If you're not keeping them, maybe the promises need to change.
I’m so disappointed.
As the pandemic ramped up last March, I had unconscious expectations of myself that I didn’t meet, and I’m disappointed. I thought I’d be more disciplined about my meditation practice and my commitment to write three pages every day. I googled ways to exercise without going to the gym, and I thought I’d, like, do it.
But no. I fell into a funk and let everything go. This is understandable. It doesn’t make me a bad person. It just proves I’m human and I have a heart.
But I haven’t been able to shake the feeling of low-grade shame, sadness, and defeat. I’ve done a ton of personal work in the past forty years, so I’m familiar with this territory and it doesn’t scare me. I just know that if I want to do anything about it, I have to call on Best Me and put her in the driver’s seat. She has a way of composting all the bullshit so something life-affirming can grow.
My Promises Problem
I will go to incredible lengths to keep promises I’ve made to someone else. But the ones I make to myself? They are written on gasoline-soaked paper and stored in a matchbook factory.
The things I promised myself I’d do (not the appointments or the schedule, but the promises I knew would help me feel better) used to look like this: 1) Meditate first thing in the morning. 2) Write three pages before breakfast. 3) Exercise at least three times a week. I wrote those three to-dos in my book every day, even setting them as reminders on my laptop.
But I didn’t do them. I don’t even want to tell you how often they went unchecked, undone, un-thought about, even. I would just click “complete, complete, complete” to clear them off my screen. Proving that they meant nothing. That *I* meant nothing to me.
I felt horrible about that but I kept doing it. What was making me write these things down again, every day, when I knew it was futile?
Answer: It propped up a fictional, idealized me. As though my self-esteem would benefit from just wanting to be a better person—without ever actually doing anything about it.
Clearly, it wasn’t working. My self-esteem plummeted every time I went to bed not having kept the promises I doggedly wrote down the morning before.
Calling On Best Me For Help
One day, I asked Best Me the following question: “Assuming we start over, throwing away meditation, writing, and exercise — is there anything positive I would actually do as a daily practice? And if so, what would it look like?
The answer came in three parts, as though individually addressing the practices decaying on my list.
1. Notice what you believe, ask yourself whether it’s true.
Example: I’m always testy at the kitchen sink, when I’m loading the dishwasher and it’s been partially loaded by my wife. She just doesn’t follow the rules of how you load a dishwasher.
Notice what I’m believing:
a) There is a right (and wrong) way to load a dishwasher. b) I am the one who does it right. c) My wife does it wrong.
I have way more than three beliefs around this issue, but let’s just look at these three. Just noticing the thoughts as thoughts, and feeling what happens when I believe them to be true is helpful. It gives me a little distance from which to see them more clearly.
If I’m honest with myself, there’s no way that any of those statements are fundamentally, absolutely true. I do it how I do it. She does it how she does it. We’re not wrong or right, we’re just different. Right away — more space, softer back of neck. :-)
This is what’s on my list now, instead of “Meditate.” Notice what I’m believing and ask myself if it’s true — that’s something I could do all day long. And I would be so much better off for it.
(For more about this practice, please check out Byron Katie’s practice known as “the work.” It changed my life.)
2. Put your inner elder and your inner child on your board of directors.
Using the same example of me huffing and puffing at the kitchen sink.
Best Me has reminded me that I need to bring into play two crucial allies: my inner child and my inner elder. They’re on my Board of Directors now, and we have regular meetings.
On this occasion, my inner child says, “I like how she loaded it. Let’s go get ice cream!”
Inner elder says, “Who made you the dishwasher police? If you really want it done your way, do it yourself. But here’s a thought: Look out the window. There is a gorgeous world out there, trees and grass and sky just waiting for you to enjoy them. Get some perspective.”
Meetings with my internal Board of Directors works so well as a replacement for “write three pages.” A lot of our meetings end up in my pages anyway. But approaching it without the mandate for pages allows me to give voice to other wisdom colors on my palette. Life is way more interesting like this.
3. Soothe your body
Of course I’ll feel better if I exercise regularly. But continually making and ignoring this goal is only making me feel worse. Enough.
How can I be in relationship with my health without beating myself over the head with it? (I sit still with this question and wait.)
Images come to me of the things I love. Hot baths by candlelight, or sometimes at night with no light at all. I love that feeling of almost weightlessness and stillness.
Bike rides through my favorite neighborhoods. Not for cardio reasons. But because I love the way it feels.
Going to bed a little early, and just lying there feeling grateful that I have clean, dry, soft sheets to sleep in. Letting myself experience that.
(Psst. Taking away all the ‘shoulds’ in this case actually resulted in my naturally gravitating to more yoga and walking. I don’t really know why. But it did.)
So now instead of the unforgiving list (meditate, three pages, exercise), I have these three ‘nudges’ toward wholeness: examine my thoughts, listen to my inner allies, and soothe my body.
When approached with mindfulness, these steps increase my own sense of presence in my life, they strengthen my confidence in my internal resources, and they foster self-compassion.
Are there things you get all nazi about in your life? Are you trying to prop up an illusion of someone you want to be but aren’t? Take a moment to really sit with these questions and answer them.
Then ask, “What do I need to do instead?” You might be surprised by how rich and relevant your own internal resources are.
Sometimes the promises you make to yourself aren’t really to yourself. They’re to the Ideal You, the one you want others to think you are. Stop making those promises. They don’t count and they can only do damage in the end.
Don’t fight who you are. Listen to who you are. And make more relevant promises to that one.
May all beings be happy and free.