The Promise Trap

The dreaded opening to a casual conversation… “Do you remember when you promised…?” Welcome to the promise trap. We often find ourselves here when a promise has slipped through the cracks of our busy lives. For some of us, it happens more often than not, and it’s not a pleasant feeling. Think, however, for a moment about the other person. How must they feel at a promise that remains unfulfilled? You don’t have to think very hard since we’ve all experienced it, and it sucks for everyone involved. First is the disappointment and feelings of distrust experienced by the person who was promised. There are also feelings of worthlessness and shame in the person who has broken the promise.

For many people, promises are spoken contractual agreements that are often entered into lightly.

When you promise someone you are setting an expectation in their mind. Breaking that expectation results in hurt feelings and damaged reliability. If you’ve ever broken a promise, intentionally or otherwise, you know how bad it makes you feel. So, why do we make promises when not fulfilling them causes so much trouble? Here are a few common reasons that I believe are a bit closer to the truth than some psychology sites may lead you to believe.

It makes us feel important – This can be a real problem for the person who is on the receiving end of the promise. The person promising you the world, or perhaps to take out the garbage, is more interested in the feelings they get with your appreciation of the promise than they are in actually doing the deed.

Honest Intention – We honestly believe that we’re going to do the promised action. This is especially troubling for people who may not have a good idea of their own limitations and get in over their heads.

Coercion – A promise is made, begrudgingly, in the spirit of maintaining peace. These are often instigated with an either/or statement. “Either you make the bed in the morning or you’ll spend the next week on the couch.”

Quiet – There are some people who won’t go away until they get something out of you. In these cases, you’re forced to make a promise just to get some peace and quiet. “Fine, I promise to take you to the movies, just let me get back to work.”

Fear of Disappointment – This is especially prevalent in parents who don’t wish to let their children down. A promise is made to appease criticism or to shore up a relationship, though in reality, we’re making the promise because we don’t know how to say “No”. “Yes hon, I promise I will get you a new phone, I just need time to figure out how to pay for it.”

The passion of the Moment – There are times when we get caught up in the passions of the moment and we start making starry-eyed promises that feed into the passion and drive it further. I’m reminded of the lyrics of a fairly popular song.

 “I swore that I would love you to the end of time!
So now I’m praying for the end of time
To hurry up and arrive”

The Necessity of Promises

Let’s take a look into promises in general. What do they give us? Well, they play an important social role in securing contracts between people that help grow relationships. These relationships are especially important between parents (or other adults) and children who regard them as infallible. Of course, children lose this view of adults as they grow. Promises also offer a level of certainty and expectation in relationships that help hold them together through rough times. This is especially important in marriages and long-term unions where the fulfillment of a promise leads to feelings of love and commitment.

We can’t forget the bad aspects of promises though. A promise effectively relegates an action to the future as opposed to initiating action immediately. Whenever an action is relegated to the future there is the possibility that it will not happen or possibly be forgotten. You also can’t control how the promise is perceived by the person receiving the promise. Unrealistic expectations may arise from innocent promises and you may never know about it until it is too late. For example: “I promise I’ll take out the garbage.” is received as “For the remainder of my time on this Earth and in this relationship I shall be the only person to take out the garbage. Fret not my love, for you will never have to touch another bag of reeking filth again.”

That last bit is a fairly tongue-in-cheek look at it, but you’d be surprised at how the mind works when presented with a promise. In the end, however, the positives outweigh the negatives and we’re left with the certainty that promises play an integral role in daily life. So, with that conclusion, how do we go about it?

FreemanFrancis Promise Guidelines

  1. Minimize the promises you make.

The quickest way to resolve your problems with promises is to immediately stop making promises for everything that is presented to you. If an action is required and it won’t take much time (i.e. taking out the garbage), stop what you are doing and attend to the request. By following an action-first approach the number of promises will drop dramatically.

2. Plan, don’t promise.

There will be times when the request is too big to handle immediately. In such cases, you should avoid making promises and instead plan for the request. Work with the person who is making the request to plan out when and how the request will be fulfilled.

3. Consider reality.

We’ve all been asked to make a promise that we know will be difficult, if not impossible, to keep. In cases such as these, we should weigh the reality of the promise. Questions such as: “Do I have control over the outcome?”, and “Do I know enough to succeed?” need to be answered before a promise is made. Promising to take your girlfriend to the moon offers a serious issue with the reality of keeping the promise.

4. Be aware of conflicting promises.

If you’ve promised to take your wife to dinner on Thursday night while also promising to meet the guys at the bar at the same time it behooves you to ditch the guys. The last thing you should do is take your wife to the bar to hang out with your friends. Conflicting promises becomes a greater issue when the number of promises you make increases. Keep this in mind and carry a little notebook around with you to keep track of your promises.

5. Remember that a promise cannot repair deeper issues.

There are times when a relationship is severely damaged and making promises seems like the best way to repair the rift. Some problems, however, cannot be repaired through promises alone, even if you follow through meticulously with each one. In these cases, a promise acts more like a bandaid than a tourniquet.

6. When in doubt, “No” is a perfectly suitable answer.

Remember that one of the reasons we make promises is because we don’t know how to say “No” without feeling pangs of guilt. This is a feeling you need to get over if you’re going to save your time and sanity.

So, where do we end with the question trap? The first and most important thing to remember is that promises are important in our daily social interactions. As a result, we can’t just get rid of promises, but we can reduce them to essential promises only. You should know how to gauge a request and whether or not you need to make a promise to get it done. When a promise is made, however, do everything in your power to follow through and deliver quickly.

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