Even as a little kid I hated people making promises to me and not keeping them. I can still hear my six-year-old voice plaintively wailing, “But you PROMISED!” In one of my early blogs I wrote about my mother promising me a Wilson A-2000 baseball glove for Christmas. Not getting it left me hugely disappointed and it adversely impacted my neurophysiology on many levels, far more than anyone would ever suspect (just seeing the picture of the glove on the right below, activates the feeling of that crushing disappointment; I can literally feel that memory affecting my endocrine system in the present moment).
Human beings need some degree of predictability in their lives. Lack of predict- ability is Number 2 of Stanford neurophysiologist Robert Sapolsky’s, Four Neuro-Annihilators. Making promises and keeping them is one way the people, places and things around us – the world – becomes safe and reasonably predictable. Predictability makes the world become a place we can feel at home in. One of the things that makes home home is the way our brains and bodies feel when we’re there – safe, comfortable, familiar, well-regulated. One of the reasons I live on a small off-shore island is that things tend to be pretty predictable here. It’s also why I don’t like to travel to foreign countries – like mainland America – because of the stress generated by the Unpredictability Factor. It wasn’t until I actually moved to this island and paid close attention to my body the first time I locked my car or house door that I realized the unconscious message my stress hormones were sending to my brain in response: “It’s not safe!”
The Unpredictablity Threat
Making promises and not keeping them generates all kinds of adverse neurophysiological processes in the person promised – and equally important – in the promiser. Whether we realize it or not, the unpredictability that unfolds as a consequence of a promise unkept is experienced by the brain and body as a threat. And we know from Neuroception Theory that threat increases levels of stress hormones. High levels of stress hormones have been shown to literally shrink your brain. Stress also correlates with increased levels of inflammation in the body and brain. And the number of auto-immune diseases where inflammation is an active agent is growing larger every day (here’s a link with just a few).
So that’s one adverse consequence of making promises and not keeping them. Another relates to the single basic, fundamental question that every one of our brains is constantly scouring the relational environment to determine if the answer is Yes or No to. And your brain does it on the sly, under your cognitive radar, forgetting to consciously clue you in mostly. And it usually announces its findings, not in words, but in feelings. And those feelings can be characterized primarily by two responses: attraction or aversion. That question, of course, is The Big Brain Question, and making promises and not keeping them answers that question with a clear, resounding: NO!
But delivering this unwitting message to significant people in our lives by making promises and not keeping them is only one edge of a double edge sword. The other edge is this: our brain is constantly watching every single thing we do. It monitors and records every thought and feeling we have, long-term-storing the ones it deems important for survival.
Essentially what we demonstrate to our own brain by making promises that we don’t keep is that … you can’t trust you. Think about the life-limiting implications that unconscious, underground operation – not being able to confidently trust yourself – might have day after day in your own life.