Why People Break Promises

Why do people break their promises? It’s a question worth asking, because promises are so often broken. Read the news. Find a politician who does NOT break his or her promises, and you’ve found a politician rarer than a dinosaur. But in daily life people also encounter promise-breaking all the time.

So what causes it? At root, a lack of character. But that’s obvious. What gives rise to the lack of character? Faulty thinking, faulty premises. One faulty premise is the false belief that words don’t really matter. “I can say this, but I don’t have to mean it.”

Nobody would actually put it that way, but that’s how many promise-breakers feel. In philosophy, it’s called a mind-body dichotomy. It means that you hold ideas as separate entities removed from the body – as somehow sacred or important, but beneath the body, in a way. As a result, the promise-breaker feels like it’s important to claim meaningful and optimistic ideas, even while never being prepared to put them into practice.

To a healthy person, this is all wrong. To a healthy person, it’s of paramount importance to “say what I mean, and mean what I say”. That’s such a rare quality, because so few appreciate just how important mind-body integrity is. Think about the word “integrity”. It means consistency between thought and action.

Imagine driving over a bridge without structural integrity, or flying in a plane without mechanical integrity. You’d never knowingly do it! Yet integrity within a person is every bit as important. Without integrity in human beings who design the planes and bridges, there would be no safe planes or bridges. But the same applies to all of life. Without a parent, a spouse, a close friend or a business partner with integrity, those ventures or relationships will falter or fail.

Most of all, integrity is for yourself. Yes, others benefit from your having integrity. But the basic reason you strive for consistency in words/ideas and practice is for yourself. Without integrity, you will never feel a sense of serenity. The degree to which you lack integrity is the degree to which you become at odds with reality, with facts as they are. This does not do much for your mood or mental state.

Many who break promises want to be liked. They view being liked as the most important thing. They make a promise because they want your approval, your high regard, your respect or your love. Like Scarlett O’Hara, they’re not worried about tomorrow. They only care how it goes right now. If the interaction with you goes well, then their job is done – for now, which is all that matters.

It makes some people feel strong and superior to make promises they cannot keep, because it puts a smile on the face of the person for whom the promise is made. Not everyone needs to feel superior, but some do—for some, it’s a way of life. And others look for strength in the approval of others rather than from the use of their own brains and bodies in honest, authentic ways. It’s sad and unhealthy, but it’s the way it is.

When getting to know someone – personally or professionally – it’s crucially important to watch for their consistency (or lack thereof) in words and deed. It’s much deeper and more far-reaching than being a “nice girl” or a boy scout. Integrity is everything. It’s the personal equivalent of the bridge you drive over or the plane you fly on. Without it, there’s nothing – or anything there is falls away into nothingness.

Keeping promises matters. Nobody should make promises they don’t intend to keep. They shouldn’t want to do so, and should feel no need to do so. If they do, then it’s just the tip of the iceberg for a whole host of greater problems you’ll eventually learn about the person.

Work on integrity within yourself. That way, you’ll expect the same from others, and you won’t settle for anything less. Raise the bar on yourself, and you’re much more likely to attract the right people and drive away the wrong ones. It really works.

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