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Your Word Means Everything

When I was a child my parents would say, “We’ll see” when they couldn’t commit to a promise, either a “yes” or a “no.” The dreaded, “We’ll see” used to leave me feeling anxious and hopeful that it would evolve into a clear yes or no depending on what I was requesting. I didn’t place much value on my parents’ commitment to keeping their word until I became older and realized that the whole world didn’t function like that. In fact, much of the world is okay with giving a definitive Yes and No that holds less value than the air it took to force them out of the mouth they came from.

One of my areas of work is in media, and if you want to hear a lot of yeses and nos with little value, this line of work will keep you well supplied. It is so common to not keep your word in media that when I find someone who actually commits to their word, I send them flowers, candy or promise to take their kids for the weekend (keeping my word). Part of the frequency of empty promises is due to the fickleness of the business. Things change fast, and what was true yesterday is not today. My concern with the media field is that when truths are rare and lies become so casual, the teller of the lie no longer feels as if it is wrong. Many of them don’t trust one another and they aren’t trustworthy themselves. I am not sure how they are with their real lives, because I no longer trust who they say they are, nor do I believe they trust themselves.
It’s one thing when promisesare made and not kept at work, but when broken promises and untruths are brought home to your family and friends, it is destructive. Children, parents, friends and family members form expectations and plan their days around what those closest to them tell them. If you promise an aging parent that you are going to spend the day or part of the day with them, and then you don’t show up or even call, it is experienced as a letdown for the parent. Your parent most likely told every grocery clerk or postal service person who would listen that you were coming. Along with your promise, they imagined things they wanted to share with you, getting a hug from you, and feeling important enough that you would want to spend time with them. Your promise was more than your word; it was an anticipated experience for them. When a divorced parent promises their child that they are going to have a great weekend together, that child may talk about it to their friends and teachers with great excitement! Can you imagine how that excitement fizzles if you don’t show up? Or maybe worse, you pick up your excited child, but drop them off with a babysitter because a “better offer” came up? This happens frequently. You are teaching your child that your word means nothing, and they interpret your behavior to mean they are nothing to you either.

If your word means nothing, you neither have nor stand for anything and it keeps building. There is a better way, and it doesn’t involve saying yes when you mean, “I cannot commit to you, but I don’t want to hurt your feelings.” Being honest with what you can and cannot do, and then following through (no matter what offer comes up) is the way to be a trustworthy person. Here are a few more suggestions for building or rebuilding your trust with people:
1.    The next promise you make, tell the person up front that you are sorry you have not kept your word in the past. Acknowledge how that must have hurt them. Ask them if you can try again, and commit to a smaller promise (share breakfast instead of a whole morning).
2.    If the answer is going to be NO, just say it. The person hearing no is angry at the word, not you. They become angry with you when you say “YES,” but were too weak to tell the truth.
3.    If you are going to be late to a promised meeting or agenda, call the person in advance. Don’t leave them waiting by the door or the phone. That is just plain rude. You are no longer just untrustworthy; you are also an insensitive liar.
4.    If unfulfilled promises have a financial impact, you are wise to get any and all promises written in a legal document. Somehow when people know they may have to pay for an unkept promise, they are more motivated to keep their promise.
5.    Usually when a promise is made to someone and not kept, there is a fall-back person (the person who picks up and builds up the person you let down). If you continually make promises you don’t keep, you may want to consider apologizing to the fall-back person as well. They won’t believe you because they most likely have lost their trust in you, but you do owe them an apology.
Every human I know has made at least one promise they didn’t keep. Hopefully, it’s only one or two. If this is a consistent pattern for you, it’s time to work on this. If you destroy someone’s ability to trust you, you have destroyed someone who had faith in you at one time. With each year that passes, you will realize there are fewer and fewer people who have faith in you. Life gets lonely when no one trusts you anymore. Life becomes hell when you don’t trust yourself anymore.


by Mary Jo Rapini, MEd, LPC


Mary Jo Rapini, MEd, LPC, is a licensed psychotherapist and co-author with Janine J. Sherman, of Start Talking: A Girl’s Guide for You and Your Mom About Health, Sex or Whatever. Read more about the book at www.StartTalkingBook.com and more about Rapini at www.maryjorapini.com.

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