Making Promises You Can’t Keep

Have you ever experienced the excitement of agreeing to a request or an activity that someone invited you to because it seemed like a good idea at the time? Or have you agreed to so many activities planned for the same day that you forget where one ends and where the other begins? And as the days get closer to the event or activity you realize that you actually can’t make it to all of them? The smart thing to do in this case is to cancel or postpone, but instead, you end up not showing up at all, without a head’s up, and you figure that the person will forget about it and forgive you.

Somewhere along the line, without you knowing, it becomes a pattern: you’re asked to be present at an activity or complete a task, you commit to said activity or task, then fail to comply with the commitment. So, then, there’s the question of why this happens? Is it in fact difficult for human beings to comply with commitments, and keep their promises? To answer this question, we must first understand the action of ‘being committed’.

The Definition of Commitment

According to the Merriam-Webster definition, to be ‘committed’ means to be loyal or keep your word to a person or something. In psychological terms, according to the American Psychological Association definition, to be ‘committed’ means to be obligated or devoted to a person, relationship, task, cause, or other entity or activity. Thus, any time you agree to being present at someone’s activity or doing a task, that’s you making a commitment – or promise.

According to researchers, commitments are a part of human social life, as it provides clarity to the other person, in that they can predict the committed individual’s behavior. As a result, both individuals are able to create a cohesive plan and coordinate their goals to reach a mutual understanding and outcome (Maichael and Pacherie, 2014). Furthermore, commitments are an important aspect of prosocial behavior as it encourages cooperation and interpersonal
brainstorming between individuals to develop joint actions to be able to achieve common goals.

So, if commitments are that important and a part of our human nature to maintain our social statuses, why is it so hard for us to keep them?

The Psychology Behind Failing to Keep Your Word

As mentioned before, making a commitment or promise requires you to be loyal to the agreed-upon commitment. However, there are certain factors at play that determine whether these promises are kept. Firstly, one’s motivation is oftentimes the deciding factor on whether or not a task gets done. The reason for this is that people typically equate importance with how motivated they are. In other words, if I am very motivated to keep this promise, that must mean that this promise is worth keeping, and therefore, important.

Another factor is our ability to believe that we are capable of and available for much more than we actually are. This results in overcommitment, whereby we have a tougher time keeping up with all of our commitments. This in no way is saying that committing to plenty of events or activities is necessarily wrong. However, it can become dangerous when we become careless with accepting commitments and making promises we can’t keep.

And lastly, the expectations that one has for the other person, along with the expected goal, can determine our willingness to stay committed. What this means is that if person A expects X from person B, it is the belief of person A that person B will do everything in their power to be and stay committed. However, if person B does not believe in the goal set by person A, and the achievement thereof, it is more likely that they will not comply with the commitment.

Tips on Managing Your Commitments

Though keeping promises and staying committed is hard, it is not impossible. There are a few tips that you can keep in mind while contemplating making a commitment. These tips are also applicable if you see that you will fail to keep your promise.

Here are some aspects to keep in mind, while you evaluate making your next promise:

  • The extent of your motivation to the commitment
    Ask yourself what your intentions are with making this commitment, whether making this commitment will benefit you in any way, or if it is in accordance with your interests and desires.
  • The reality of the situation
    If you evaluate your schedule, the time needed for this activity or task, and the level of accessibility and availability from you towards this activity or task, is it realistic to commit to it?
  • The importance and urgency of the commitment
    In situations where the commitment is something can be said ‘no’ to, do it. Accepting an unimportant task or invite could cause more harm than good – for both parties involved. Thus, ask yourself if the commitment is worth the hassle; if the answer is no, don’t make that promise.
  • Handling not being able to keep your promise
    Situations change. Things come up. It happens to most, if not all. Thus, instead of not communicating the changes that have occurred that prevent you from complying with the commitment, be open and share that you can no longer maintain your promise.

With all that being said, the next time you are presented with a commitment, evaluate yourself and the situation; if it is worth it and important, say yes, if it is not, you already know the answer. Simple as that – some might say.

Alyeska Lake, MSc

Alyeska is a clinical child and adolescent psychologist who specializes in working
with children and adolescents by using a client-centered approach with respect to the
usage of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, as well as a Solution-Focused Brief Therapy
perspective — thinking about solutions rather than the problems.

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