Promises to Self

Promise to Self a sermon by Rev. Brian J. Kiely

Unitarian Church of Edmonton, September 1, 2017


“Promise is a big word.  It either makes something or breaks something. “

Lianne Martha Maiquez Laroya

1. “I promise to myself that I will accept my strengths as well as my flaws.”

2. “I will speak lovingly to myself.”

3. “I will always keep in mind that I cannot control everything.”

4. “I will choose my battles wisely.”

5. “I will forget the pains of the past but remember their lessons.

6. “I promise to myself that I’ll maintain a stable peace of mind.”

7. “I won’t compromise my values for anything.”

8. “I’ll learn to live in the moment.”

9. “I promise to let go of the things that are holding me back.”

10. “I will stay motivated to pursue my innermost dreams and strong passion.”

11. “I promise to myself to always see the fun and fulfillment in every activity I partake in.”


I Googled ‘Promise to Self” this week  160 million hits registered.  It would seem that making promises to ourselves is a big deal, and a big business for life coaches, therapists, personal trainers and financial planners.

But the astronomical number of hits implies that we aren’t really very good at keeping those promises that we do make.  Otherwise why would we have to be reminded to make them 160 million times in 0.82 seconds of search?  Perhaps it’s human nature.

The concept of promise making and promise breaking is certainly a theme in the Hebrew Bible.  If there is a storyline woven through the various books written across centuries, it is a tale of covenants made, broken and remade.

It begins in Genesis when Yahweh promises to care for Adam and Eve – if they obey one simple law…which they don’t.  They are cast out of the Garden of Eden as punishment and have to learn to fend for themselves.

With Abraham, Yahweh makes a new promise to the Hebrew people, but in time their sinfulness voids the deal and God sends a flood.  Then he promises Noah he will never flood the entire earth again and offers the rainbow as a symbol of good faith.  Apparently, however, a sub clause of the contact allowed for periodic flooding in India, Bangladesh, Texas and Louisiana and Quebec.  It appears that God has talented lawyers.  Just sayin’!

The Bible is shot through with covenants made, broken, remade.  It is a how-to book on mending relationships.  Promise making and breaking does indeed appear to be a human habit.  The concept of making promises to self is as old as life.  Through natural instinct as well as parental, cultural and religious training we have a good idea of how we should behave towards ourselves and others.  Be nice, be respectful, be moral (however that’s defined at the time) work hard, raise children to the best of your ability.  These concepts tend to be ageless and perhaps are innate.

Most humans know when we fall short of those goals.  They come equipped with a good grasp of their shortcomings- and if they don’t, there are usually others in the family or community who are only too happy to point out their flaws for them.  In the face of internal or external criticism, we resolve to do better.  We make promises to ourselves about all kinds of things.  Some of those promises melt away the minute the criticism stops.  Some are made under duress and no matter how fervently spoken, a clear examination on conscience shows we were never really serious about them at all.  Others are unrealistic and don’t take into account the many complex factors that shape our lives.  A promise to self  to get up earlier and start the day fresh might be thwarted by something like sleep apnea or evening anxiety.  A promise to pay all our bills and get our financial house in order might fall before the reality of a lay-off, or a compulsion to shop.  A promise to do better at work may be undermined by never really admitting that we hate that job but feel trapped in it.

We may have a great vision of the person we would like to be, but we also can be a little light on our ability to see ourselves as we actually are.  We fail to see the disconnects that can get in the way of promise keeping.

To serve the vision, we make promises that will bring us quickly into the rosy light of near perfection.  One concern has to be the vision that is not ours, but that is thrust upon us by family expectation or peer pressure.  Maybe the worst promises we make are in that latter category.  I am thinking particularly, but not exclusively, of our children who are exposed to all manner of directives on how they should look (meaning body shape), how they should dress, what it takes to act cool.  Promises get made, sometimes aided and abetted by parents, sometimes in opposition to parental guidance.  The child fails and may well fall into self-loathing and deep anxiety.

Promises to self must be made carefully and thoughtfully. Since they are promises to self they must come from the self, from the heart.  They have to be promises we really want to keep.

“Promise is a big word.  It either makes something or breaks something.” writes Lianne Maiquez Laroya.  We who love the people who make unrealistic promises to themselves, have to find ways to support them.

Supporting people in their failures is a big part of most religions.  Of course a good many religions also revere the impossibly high standards that few merely human beings can ever achieve, but that’s the topic of another sermon.

No matter which belief system you consider there is a common core:  First there is the standard of perfection named.  We are not expected to reach that standard, but we are expected to aim for it.  Mostly, religion expects us to fail to hit the mark.  Religion then provides the faithful with the means and methods to get back on track.  Perhaps it’s making amends, or doing a penance or confessing our failures, or meditating.  Those actions are intended to help alleviate guilt and to free us emotionally to pursue our path to betterment, to recommit to our promises.

Most spiritual forms work at exploring the meaning of those promises and reinforcing commitment.  In the common vernacular we call our approach to such things “spiritual disciplines’.  The word discipline implies a couple of promises.  The first is to take up that practice…religiously!  It’s a promise to do the work.  The second promise is about betterment.  It can simply be a promise to self, but it could easily be to a divinity or even an elder in the spiritual community.  The core concept of a spiritual discipline is pursue a path that liberates oneself from the rational, especially rationalization and connects more deeply and more closely with whatever is held most dear.  The implication is that promises made only with the head are not really worth the paper on which they are printed.  It is only the heart promise that stands the chance of lasting and reshaping a life.  That’s a key thought.

I have read that health clubs and gyms make most of their money in the first thee months of the year as people pony up their new year’s resolutions.  In that first quarter the clubs are crowded with newbies or returnees.  The regulars just have to grin and bear it for awhile, wait in line to use the equipment and dream of April when things get quieter.

The promises we make with our heads therefore, are often SHOULD promises, the kinds of commitments we think we OUGHT to make: to get healthier, to eat less, to spend more wisely to call our mommas weekly, to go to church more often.  They really aren’t promises.  Most of the time those kinds are made with the head, not the heart.  For all we pay homage to our mighty brains, it’s the least useful organ for keeping promises.  The brain is not trustworthy.  I have a growing suspicion that the will power we need to truly keep self promises has very little to do with the conscious mind.  Or maybe it’s just my mind.  Maybe I am the only person on earth capable of talking myself into and out of things on an almost hourly basis.  But I don’t think so.

No, I think will power comes from somewhere else.  Maybe it’s the heart, maybe it’s the whole body.  If I were more traditional in my religious thinking I might give credit to Allah or God and some kind of divine grace that suffuses us and gives us deeper strength and resolve.  And perhaps that is the answer.  Maybe prayer does work for you as it does for so many.  I simply don’t know.  I leave that faith question up to each of you.

I have a different approach. I bet that if each of us quietly looks inside, we can recall a time when we made a life changing decision.  We might have made a long list of pros and cons beforehand, but in the end, the decision is made not in the head, but in a more holistic way.

I often joke that when I have a difficult decision, I lay out those famous pros and cons and, if things still aren’t clear, I flip a coin.  Heads is choice A, tails is choice B.  The trick is, I never look at the coin when it lands.  While in mid-air I pay attention to the voice inside my head that starts shouting “Tails…TAILS!!!”

It may sound silly and whimsical, but for me it’s not.  It’s a way of finding out what promise I am actually willing to keep, what change in life I am ready to accept and embrace.  It works.

As Lianne Laroya wrote in our reading, “Promise is a big word.  It either makes something or breaks something.”

As for a list of promises we might consider, hers is a pretty good one.  I suspect each of us can find one that strikes us strongly, either because it’s a promise we have already been keeping, or it’s one that calls to us.

I feel good about #1 for example.  “I promise to myself that I will accept my strengths as well as my flaws.”  While I may not care in the moment for other people pointing out my flaws, I am pretty comfortable with them.  I think it’s pretty important to accept ourselves as we are and to not let the expectations of others weigh us down too heavily.

On the other hand, #7 has sometimes been a challenge:  “I will not compromise my values for anything.”  Phew..that’s a tough one!  I’d be flat out lying if I said I was completely successful with that one.  I value freedom of speech, but I won’t tolerate abusive language…except when I sit silent and let it pass.  Whew!  That’s a double defeat for my value, isn’t it?  I would not have to work very hard to come up with a few other examples

Still, like our Seven Principles, these promises stand not as hard and fast rules, but as suggestions of the kinds of qualities and goals we might want to adopt if we are truly interested in changing our lives.  This is a good list to look at now and then, for it reminds us of approaches and qualities that can make our lives and those around us a little better.

A final thought is that we should not be too hard on ourselves for failing at keeping these promises.  As Browning wrote,

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, 

Or what’s a heaven for?  Andrea Del Sarto by Browning.

Maybe 11 promises all at once is a bit overwhelming.  Maybe we need to start more simply with just one…maybe two that really speak to us and build from there.