prioritize your commitment to yourself? We can’t schedule getting fit on the calendar, but we can schedule 10 minutes of walking.
- Did you suffer any consequences because you didn’t do it? The couch potato might’ve gained a few pounds each year, or experienced more aches and pains. But there were no immediate consequences.
Unspecific and scattered (not prioritized) commitments will get ignored—sooner or later. It’s best to start by simplifying the promises we make to ourselves.
3. Simplifying promises
After looking back at our previous promises, we can move forward by consciously choosing to do reduce confusion and overwhelm.
Wipe the slate clean. If you find yourself with too many things you want to do, now is the time to stop. Look at all the things you wanted to do in the past and haven’t done and choose one thing. Let the rest go, or write them down and put the paper/file away. We didn’t do them in the past, so it’s safe to tuck them away, at least for now.
Clarify the promise. Decide what you want to do. If you want to eat less sugar, how can you do it? Maybe cut down on candy from every day to once every three days. Keep your promise as small as possible.
Start small. Just do what you need to do in one tiny step. The little step you take is so small that you have no doubt in your mind that you can do it. Can’t stop eating candy for three days? Eat half a candy bar instead of a full one as a starting point.
4. Letting go of the pain of disappointing ourselves</h2>
Over the years, we accumulate an inventory of negative beliefs about our abilities and ourselves.
A few broken promises to ourselves and we start thinking we can’t do anything. Eventually we lose respect for ourselves and stop taking our word seriously.
If you have doubts about your ability to keep your promises to yourself, gently remind yourself that:
- You are here right now. You show up every day for life, for your family, for your work, for your survival. So you are committed.
- You have mastered many skills in the past. You can walk, read, breathe, eat and drink, and talk. And if you can’t do any of these essential skills on your own, you’ve figured out a way to adapt and survive—no small feat.
- What you desire to do is an expression of what’s within you. Life is nudging you to explore and bring into physical form what you already have inside of you. You got this!
Disappointment from past broken promises can be painful. Allow the pain to come up and be one with it. The pain is here as a reminder to let go of the suffering and start healing.
The more we feel, the closer we are to freedom from the pain of the past.
5. Building the habit of keeping promises to oneself
Habits (helpful and harmful) develop slowly with one repetition at a time. So take small action consistently. You may slip but you slipped before and picked yourself up. Just keep going.
Knowing when to add a new action step, or to move to the next level, is more art than science. Increase your action step only when you feel very comfortable with your current commitment.
Every action we take and every small promise we keep will add up. If we keep going, we will transform the disappointment of the past into to the power of the present.
We may not need a super power to keep our promises to ourselves after all. We just need self-compassion, clarity, and very tiny promises and actions.
You got this!