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Monday, May 2, 2016

Psychotherapy Blog: Keeping or Breaking Your Promises

In a prior article, Freeing Yourself From Family Expectations and Beliefs That Are Harmful to You, I discussed how family expectations and beliefs that are unhealthy can lead to an individual making a promise that can't be kept.

Keeping or Breaking Your Promises

In the fictionalized vignette in that article, a young girl makes a promise to her grandmother and her mother that, when she becomes an adult, she will follow the family legacy of being the adult daughter who takes care of her mother when her mother becomes unable to take care of herself.

Keeping or Breaking Your Promises

Part of that promise is that she won't place her mother in a nursing home no matter what happens.  But, eventually, when she becomes an adult, she is unable to keep this promise because she can no longer maintain her mother at home, as per her mother's doctor's recommendations.  It has become impossible in terms of what the mother needs medically as well as the toll that it is taking on her and her husband.

One of the points of that vignette is to demonstrate how challenging it can be to come up against certain family legacies that have been maintained for generations.  In the case of this vignette, the expectation is that the adult daughter takes care of the elderly mother until the end of the mother's life without complaining or calling on their brothers for help.

Another important point is that these family dynamics are so ingrained that they are often out of the awareness of the individual.  They are often unconscious until a person comes to therapy and the therapist helps the individual to discover these unconscious beliefs which are at the root of the problem.

In the case of this vignette, the adult daughter's unconscious belief were that she would be a "bad daughter" and a "bad person" if she broke her promise to her mother and grandmother by breaking with  a longstanding tradition in her family.

In this type of situation, even when a person understands logically that it would be detrimental to a loved one's health to keep this kind of promise, the unconscious belief can be so powerful that the person can still feel, on an emotional level, that they're "bad."  So, this is why it's so important for the therapist to work in an experiential way gets to the unconscious dynamics.

Most people would agree that, as in the case of this vignette, young children should never be put in the position of being asked to make such a promise.  Not only do they lack the capacity to understand at such a young age what they're agreeing to, but it also places a terrible burden on them.  And, as in the vignette discussed in the last article, it was a promise that eventually couldn't be kept because to do so would have been detrimental to everyone involved, especially the elderly mother.

What is a Promise?
On the most basic level, according to Merriam-Webster, the definition of a promise is "a declaration that one will do or refrain from doing something specified."

What is a Promise?

When you make a promise, you're giving your word that you will keep your commitment.

Promises range from the ordinary, like making a promise to meet someone for dinner, to life changing events like pledging lifelong fidelity during a marriage ceremony.

Keeping or Breaking Your Promises
As an adult, before you make a promise it's important to consider beforehand whether you'll be able to keep that promise.

Of course, you can only work with the information that you have at hand, things change and there might be times when you're unable to keep your promise.  Most people will understand if, for example, occasionally, you have to cancel a dinner because you have an emergency at home.  But, generally speaking, when you make a promise, the other person expects you to maintain your commitment, so it's important to think first before making promises.

If you're in the habit of breaking promises, you might want to look at some of the questions below and consider these issues before making a promise.

What to Consider Before Making a Promise:

  • Ask yourself why you're considering making a promise.  
    • Are you doing it for yourself or primarily for the other person?  
    • If you're not sure, it might be better to figure this out before making the promise, especially if it's a situation where the other person is really depending upon you in a critical matter. For instance, if you make a hasty promise to get the other person off your back, you and s/he might come to regret it when you're unable to fulfill your commitment.
  • Are you taking into consideration all your other commitments?  
    • Is it realistic for you to make this promise in light of the other obligations that you have in your life?  
    • Are you over-committed already?
  • Is this a promise that you're likely to keep?  
    • There are some promises that are unlikely to be kept because we're human and we make mistakes.  For instance, if a husband promises his wife, "I'll never hurt you," can he really say that he'll never say or do anything in their marriage that will never hurt his wife?  Hopefully, there won't be anything that's big, like infidelity, but just about everyone in a long-term relationship, at some point, says or does something hurtful, even if it's only an angry look or a snarky comment made without thinking.  In most relationships, these issues are usually overcome if everything else is going well.  But no one can promise to be perfect in this way.

How to Handle a Broken Promise Under Ordinary Circumstances
There are times when you're not going to be able to keep your promise.  For example, I'm referring to an ordinary commitment that you've made to see a friend for dinner.  I'm not referring in this section to big important promises, like a promise to be faithful in your relationship, which I'll deal with in a future article.

Breaking a Promise Under Ordinary Circumstances : Take Responsibility and Give as Much Notice as Possible

As I mentioned, most people will understand if, on occasion, you have to reschedule a dinner, as long as you don't have a pattern of breaking these commitments.

The important thing is to be as considerate as you can to the person that you made a commitment with by:

  • Taking responsibility for breaking the commitment, even if it's unavoidable.  Acknowledging that you're breaking a promise shows that you understand that, even under unavoidable circumstances, you are aware that it's an inconvenience for the other person.
  • Giving that person as much advanced notice as possible so s/he can make other plans or adjust their schedules accordingly.
  • If possible, make an attempt to reschedule with your friend.
  • Keep these broken commitments to a minimum by taking into account the questions outlined above before you make the commitment.


Feeling Good About Yourself By Keeping Your Promises and Commitments
When you can fulfill your promises and commitments, not only does it help you to strengthen and maintain your relationships with others, it also makes you feel good about yourself.

Keeping Your Promises Strengthens Your Relationships and Helps You to Feel Good About Yourself

When you keep your promises, you feel like a confident and trustworthy person.

Making it habit to keep your promises also helps you to continue developing your skill to keep your commitments in the future.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

I have worked with many individuals and couples to help them with their commitments in their personal life as well as in their career.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.



























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