January 31st is the Chinese New Year and the beginning of the Year of the Wood Horse. In case you’ve already given up on your resolutions, you get another chance in a few days. Compared to the Year of the Water Snake we’re leaving behind, this one is supposed to move forward with a healthy gallop. Hard work and strong decisions are said to be rewarded in the Year of the Horse with good income.
If your plans and resolutions don’t typically gallop along, perhaps it’s a good time to look at their underlying structure – your agreements. When we make agreements with others, most of us understand the consequences of breaking those agreements. If you break agreements with your boss, you might lose your job. If you break agreements with your friends, you might lose your friends. If you break agreements with family, you might hurt their feelings and lose their trust. In all cases, a relationship will be damaged.
So, what happens when you don’t keep an agreement with yourself? It’s not so different, really. A relationship is damaged, it’s just harder to see. Let’s say you decide to work out every day for a month but you quit after five days. There doesn’t seem to be anyone getting screwed by breaking this agreement. Nobody is mad at you. Of course you’ll let yourself off the hook. But your self-trust is eroded.
If you forgot to pick up your child from school, you would probably make it a priority to regain their trust because you care so much about the relationship. But, chances are, you don’t do that when you break an agreement with yourself. You may be barely aware that an agreement was broken. This matters in many big and small ways.
If you serially break agreements with yourself – you don’t get things done when you say you’ll get them done, you don’t wake up when you say you’ll wake up, you don’t treat your body as healthily as you tell yourself you will – the material consequences are unfortunate, but small. The bigger consequences are things like not being able to count on yourself or giving up your big dreams for ones that are more “realistic” given your history. If you have a habit of breaking agreements with yourself, and now you want to do something big and important, your mind will have a lot of evidence to undermine you.
Here are four important steps for reestablishing self-trust. First, become clear about what constitutes an agreement and be conscious of the agreements you make. If you had a passing thought about washing the car and then it didn’t get done, is this a broken agreement? Well, you need to decide that (before it happens). I recommend choosing a format for making official agreements with yourself and sticking to it. If you want to make agreement with yourself to wash the car, you might think to yourself, “I agree to wash the car today,” or you might say it out loud, or you might write it down. Just come up with the terms for what constitutes an actual agreement.
Second, be forthright and clean with yourself. You know whether you meant something to be an agreement or not, and you can’t really hide from yourself. But we pretend to hide, keeping our agreements nebulous, by maintaining a cloudy mental environment. Did I say ONE more game of Candy Crush and then I’d walk the dog? I think I meant to say SIXTY games…Or, I know I planned to work out today, but what I meant was that I would work out unless something more important came up. Be honest. As you distractedly lift your two pound dumbbells while watching The Late Show, ask yourself, Is THIS what I intended when I agreed to work out every morning? Do your best. Think about the quality of participation a boss or client would expect of you, and deliver at that level to yourself.
Third, don’t make too many agreements, especially as you begin this process. If you wanted to get an estranged friend to trust you again after you missed five consecutive lunch dates, you wouldn’t start out by offering to edit their thesis, refinish their floors, and meet them to watch the sunrise every day for a year. You’d be setting yourself up for more damaged trust. Instead, you might ask them earnestly to give you one more chance at lunch, and you’d make sure to get there a half hour early.
The process of reestablishing self-trust starts with baby steps. For the first few days, you might want your only official agreements to be things you’d probably do anyway, like, Wake up by no later than 7 o’clock, and, Have dinner ready by 6:30. Do this so you can become more conscious of your agreements with yourself and the be sure to keep them. Over time, you can add a bit more to your list. But never make an agreement you think you’re likely to break.
Fourth, clean up broken agreements. Treat yourself like a friend. If you broke an agreement with a friend, you would acknowledge the damage that was done (“I feel terrible about missing your show. I’m really sorry. I cherish you as a friend and I want to be there for you.”). And you might do something special the next time you saw them (like bringing them flowers or helping them with a project) to demonstrate your interest in fixing the relationship.
Likewise, if you break an agreement with yourself, rather than beating yourself up, acknowledge and repair the damage. Believe it or not, there really is a hurt part of yourself – a part of you that takes these broken agreements to mean, I don’t need to keep my agreements with you, because you don’t matter. Affirm to yourself that you do matter and that you can be trusted. Then make a new agreement that goes beyond the one you broke, and be sure to keep it. Or, if you broke the agreement because it wasn’t a realistic agreement (which means you had no business making it in the first place), make a new agreement about something that supports you in another way (some act of self care, for instance), and keep it. Be a person of integrity.
Eventually, you’ll have an impressive mental dossier on your trustworthiness. In essence, you will have demonstrated to yourself hundreds or thousands of times that what you say is going to happen … happens. Then your word will be as good as law. When you say to yourself, I’m going to change the world, there will be a mountain of evidence to indicate that big things are coming.
One of my teachers used to say, “When you keep your agreements, your life works.” And as I have fallen out of the habit of keeping my agreements and then picked it back up, over and over, I’ve found this to be true. If anything is out of whack in your life, turn back to your agreements, start keeping them, and watch how things fall into place.
Happy Year of the Horse,
Dr. Peter Borten and Everyone at The Dragontree