Broken Promises 1

by leona on April 24, 2010

It seems we hardwire ourselves. We lay down neural pathways by the lifestyle, thinking and feeling patterns of our life. We literally embody our habits.

The Buddha pointed to this 1500 years ago with an infamous quote”

“Watch your thoughts, for they become words.

Watch your words, for they become actions.

Watch your actions, for they become habits.

Watch your habits, for they become character.

Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”

And its not just what we do, it seems, that is embodied – but also what we don’t do. Our broken promises create neural pathways too (and wreck havoc on relationships).

Even when we make a promise silently to ourselves and fail to keep it our subconscious remembers. It notices we fail to show up for ourselves and we feel this in our body; that heavy feeling in the belly, the twinge of our conscience, a tightening of our breathing. No amount of justifications and excuses remove this embodiment.

So are we condemned to feeling guilty, dragging around lots of old broken promises like a burden inside? I don’t believe so. In a short series of blogs I will explore what we can do to refresh our lives, honour our commitments while acknowledging human frailty and the struggle to live in the way we would like to live.

This series has been prompted by the article from the Sydney Morning Herald below:

Broken promises by Sam de Brito

April 23, 2010

Not to get too stuck on Norman Mailer, but in my Googling research for this post a few weeks back, I came across a quote from him about writing that I thought had resonance beyond just us weirdos who stick words together for a living.

In his book The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing, Mailer says that, if writers tell themselves they’re going to sit down and write but fail to do it, their unconscious stops trusting them and will no longer turn up.

“The rule in capsule: If you fail to show up in the morning after you vowed that you would be at your desk as you went to sleep last night, then you will walk around with ants in your brain.

“Rule of thumb: Restlessness of mind can be measured by the number of promises that remain unkept,” writes Mailer.

I reckon our brains work in a similar way with many of the promises we make to ourselves whether it’s about our fitness, our love life, career or family …

In my book Building a Better Bloke, I write that “if you want a magic bullet to being taken seriously as a man … it is to be true to your word”.

You’ve probably heard the saying “He’s a man of his word” and I would go as far as to invoke the hoary cliche that “a man is his word”.

If you say you’re going to do something and you do not, and you do this enough times, you cease to be someone whom people can depend on; you become a “maybe”, an “if”, and this is the opposite of what it means to be a man.

We are a verbal species; our entire world is created by and powered by words, yet so many people fail to see that a disconnect between what you say you are and how you act is the battleground of reality.

The promises we make to ourselves can be just as powerful.

If you walk around telling yourself you’re giving up drinking, smoking and the punt, yet the next day you’re drunk and puffing bungers at the TAB – it sends a message to others that your word means less to you than does that beer, ciggie and betting ticket.

It also sends a message to your unconscious that you can’t be trusted and it builds a dirty momentum whereby we expect to fail before we even attempt something.

You say: “Why bother? I’ve broken promises so many times before, why even kid myself I can get fit, or maintain a decent relationship or get this job done on time?”

Sound familiar?

I had that conversation with myself about 432,567 times when it came to smoking cigarettes as well as a couple of other habits I’m not going to discuss in a public forum.

I also know I’m happiest when I keep my promises to myself – when I look back at my day and I’ve run, written and been good to the people I love by doing the things I said I would (vacuuming).

When I don’t keep my promises to myself – especially with habits that are self-destructive – the guilt grinds around inside me like broken dinner plates.

So, if you’re feeling antsy some days, it might be worth remembering that quote from old legspread Mailer and check if you’ve kept your promises to yourself.

What promises do you break?


j0386501 STOP! Now our culture would normally have us make a list and feel bad, really bad. This inventory is not about creating a weapon to beat yourself up with. It is about honestly looking at how our habits can actually become the next step towards a better life. So before you start…

Think of someone or something (music, art, nature, the sound of the ocean, surfing, running, yoga, your pet) that supports you, gives you strength and love. Take that feeling into your body. Stay with it for at least a minute – maybe two or three – allow it to settle there.

Invite a quality of care, or kindness, or love, or patience or gentleness to be present for this process – to hold and support you as you take your inventory. This quality of self-empathy is both the arms around you and the ground under your feet.

Now ask: what is in the way of me taking this inventory? Wait…now as each thought or feeling, image or body sense arise acknowledge it and then gently put it aside…it may need to go outside, it may need to sit on the other chair in the room, or it may need to go to the beach. Keep clearing a space until you feel nothing more is in the way of taking your inventory.

From this cleared space and with your self empathy nearby ask your question with a gentle curiosity. “Ahhh, so what promises do I break?” Remember to breathe. As you note each broken promise wait there a minute with it. Keep it company and become aware of how your body knows it. You might get a sensation, an image, a metaphor, a sound, a body posture or gesture, a phrase or an emotional quality that really “gets” it. Write down the promise and the felt sense of it that your body holds.

Ask what’s the worst of this? Wait – let your body respond not your habitual mind. You will know when your body responds by a sense of release (a breath, a sigh, a laugh or smile, tears or just a shift of awareness within). Ask what “it” needs – “it” being your felt sense. Write this down.

Notice how you feel inside after asking these questions. Take your time with this…sensing the complexity and richness of how your body is now compared to when you started. Now ask what is the best of this? Enjoy this moment – allow it to expand – give it time to be taken in and embodied.

You do not need to act on any of this in a hurry. Give yourself some time for your unconscious to point you towards a new way of living. Journal about what you are noticing now in your life. Pay attention to your dreams. Notice what other things you see around you that you weren’t seeing before. Each day invite a new step – of this whole list – what is the next right forward movement for me…thoughts, plans and ideas will immediately pop into our mind because it is trained to answer questions. Wait…drop into that whole space inside your body and listen for your body’s answer. Again, it may be a metaphor, a phrase, a movement or gesture, an image etc. Hold that a moment and sense “is this it?” and you will know because it is just right for you. It will feel right and whole and good and life serving. It won’t contain shoulds, musts or have-to’s.

Good luck.

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