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Promise: beware its toxicity

I used to think "promising" was great

As with all toxic words, how they are used in a given context will determine the extent of their toxicity or not. To say to yourself or another "I will do that," or "You can count on me to do that," or "I promise I will do that," could be toxic or non-toxic depending on contextual factors.

"But, Dwight, you are so good at keeping your promises!"

It's true. When it comes to reliability in doing what I say I will do, especially with others, I'm probably in the top 3%. Yet, a major reason for this is that I am careful not to use the word "promise" (or its equivalent) toxically in contrast to others who are careless with that word and are much less reliable to themselves and others than I am. Read on.

Do you use language or does language use you?

“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” -Winston Churchill

Similarly, with language. Yet most of us never get around to shaping our language. Our language is given to us ready made. We do not stop to notice and question why it's not working so well as it uses us to shape our lives and our relationship with others. We do not stop to notice how many of the words or phrases that we use automatically are deficient in serving us the way we would like. Instead, we look elsewhere to try to explain our suffering and lack of desired results. We don't question the words and phrases that we use (and use us), even though they are the tools that we use continuously and cannot do without.

Far more fundamentally and pervasively, our language, as it resides in each of our minds, shapes the quality and results of our lives more than any other environmental factor.

I'll say that again.

Far more fundamentally and pervasively, our language, as it resides in each of our minds, shapes the quality and results of our lives more than any other environmental factor.

Your mind is a dictionary

Or, said more precisely, your mind takes as "input" the definitions/distinctions (the dictionary in your mind) that already reside there in order to create its thinking, listening, and speaking, both with itself and with others. And, as programmers of computers have long known, GIGO (garbage in, garbage out).

Since our thinking, especially our automatic thinking, is a powerful factor in determining our feelings, the use of toxic words and phrases are likely to lead to these thoughts, feelings, and moods.

  • anger

  • blame

  • annoyance

  • resentment

  • bitterness

  • frustration

  • irritability

  • feeling like a victim

  • jealousy

  • guilt

  • shame

  • negatively comparing to others

  • feeling unworthy

  • feeling not good enough

  • self-criticism

  • withdrawal

  • discouragement

  • feeling lack of freedom

  • pessimistic

  • hopelessness

  • disappointment

  • sadness

  • grief

  • feeling burned out

  • boredom

  • depression

  • indecisive

  • impatient with yourself

  • distrustful

  • shyness

  • argumentative

  • feeling inauthentic

  • self-conscious

  • conflicted

  • reserved

  • overly careful

  • suspicious

  • alienated

  • paralyzed

  • insensitive

  • abrupt with others

  • impatient with others

  • feeling rejected by others

  • feeling betrayed

  • feeling life is unfair

  • complaining

In contrast, when we're using non-toxic (which means non-contradictory and accurate) words and phrases, it's more likely to lead us into having these thoughts, feelings, and moods.

  • feeling free

  • eager to listen to others

  • good will toward others

  • loving and admiring yourself

  • curiosity in life

  • curiosity about others

  • feeling safe with others

  • enjoying your own company

  • easygoing

  • energetic

  • reliable

  • happy

  • optimistic about life

  • thankful 

  • open with others

  • enthusiastic

  • playful

  • stress free

  • lighthearted

  • patient with yourself and others

  • worry free

  • excited about your future

  • decisive

  • feeling grounded

  • courageous

  • have a partnership attitude with others

  • guilt free

A powerful path that transforms your life

Many paths can lead you to a more fulfilling life. But one of the most direct and interesting paths is, step-by-step, to refurbish the words that use you so that you can honestly say that you have consciously designed your words and phrases so that they're more likely to support the best possible relationship within yourself (mostly Now-Next Integrity) as well as with others (Oneself-Others Integrity).

See RRI distinction training.

In what ways is "promise" likely to be toxic?

#1 It perpetuates our lack of integrity between our Now and our Next.

Most often, when we say, "I promise," with to ourselves or another, it is our Next just speaking out what he or she intends to do without consulting with our Now. We don't take the time to step into the future to ensure, as much as possible, that when the time comes to fulfill on that promise, our Now is likely to be happy to do that. 

This perpetuates the civil war not only between your Now and your Next, but also between your Oneself and your Others (if the promise was made to another or others).

#2 It can be one of the ways that we indulge in expectations, setting ourselves up for upset

Although the downstream costs are huge, we do get short-term benefits by indulging in expectations. Promising is often one of the ways we try to reinforce those toxic expectations that we like to splurge on.

#3 We perpetuate our resistance to fear, avoiding the option of undoing our fear and choosing courage

Our motive for "promising," especially to others, may be to try to alleviate our resisted fear of their fear or disappointment, or blame, or withdrawal that we think would occur if we don't promise. As such, not only is our promise likely to lack integrity, but we miss out on the opportunity to make friends with our fear and, if helpful, to choose courage to not promise or to say "no."

See Saying "no."

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