Scott H Young

How to Recover From a Broken Commitment


If there is any problem I see with people starting to make changes in their lives it is an inability to really commit themselves to a path. In a statistic I saw recently, ninety-eight percent of all New Years resolutions fail before the next year. Many of the comments I receive from readers who have problems making changes lies in a fumbled commitment. These people committed themselves to a goal and then later did something to break that commitment. Breaking your commitments to your goals and yourself has to be one of the most devastating impacts on your ability to make permanent changes.

But what do most self-help authors prescribe? Most of the same, it seems. Don’t break commitments. Be disciplined. Winners never quit and quitters never win. Although these platitudes tell an important lesson, they are more or less useless. If you lack self-discipline or are not used to holding an unbreakable standard, you will inevitably break your own commitments. My rocky start into personal development was littered with broken commitments as I took on goals and challenges that didn’t quite stick. Although I rarely break a commitment today, that is a by-product of all the successful commitments I have kept up to this point. If you are new to personal development you may inevitably make a few hasty decisions against your goals as you haven’t built up the personal resources to have integrity to your decisions.

When you do break a commitment, what will affect your life most is if you utilize that broken commitment and use it to strengthen your resolve and power in the future. By taking advantage of this situation, you can cut off the damage a broken commitment causes. Furthermore, you can even take this very negative situation and use it to forge a greater level of commitment in the future. Few authors tackle the subject of what to do when you break a commitment and I often didn’t know what to do in my initial attempts and personal development. Sometimes I’d beat myself up, sometimes I’d quit, and other times I’d rationalize, the result was never positive. Instead, I’d like to share with you my process for recovering from a broken commitment to create even more resolve and willpower.

While my process for recovering for a recovering commitment can work, I don’t suggest you start breaking your commitments any time soon. Broken commitments are incredibly damaging to your ability to make changes and should be avoided at all costs. A broken commitment is a bit like a broken leg. Just because we now have ways to put a cast on it and heal it eventually doesn’t mean it is a smart idea to start acting reckless. But if you did break your commitment, this will tell you how to set the bone back in place and recover.

Punish the Behavior, Praise the Individual

What do most people do when the break a commitment? The answer is simple, rationalize. Rationalizing is the minds way of getting out of pain. By coming up with a logical excuse for why you did something it allows you to still feel good even though you did something bad. Get off your diet and eat an entire chocolate cake, but it’s okay though because it was my birthday. Stop exercising for a week, it’s okay, my week at the office has been really difficult lately, I deserve it.

Rationalizing has to be the single most damaging way to handle a broken commitment. Why? Because not only are you avoiding handling the problem, you are accepting the behavior that caused it. Instead of doing something about your broken commitment you are actually justifying it. This reaction may get you out of temporary pain but it destroys your ability to make commitments in the future. Don’t rationalize or you will settle for a life far below your ability.

Maybe you don’t rationalize, perhaps you are a little better than that. Perhaps you just beat yourself up about the problem. Although this a better solution, it is still nowhere close to the ideal solution. Beating yourself up can be good as it will get your body to link incredible pain to breaking commitments. If you fail your diet and beat yourself up for a week, your brain will instinctively avoid breaking that commitment in the future.

The problem with beating yourself up is that it destroys your confidence. Beating yourself up breaks down your self-image. When you take a drag of that cigarette after a week without touching them, if you beat yourself up for this event for days, your self-confidence is so damaged that you will lose the ability to even set a commitment in the future. Your self-talk naturally shifts towards how you are an undisciplined, stupid or unsuccessful individual. Breaking your internal confidence and faith in your ability to make changes strips you of your power.

I have been down both these roads after a broken commitment and I can tell you neither works. Rationalizing makes you settle for a standard of life that gets lower and lower with each broken commitment you make. Beating yourself up gives you pain but it also strips your confidence to the point where you can’t even summon up the courage to make decisions and actually go for your dreams anymore. But there is a third option.

The third option is twofold. Punish the behavior, praise the individual. This strategy has two purposes. By punishing the behavior you will be giving yourself massive pain for breaking your commitment so you will never do it again. But by praising yourself, you rebuild your confidence so your self-image stays intact. With this approach a broken commitment can be bandaged quickly so it doesn’t bleed you to death.

The first part of this choice is to give yourself pain for the behavior. This step is similar to beating yourself up. Except you are going to direct your focus towards to behavior, not to yourself. So when you fail your diet, don’t rationalize it. Don’t make any excuse. When you don’t excuse your broken commitment your mind will naturally give yourself pain for the behavior. When you fail to keep your temper after making a promise to your family, don’t excuse this behavior. Don’t say it was because you were stressed or they were angering you. It is your fault and the behavior is unacceptable.

It is extremely important that you direct this negative energy and pain only towards your behavior, not yourself. Blame your behavior and actions for the result. For example, if you fail to stay off cigarettes your self talk should be, “Smoking is completely unacceptable and the behavior that lead to that action must never be repeated.” Your negative energy can’t be self-directed, as in, “Smoking is a bad habit, why am I such an undisciplined person?”

The second part of this choice is to rebuild your confidence in tackling the issue in the future. Begin to associate your mind with all of the commitments you have kept, no matter how small. If you ever succeeded in a goal or change before, start focusing your mind on your past successes. Find references in your past of when you have followed through on a commitment. Even if these things are a simple as picking up the dry cleaning when you said you would, each little incident helps.

What you are trying to do here is to rebuild your faith and confidence in your abilities. Without faith and confidence in your ability to maintain commitments, you will be unable to maintain them. Breaking a commitment is very damaging to your self-image. Praising the individual but punishing the behavior ensures that you link immense pain to your action but leave with your self-image intact.

Develop a Strategy

Why did you break the commitment in the first place? If you can’t answer that question then it will be very difficult to correct the mistake. By developing a brand new approach and strategy to maintaining your commitment or promises in the future, you greatly increase your chances of future success. Identifying the causes and implementing solutions makes your strategy for sticking to commitments stronger in the future.

Brainstorm a list of reasons why you failed your commitment. Be sure that all of your possible reasons point to behavioral or environmental factors inside your control. Writing down that you are an undisciplined person simply starts you on the negative cycle of destroying your confidence. Instead you may say that a possible reason is you don’t have enough practice with commitments to stick with them.

If you failed to stick to your diet and ate a lot of dessert at a friends house, you could come up with several reasons you failed your strategy. It could be that you felt obligated to eat everything your friend served to you. You may have felt that this was a special occasion that warranted quitting your diet. You may go even deeper and relate it to the fact that you are unable to feel full on this diet. Perhaps your diet is the central culprit.

You may have sensed that this step is a little like rationalization. In fact, it is exactly like rationalization. In essence, you are trying to find controllable, external factors that influenced you breaking your commitment. By finding these culprits you can modify and change them. The distinction between developing a strategy and rationalizing, is that when you rationalize you operate from a mindset that has no intention of changing the factors that caused the broken commitment. Rationalization is purely a way to avoid pain.

But because this step so closely mirrors rationalization, it is important that you do it after you have already done the first step. Just because external factors influenced your broken commitment, you still need to associate pain to the behavior and reinforce your confidence. Skip the first step and you lose the power to keep commitments in the first place. The human spirit can keep incredibly difficult commitments despite immense obstacles with enough power and strength of will. Reinforcing that strength of will and power is the first step, only then should you begin to reassess your strategy.

Although external factors certainly influence your results, the primary force must be your conscious effort. When I was doing a thirty day trial to start running each morning, I didn’t realize that the trial corresponded with our schools grad ball. Since the ball went until 6 AM, I found myself running at 7 AM after being up the entire night previously. Clearly this is a factor that could have influenced my commitment, but I didn’t let it. The primary source is always you, a new strategy can help but it can’t replace your own perseverance.

From your list of possible obstacles to keeping your commitment, develop a new strategy to avoid these obstacles in the future. If you felt obligated to eat the cake at a friends house, perhaps your strategy could involve telling the friend beforehand that you are on a new diet pattern and you won’t be eating any sweets to avoid offending them. By coming up with a strategy to avoid obstacles that triggered breaking your commitment you can execute a better plan to your success.

Reform the Commitment

With a rebuilt spirit and a new strategy it is now time to reform your commitment. If your commitment was a one time event that has now past, then you will now have to commit to act differently in the future. So if lost your temper with a family member, your commitment will now be to never lose your temper and lash out again. A new commitment is the critical last phase in the recovery of your self image and your ability to make commitments in the future.

It is also important that you make this commitment a must in your life. If you don’t set an unbreakable standard for this new commitment, you risk breaking it twice. Breaking the same commitment twice has ten times the negative impact of breaking it once. Each breaking is an order of magnitude more damaging than the previous one. Setting an unbreakable standard for this new behavior is necessary to prevent setbacks in the future.

How can you kick off your new commitment? A great way to start a new change is to go through a ritual. A crazy, bizarre and intense ritual can often create a shift in your identity to reform your commitment. Rituals are used continuously in our culture to signal shifts in identity. In many tribal cultures, there are painful and intense rituals for when a boy becomes a man. These rituals are used to radically shift the persons perception of who they are.

You can use the power of rituals on yourself. Failed a diet? I have heard of several people who bought all new clothes in the size they were going to wear and burned all but one outfit they would have to use until they lost the weight. Stand on the roof of your house or apartment and proclaim your new commitment with a megaphone to your entire city. Remove all the furniture from your house and sleep on a mat. What you do for a ritual is up to you, but a ritual can be a good way to cause a break in identity so you can partition off your failed commitment and start fresh. We all need the ability to make a fresh start when we have gone along the wrong path.

If you’ve broken a commitment in the past, you may want to use this process. If you break a commitment in the future, try this process out. I’ll repeat the three steps for you so you can remember in the future. They are:

  1. Punish Your Behavior but Praise the Individual
  2. Develop a New Strategy
  3. Reform Your Commitment

Breaking commitments is not a fun activity. By using these three steps you can ensure that a broken commitment is quickly healed and you move yourself onto a greater path. Nothing is more satisfying that lasting through a very difficult commitment and coming out stronger on the other side. By utilizing your failed commitments to create the fire within you to burn past the obstacles in your future, you can ensure that those little detours don’t permanently affect the course of your life.


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2 Responses to “How to Recover From a Broken Commitment”

  1. […] How to Recover From a Broken Commitment – Here I outline the steps to reassert your control when willpower fails. […]

  2. Bhargav says:

    Dear Scott,
    This is one of the better posts I have ever come across :)
    Keep going.

    Regards
    Bhargav

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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