Last week a friend who made a date to volunteer and come help me re-shingle my roof called to tell me they wouldn’t be coming. They’d made other plans instead. “If I had a check waiting here for $5000, would you come?” I asked? “Absolutely,” the friend replied. “Well, therein lies one part of the problem, doesn’t it?” I responded.
I try to keep the number of people in my life who make promises to me and who then don’t keep them to a minimum. In my own personal Ordo Amorum (those people, places and things I love most), the closer to zero those people are, the better. Somehow though, promise-breakers manage to sneak under my radar and into my world. I guess some part of me wants me to be a bit less rigid about that personal integrity requirement. But truthfully, I generally don’t feel all that flexible when it comes to Relationship Reliability. Must be leftover from all the unreliable people who populated my early childhood. Nevertheless, unless I cultivate compassionate flexibility around this need (which is different from Idiot Compassion), I’m probably going to be in for more than a few disappointments.
Impeccable means “flawless.” Here are some related words: consummate, expert, masterly; classic, dandy, excellent, fabulous, fine, first-class, first-rate, grand, great, marvelous, prime, superb, superior, superlative, terrific, top-notch, unsurpassed; completed, finished, perfected, polished, entire, intact, whole; mint, unbruised, undamaged, unimpaired, uninjured, unmarred, unspoiled; exceptional, fancy, high-grade, special; airtight, bulletproof; accurate, correct, exact, precise; inerrant, infallible, unerring, unfailing. Just reading this list, I can feel my body responding, “Yes.” These are exactly the kinds of people I want to hang out with. These are the qualities I want to practice expressing and manifesting in the world myself. I tend to think of impeccability as mindfulness practice with Right Action and Right Speech as its object.
That’s Why It’s a Practice
Here’s the basic problem though. It all arises from my childhood (that again; doesn’t everything?). I’m not impeccable. Never have been. Nor is anyone I know. And that truly is a challenge, for them and for me. In part, it’s a challenge because interpersonal relationships tap into buried implicit memories. The more important the relationship, the deeper the tapping frequently goes. And the deeper it goes, the younger and more vulnerable we were when those memories were laid down. And the younger and more vulnerable we are and become when those (often traumatic) memories resurface, the more our developing brain needs other people to be unfailingly reliable in word and deed.
When people don’t do what they say they will, at best it stems from ambivalence. Ambivalence in other people triggers anxiety in my body and brain, mostly without me realizing it. At the somatic level I am receiving the message that someone I need to or want to be able to count on, can’t be. As my friend Jeanne often reminds me, early in life it’s essential to have our brains and bodies surrounded by Competent Protectors. That’s a basic childhood need, probably well-summarized by The Big Brain Question. It’s a nuts-and-bolts neurobiological developmental requirement. One of my favorite teachers, cultural anthropologist Angie Arrien points out that kids all over the world wail loudly when adults don’t keep their promises. Saying what we mean and meaning what we say is what helps children, young and old grow, sufficient robust connections in body and brain to effectively manage the stress hormones constantly affecting our daily lives. That need doesn’t go away simply because my body grows larger and my brain grows more cells and makes more connections. The need for reliability and consistency is actually an ongoing, lifelong need especially critical depending upon the environments I find myself immersed and operating in. I prefer to operate in social environments surrounded by people who make commitment-keeping a priority. As I do. Except, of course for when I don’t (If I had my druthers, I’d have been born into a family of Navy Seal, developmental neuroscientists! – Note for my next life).
Making Sense of Caring
In her new book Love Sense, well-known researcher and couples therapist, Dr. Susan Johnson goes into great detail about how critically essential to our brains and bodies it is for other people in our lives be present, reliable and accounted for. Here’s what she has to say:
Ever since social scientists started systematically studying happiness, it has been resoundingly clear that deep and stable relationships make for happy and stable people. Positive relationships also make us more resilient, advance our personal growth, and improve our physical health.
But relationships matter on a grander scale as well. The ways we tune in to and engage with others sculpt the very society we live in. Secure connection with others helps us be open, responsive, and flexible, and that, in turn, makes us inclined to perceive the world as kinder, safer and more malleable. It gives us the capacity to look out and up, to see the broader universe, and take a more active role in it. A civil society depends on connection with and trust in others. (pg. 268)
All we have to do is look up and about us to discover that the society we have surrounding us is too often something less than civil. While changing society is not something I’m especially up for, I can continue to work with my own Impeccability Practice. I can pay close attention and only make promises I have a high probability of keeping – HPPs – High Probability Promises. The Teutonic heritage in me can aim for flawless. And course-correct as needed. Feel free to join me in your own Impeccability Practice.