What to do when People Break Promises

We see promises broken all the time in politics, but people also encounter it in everyday life. My experience suggests that promise-breaking points to a lack of character. What gives rise to the lack of character? Faulty thinking and faulty premises. One faulty premise is the belief that words don’t really matter. “I can say this, but I don’t have to mean it.” That’s where it starts, and that’s how many promise-breakers feel; though nobody would actually put it that way. In philosophy, it’s called a mind-body dichotomy, i.e., you hold ideas as separate entities removed from the body – as somehow sacred or important, but not associated with the body. As a result, the promise-breaker feels like it’s important to claim meaningful and optimistic ideas, even while never putting them into practice.

It’s of paramount importance to psychologically healthy people to say what they mean and mean what they say. Sadly, that’s 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 personal integrity is every bit as important. Without the integrity of the people who design the planes and bridges, there would be no safe planes or bridges. And 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.

But 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, there is no true serenity.  The degree to which you lack integrity is the degree to which you are at odds with reality and with facts. This doesn’t do much for your mental state.

Many people 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 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 to them. It makes some people feel strong and superior to make promises they cannot keep, because it puts a (temporary) smile on the face of the person to whom the promise is made. Not everyone needs to feel superior, but for some it’s actually a way of life. They look for strength through the approval of others rather than from using their brains and bodies in honest, authentic ways. It’s sad and unhealthy, but that’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 deeds. It’s much deeper and more far-reaching than being a “nice person.” 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 worse yet, it fails and falls 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 host of greater problems that people will eventually learn about a person.

Work on integrity within yourself, and expect the same from others. Don’t settle for less. Raise the bar on yourself, and you’re much more likely to attract the right people and drive away the wrong ones. That might initially sound like a tall order, but getting into that habit will make your life better every single day.



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