Don’t make promises that you cannot keep

Young black male making the promises hand sign

Don’t make promises that you cannot keep

A promise is usually seen as a positive thing but failing to keep a promise can be a serious breach in trust.


Defining a promise

The definition of a promise shows it has a wider application of meaning:

  • To tell someone that you will certainly do something.
  • It can be a thing that you make – “I promise that I will never tell anyone your secret”;
  • It can be a thing that someone makes to you – “He promised faithfully to call me every week”;
  • It can be a thing you ask of others or they ask of you: “Promise me (that) you won’t tell him”;
  • It can be an incentive: “Her parents promised her a new car if she passed her exams”;
  • It can be something you don’t want to do: “I’ll look for some while I’m at the shops but I’m not promising anything”;
  • And, of course, it can be something that is not kept: “I won’t have time to take you shopping this afternoon.” “But you promised!”


Why do we make promises?

A promise is a declaration of a commitment to do something or behave in a certain way. You are giving your word to follow through on something. That commitment – the promise – should be binding.

If you are trustworthy then people will believe your promise and expect you to keep it. And if you do, they will trust you even more. If you break that promise though, for whatever reason, people will not believe you in the same way in future.

It is like building up a bank account where the currency is trust. You can have lots of small deposits or a few big ones, to develop a level of trust  with another person. But break a promise and it will drain that account – break it more than once and you will go into deficit and pay dearly for it.

Even worse, if you break a promise, when you make promises in the future you will not be taken seriously. People will expect to be let down – they are waiting to be disappointed by you. This does not feel good for anyone.

Essentially in breaking a promise you are conveying the message “I made a commitment but sorry, I don’t value you enough to keep my word, something else was more important than you.”


“A graceful refusal is better than a lengthy promise.”
Ali ibn Abi Talib


Breaking promises to yourself

So often the person we hurt with broken promises is ourselves. How many times has the person that you disappointed been yourself?

I promised myself:

  • I was going to be on time;
  • I was going to go to bed early tonight and I’m still up at midnight;
  • I was going to go to the gym regularly and haven’t been at all this week;
  • I was going get my homework done before going out with my friends, but they really wanted me to hang out with them.

These commitments to ourselves become throw away promises and, like telling lies, breaking them becomes a habit where feeling bad about it wears off. At this point, breaking a promise becomes much the same as telling a lie as you didn’t really mean what you promised in the first place – it was just to placate someone or to get your way for something.


“I feel keeping a promise to yourself is a direct reflection of the love you have for yourself. I used to make promises to myself and find them easy to break. Today, I love myself enough to not only make a promise to myself, but I love myself enough to keep that promise.”
Steve Mariboli

Two hands in the pinky promises lock

Handling a broken promise

Sometimes we make promises that we do intend to keep but then something outside of our control happens that means we cannot keep that promise.

While you may not have had control over the disruption, you did have control over how you dealt with it, and how you let the person you made a promise to know that you could no longer keep it. As long as the reason why is genuine, and not a lie, then the other person will understand. They will respect you for your honesty and be grateful for the heads up.

What it is absolutely essential to remember though, is to not to make promises that you can’t keep. That is very different to making a promise that you are not able to keep later. If you are not 100% sure you can keep a promise – don’t make that promise in the first place.

In the interests of trust, it is always best to under promise and over deliver. People will be surprised and feel valued – which is very different from the result if you over promise and under deliver causing disappointment.


“We must not promise what we ought not, lest we be called on to perform what we cannot.”
Abraham Lincoln


Don’t make promises you can’t keep as a parent

The lessons in promises begin early and parents need to be mindful not to make promises to their children that they cannot keep. There is no need to do this. Instead say you will do your best and mean it, rather than promise and let them down.

Broken promises can destroy the trust of a child and harm their relationship with their parents. Trust and respect are so important in a family to keep relationships working through teenage years and beyond.

This is an area where parents and carers need to lead by example. Actions do speak louder than words and young people will learn from their experiences. Be positive teachers and role models – don’t commit to promises you can’t keep.

And young people, remember, if you don’t like it when people break their promises, don’t do it to other people. Always treat others as you would like to be treated yourself.

Choose the life you want to lead

If you make a promise to yourself, maybe make it to not over-promise and inadvertently let others down. Remember that words can be powerful, and events out of your control could cause you stress and to disappoint others. All we can do is our best so be kind to yourself as well as to others and only make promises you know you can keep.

If you have struggled with broken promises or have learned to build trust through honesty, share your experiences with us on social media.

When it comes to keeping promises, actions certainly speak louder than words, so always keep that in mind and take care to protect your relationships.

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