Over the years I’ve repeatedly made promises to myself that I’ve broken. The earliest one I remember was the promise I would stop smoking. I first made that promise when I was in my early twenties. It took me thirty years to finally keep it. I’m paying now, with my lung cancer diagnosis, for my failure to live up to that promise I made to myself. The promise that I would stop smoking was one of dozens and dozens I’ve made and broken. Maybe hundreds. Maybe thousands. I promised myself innumerable time I would exercise regularly. I promised myself equally as often that I would eat less and better. I promised myself I would…
become fluent in Spanish
learn enough Spanish to “get by”
learn enough French to “get by”
learn enough German to “get by”
be less judgmental
become more self-confident
quit drinking so much beer
quit drinking so much wine
quit drinking so much hard liquor
control my temper
be slow to lose my tempter
look for value in people who behave in ways of which I disapprove
get back into the habit of taking long walks every day
run a marathon
donate time and money to multiple charitable endeavors
walk from Dallas to Oklahoma City
go a month without [coffee, meat, social media…too many to list]
keep my promises to myself
I haven’t simply abandoned all my promises. In some cases I’ve made improvements. But I can’t remember many promises I’ve made to myself that I’ve actually kept in their entirety. I did stop smoking. But I stopped too late to prevent it from doing the damage it did. Maybe it would have been far worse had I not stopped when I did. That’s how I’ll try to frame it.
What kind of person breaks with such consistency the solemn promises he makes to himself ? If I had been in the habit of breaking such promises to other people, I think others would consider me unlikable, unreliable, and an inveterate liar. I couldn’t bear others thinking that of me. Why can I tolerate it of myself? Why can I look at my promises to myself and be okay with thinking, “You are an unlikable guy, an unreliable liar”? Well, I can’t say that to myself. Or I won’t. But I do wonder why I don’t. Why is it not acceptable to let other people down but it’s okay to let myself down? It doesn’t feel any better being disappointed in myself than being disappointed in other people.
Maybe I do let other people down. No, there’s not maybe about it. I do let other people down. But not with any regularity. And not dismissively, as if it’s no big deal. As I think about it, though, I don’t dismiss my broken promises to myself as unimportant. They’re not unimportant. They matter. I get angry with myself. Too often, I view a single misstep not as a setback but as an utter failure. That virtually assures that promises made will be promises broken. When the standard against which I measure myself is absolute perfection, I virtually assure absolute failure. I know this. I am aware of this. My problem is that I continue to use that same standard. And when I inevitably don’t measure up to perfection, I tend to just give up and admit failure. Promise made. Promise broken.
Okay. I’m not alone. Everyone makes promises to themselves that they can’t or don’t meet. Maybe everyone does it routinely.But I suspect they don’t stew over it for decades. Instead, they behave like rational human beings and address the issue head on.
I think I know the answer to my dilemma. “The first step in solving a problem is recognizing there is one.” I think I’ve got that down. The next step is to solve it. Perhaps the key is not to promise myself that I’ll do something. Instead, I’ll promise others I’ll do something (or stop something or change something). By making a promise to someone else, I’ll put considerably more pressure on myself to actually fulfill the promise. If I don’t fulfill the promise, I won’t just be letting myself down, I’ll be letting someone else down. And I can’t tolerate that. So there you go. Problem solved. Perhaps. We’ll see. Maybe Ill be speaking Spanish like a native-born Mexican in a year or two.