The Right to Unpromise

By Stephanie Miller

I’m really good at making and keeping promises. As a matter of integrity, I think it is essential to do what you say you’re going to do, but sometimes that becomes impossible.

Back when I was six years old I once took a blood oath with one of my girlfriends. I think it lasted for a week before one us broke it and (knowing me) it took me 20 years to stop feeling guilty about that.

The fact is not all promises are equal. The cross-my-heart-hope-to die promises of my youth lack two crucial components. The first is an appreciation of the consequences of my promise both short and long term. The second is all party’s ability to keep the promise. Contracts and vows are entered into by adults who should understand the consequences of their promises and know if they can keep them. Lawyers make sure that people who sign contracts are able to appreciate the elements of the commitment.

It’s easy to be hard on yourself when you find you are unable to keep a promise. If you consider personal integrity important it can be particularly torturous to realize you can’t keep a promise. Shame and guilt are often fueled by trying to keep a damaging promise or a promise you are unable to keep. It’s important to navigate these difficult situations without feeling you have comprised your own integrity or hurt others.

I’m at an age where many of my friends have had parents die and some of us have had the experience of making death bed promises. I was talking to a friend of mine about this over the weekend and he identified one of the big problems with these deathbed promises. A promise is between two people and one of them died so that makes it difficult for the remaining person to keep the promise. What if the circumstances change? What if the living person can’t keep their promise or misunderstood the commitment? Or what if neither one of you was thinking clearly in that stressful moment?

Take a moment to consider the elements of the promise before you decide you’ve failed.  

Here’s few questions to ask yourself:

·      Is keeping the promise still possible?

·      Is the other person keeping the promise?

·      Is it time to renegotiate the original promise?

·      Did you make the promise under emotional duress?

·      Is keeping the original promise causing you pain or harm?

Consider the answers to these questions carefully and decide if the time has come to make a change. Be careful not to turn your good intentions into an occasion for beating yourself up.  In the future when you make a promise make it carefully and then reserve to right to unpromise, if necessary. 

Stephanie MillerComment