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Have you forgotten the power of a promise?

How can keeping our commitments change how we live? Kate Graham explores her own relationship with broken promises to find

by Psychologies

keeping promises

Making a promise and keeping it is a simple yet powerful idea. We all want to believe our word is our bond. Yet in the whirlwind of modern life, those bonds are fraying. With fear of missing out rife, we’ll happily ‘join’ that birthday party invitation on Facebook or email a cheery ‘I’ll be there!’ to after-work drinks. We’ll text a promise to help a sibling move house, or to babysit. But keeping to those commitments is a different story.

During an honest audit of my recent broken promises, I realised my self-perception as a commitment-keeper far exceeded the reality. In the last few months I’d skipped two parties, one without telling the hostess, and failed to do many mundane tasks I’d sworn to my family I’d take care of. And I’d shrugged all this off. They were just plans, not real promises. No damage done.

But is that really true, no damage done? A growing movement is arguing that broken promises undermine the very foundation of our relationships.

Sounds dramatic? Not really, Rachel, 35, says. ‘A good friend of mine is always the first to say she’ll join us for lunch or help with the kids, but the last to do it. It feels too petty to confront her about, but it rankles and has definitely compromised our friendship. I just don’t trust her unconditionally any more.’

Alex Sheen, founder of social movement and non-profit organisation Because I Said I Would, isn't surprised. He believes keeping promises can have a profound impact on our lives, and the wider world.

Inspired by his late father, who always kept his word, Sheen created ‘promise cards’ and passed them out at his funeral. ‘They had “because I said I would” written in the corner. People write a promise, hand them to a person they pledged to and when the promise is fulfilled they get it back. I offered to send the cards to anyone who asked, anywhere, for free,’ he says.

Barely 18 months later, Sheen has sent more than 250,000 cards to 82 countries, mostly to women aged 25-54. Stories of commitments made and kept, small and staggering, poured in. This has become his calling: ‘The idea of keeping a promise has lost its honour; I want to bring it back again,’ he says.

The act of pledging

Captivated by the idea, I try the cards. The first reason they work, says Sheen, is in the act of physically writing a pledge. Seeing a promise in my handwriting, instead of on a screen, is startling. I realise how rarely I communicate this way, and how it makes my promise feel important. I’m not surprised to discover psychological studies show handwriting helps with cognition. As Sheen points out, keeping a promise can often come down to remembering you made it.

The second reason they work – the fact of handing it to someone makes me feel accountable – is an even stronger motivation. It feels wonderful to get the cards back from my husband, signed and with ‘promise fulfilled’ written on. We have a connection over something simple, a concrete affirmation of what we do for each other. I keep them. They remind me of future promises not yet made.

Best of all, when I make a promise and keep it, I feel an incredible validation. It’s a common experience, Sheen says. ‘We live in a very materialistic society, constantly seeing things we can’t have. But being a person of your word, of character, is something we can all do. Each time you show up for someone, you build a reputation that money can’t buy.’

To print off your own promise cards, go to Because I Said I Would

Photograph courtesy of Because I Said I Would

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