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Linda Arnold: What happens when you break promises to yourself?

September 24, 2018 GMT

I’m always amazed at the insights I get when walking our dog, Chloe.

They don’t come right away. Sometimes I just take in the trees, breeze, flora and fauna. Often I find myself going over the day ahead in my mind, while Chloe sniffs around and checks her “pee mail.”

Then there are those times, like the one I had before starting to work on this column, when I get “in the zone.” Maybe it’s the meditative rhythm of a familiar path that allows my mind to roam. I’ve heard this from runners, bikers and those who do needlepoint.

Monkey mind

Zen Buddhists refer to this as keeping the “monkey mind” occupied. The theory holds that if you can occupy the monkey mind - the part of your brain that chatters inside you asking questions, placing doubts, etc. - with a repetitive task, then you can get to the level of thinking that can produce genuine insights. Which is what happened to me the other morning.


As I was walking in the woods, I started thinking about those riddles that go along the lines, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?” Then my wind wandered to “If we make promises to ourselves and nobody else hears them, are they still promises to be kept?”

Bingo! My mind immediately caught this as a weasel clause and called me out on it. (Note: This “dialogue” is really all going on inside my head, so I guess it’s more of a monologue.)

Building internal trust

It turns out the promises made to ourselves are often the most important promises we make. You can be your own worst critic, as you undoubtedly know! And you’d better believe those broken promises get played over and over in your monkey mind! In time, they begin to chip away at your inner integrity. Broken trust with yourself can be the result.

If layers upon layers of broken promises accumulate, you can start to “collect evidence” that your theory about not trusting yourself is valid. This is particularly true with ongoing challenges, and the behaviors you’ve developed to deal with them.

If you’re someone who’s not good with directions, I’ll bet you turn up lots of instances in your life to prove you’re geographically challenged. And if you have a tendency to be late, you probably collect lots of evidence to show you’re “chronologically challenged.”

Behavioral mechanisms

The issue I identified on my walk consisted of overloading or taking on too much then becoming overwhelmed. While I’ve made great strides in this area, I can catch myself earlier when I start going down this rabbit hole, it still proves to be very challenging at times. For as long as I can remember, I’ve never shied away from adding more items to my to-do list. And, while I consider myself to be a productive and organized person, the sheer volume can end up taking its toll.


You may have a similar tendency that keeps popping up on your radar - challenges with punctuality, avoiding conflict, saying “yes” when you want to say “no,” blurting out comments before you stop to think, etc.

If you peel off all the layers, it generally comes down to a core belief you formed somewhere along the way:

It’s better to keep harmony - and not rock the boat.My opinion doesn’t matter.I always run late.I’m not a good speaker.I want everyone to like me.I’m not good with technical things.If I make a mistake, I’m a failure. So, why try?I’ll never measure up.Nobody else can handle things. I’ll just do it myself.

There has probably been an experience long ago that caused you to form thoughts like these. And then you developed behaviors to go along these thoughts. The repetitive behaviors eventually formed grooves in your system. Try as you might, you end up repeating the behavior. It may not even make sense to you at this point in your life, although it served you earlier, if only as a defense mechanism.

You may have even developed passive aggressive behaviors on a subconscious level to deal with a dilemma. If you feel a lack of control in your life, you could end up creating scenarios that put you in control, not necessarily in a healthy fashion. It comes down to identifying priorities and setting boundaries. And it all starts with awareness. Every time you catch yourself repeating that ongoing pattern, stop to think about one baby step you could take to resist that behavior.

Say “no” to something you don’t really want to do, but would usually go along with to keep the peace, for example. You don’t need to over explain, either. Just use a neutral phrase like, “That won’t work for me right now.” You may find you’ve conjured up more evil thoughts about potential results from this kind of action than actually exist. Each time you take one of these small steps, you’re building on that internal trust meter.

Making change

Change is hard. Most of the time, we tend to go along with the status quo until something puts us on “tilt” and it’s more painful to stay with previous patterns than to set out on a new path.

With the cycle of change, it’s imperative to deal with your thoughts first, rather than dive right in to change circumstances. Repetitive thoughts lead to strong beliefs. And only then can behavioral change take place. So, think of the formula this way, and realize that it takes time and repetition:

Thoughts, coupled with strong emotion, lead to beliefs.Beliefs form grooves in our mental patterns over time - and lead to behaviors.Repeated behaviors result in our circumstances.

There are often many layers of complexity, although this can serve as a handy tool for your emotional toolbox, with the disclaimer that extreme cases require professional treatment.

There is something very freeing about keeping promises we make to ourselves. Especially when nobody’s watching!

Linda Arnold Live Life Fully, all rights reserved. Linda Arnold, M.A., M.B.A., is a syndicated columnist, psychological counselor and founder of a multistate marketing company. Reader comments are welcome at