10 Excruciatingly Painful Steps to a Better Life


By Scott Herbst, PhD

bSci21 Contributing Writer

Back in September, I wrote about integrity, what it is, why it contributes to your experience of self, and how to restore your integrity when it goes out.  The nickel version is basically that, human being and sense-of-self is constituted in language and one will experience her or himself as whole and complete to the degree that he or she is whole and complete in her or his word.  Break your promises then don’t clean them up and your experience of self will suffer.  You will walk around a little more scared, or a little angrier, and your ability to enjoy your time on earth will diminish.  I outlined how, theoretically, from a Relational Frame Theory (RFT) model of language that should be true.  And, if RFT is a good model of language, as our laws of physics are a good model of why we fall off buildings, stick to the earth, and our planet spins around the sun, then what I wrote about integrity and self should hold true and it should hold true in all circumstances.  There’s no getting around it.   Break your promises, and your sense of self will diminish. 

And yet, we try to get around it!  I think if the vast majority of us take an honest look at our life, there are places where our words don’t match our actions.  As I sit here typing this, it wasn’t hard (easy, in fact!) to come up with an example for myself.  My voicemail greeting says that, if you leave me a message, I will call you back.  A friend of mine called me a couple of months ago, wondering why I hired someone else and not him.  I haven’t called him back.  That’s an integrity out.  Of course, I have my justifications.  He doesn’t return calls either.  I didn’t owe him the business anyway.  And the other person I did hire donated the proceeds to charity.  I’m sure I could come up with more reasons and justifications, and as I do I will feel better and better about the fact that I have a friend I haven’t spoken to in months and that I’m not keeping my promises around my voicemail greeting.  I tested the laws of self and came out without any conspicuous cuts, scrapes, or bruises.  Good for me! 

But while I routinely test the laws of self, I don’t mess around with the laws of gravity at all.  I live on a second floor flat with very high ceilings, which means there are a lot of stairs to get up to my place.  I don’t particularly enjoy walking up and down stairs, but I never say to myself, “you know what?  I think I’ll take the window this time.”  Never.  Why is that?  It’s not because I’ve studied the laws of gravity.  It’s not because I’ve read some schmoe’s colloquially worded article about gravity and thought that it sounded like a good idea.  It’s probably because in my experience, gravity always works.  It never fails.  Ever. 

But one’s experience of gravity is different than one’s experience of self.  Probably, you experience gravity as something existing separately from you.  There’s you, and then there’s this force that pulls you and other things to the ground.  But self isn’t something we experience as being separate from us.  Self, as something constructed in language, is something through which we experience everything else.  It is the lens through which we view the world and, as a particularly effective lens, its presence is inconspicuous.  When you look at the moon through a telescope, you don’t pay attention to the lens; you pay attention to the moon.  Of course, if the lens is dirty and the moon looks smudged and dirty, then you pay attention and you clean the lens. 

Being broken in your word, then, is a lot like having a dirty lens.  But, it’s actually worse than that.  As people, we view the world through the prism of language and our “self” is the language that constitutes the prism.  You’re not looking at the world through a lens; you are the lens.  So, when you’re looking at the world through a dirty lens, it looks like it’s the world that’s dirty.  When my integrity is out and it adds just a little film to the lens, I don’t experience it as a clouded lens; I experience it as a clouded world.  It’s like trying to look at the back of your eyes.  Good luck.

That, however, doesn’t mean that the connection isn’t there.  It’s very difficult to see.  But you can see it; you just have to look closely.   This is a very simple, but powerful exercise that is designed to bring that connection to light.   And, in my experience, if you make that light bright enough, it will have you bringing integrity to areas of life where you were tolerating no integrity.  And, once you bring integrity to those areas, you will be left with more “space” in your life.  As the Acceptance and Commitment people say, you’ll be more psychologically flexible.  Going through these questions should give you a pretty clear picture of the weight that broken promises add to your life.  All of the questions may not have answers for you; that’s ok.  But doing them thoroughly and honestly should create some motivation to deal with some unworkability in your life.  Without further ado, here are the steps. 

Get that, really, there’s nothing wrong with being out of integrity.  There really isn’t.  I know that isn’t how the world trained you to think about it, but this is the same world that trains us to refer to personality traits as reasons for doing things, that thoughts and feelings control behavior, and that you should eat salad with the outside fork.  The world doesn’t always have it right.  This is one of those places. 

Now, pick an area where you’ve broken your word with someone else.  It doesn’t have to be something you said you would do for someone, just something you told someone else you would do.   Maybe you told someone you would go to the gym, and you didn’t.  They don’t have a big interest in you going to the gym, and you not going doesn’t affect them, but you said you would go.  That said, if you really want more juice from this exercise, have it be something that was for someone else.  You haven’t been answering emails, or you haven’t been returning calls, or maybe you owe someone money and haven’t paid them back.  Also, feel free to pick one of those things I’m going to call “societal agreements.”  For example, we as a society, agree that you should visit the dentist regularly, that you should pay your taxes, and that you should save for retirement.  If you pick one of those, have it be something that you think you should be doing and are not.  If you don’t pay parking tickets and don’t mind when your car gets booted, pick something else.  Got one?  Good.  Now let’s go through some questions that will throw some light on this.

Who is the agreement with?  In my case, it’s with my friend, and whoever else might call my phone.  It may extend farther than a single person, however.  For example, I’ve now told you that I haven’t called my friend back, and I have an agreement to do so.  So now, the agreement is with you as well.  The point is to think broadly.  We’ll get into this more with the next question.

Who else does the broken agreement affect?  At first glance, it might look like no one else is affected, but look closer.  A few months ago, I went through this exercise after a period of years (years!) without having gone to the dentist.  No one’s really impacted by that but me, right?  Wrong!  What I discovered was that, if I was with you and you mentioned that you recently went to the dentist, you mentioning it was going to take me out of the conversation for a minute.  You might move onto a new topic, and I’d be stuck listening to my own monologue about how I should really go to the dentist, but maybe it’s ok that I don’t because I take really good care of my teeth, but do I really, and oh-my-god what’s the dentist going to find when I finally go and then I have to ask you to repeat what you just said because I was not listening at all.  Though it might not cost other people money or opportunity directly, other people are impacted by who you are being when this concern shows up for you.  Take a good look at that. 

With regard to my friend, aside from not being present with the people I see occasionally, I have to expect there’s an impact on him.  I don’t know what that is, but I can speculate that he’s left wondering what he did wrong, or if I don’t like him, or – at the very least – feels a little annoyed when my name comes up around him. 

To help you with this, also look at when it comes up for you.  When do you think about it?  What events trigger it?  Obviously, the friend who I owe a call aren’t that close and don’t see each other that much, but we have friends in common who I do see regularly.  I tend to think about it when I’m around them.  Then, there’s every time I use the product I didn’t buy from him.  Sure, there are times I think about it and it seems random, but certain events trigger it predictably.  What are those for you?  There may also be conversational topics or physical locations that evoke those thoughts.  Identify those as well, if they are there for you. 

Next, look at what you say to others about it.  For me, I don’t say anything.  But you might make excuses, say it’s not important, or you may find yourself talking badly about the person the promise is with.  This is the stuff we do to justify our own lapses of integrity.  But don’t just look at what you say, also look at your experience while you’re saying those things.  Does it feel like you’re pretending something, or hiding something?  Is it fun to complain about someone who is important in your life?  (And note, if you’re spending time complaining about someone, like it or not, they are important in your life). 

The next thing to look at are situations, people, or conversational topics that you avoid.  What are those?  For me, its obvious; I don’t want to talk about my friend.  I don’t ask my other friends how he’s doing.  I change the subject when his name comes up.  I don’t talk about him.  Are you starting to see that you bend your life around not dealing with this broken promise?  Kind of like how objects bend the space around them, huh?

Is there anything else you say to yourself about it?  With respect to my friend, the only thing I can think of here is that I say, “I really should just call him.”  And then I say, “I’ll do it later.”  That starts to look pretty silly when I look at all the weight I uncovered in the previous seven steps.

We’re almost there; I promise.  Next, is there any extra work you have to do not to deal with this?  Going back to avoiding the dentist, I had to carry floss everywhere.  I was secretly obsessed with my teeth!  Then, if I caught myself out without floss, I would often have to stop at CVS and buy some.  Sure, a pretty healthy habit, but it wasn’t that it was because I value my health; I was trying to make sure my teeth didn’t rot out of my head!  Look for what extra steps in your life you create to not deal with this.  There may not be any, but look closely and see if you can root some out. 

Lastly, look at all this stuff you just uncovered and look: what is your experience of yourself in this area?  If you really did the work, it should be pretty gross.  Personally, I’ve got half a headache and had to go take a nap before I could finish writing this.  Is it really worth it, to carry all that around?  Wouldn’t it be easier just to look bad for a minute than to have to carry this around any longer?

If I did my job, the answer to that last question is, “yes.”  And then what there is to do is go restore your word.   You do that by acknowledging the broken promise, acknowledging any impact it has had, and then making whatever new promise there is to make.  What will really create freedom is to do that with a bunch of people, even if they aren’t directly impacted.  Be willing to be seen as someone who breaks promises.  In other words, be willing to be a human being.  It doesn’t have to be difficult, or heavy, and you don’t have to feel ashamed.  You’re a person, and this is what people do.  Have a little compassion for yourself as you clean up your promises.  But do clean them up.  I promise, your life will get a little lighter and your view of the world will get a little clearer.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a phone call to make. 

Give these 10 steps a try and let us know how they work for you in the comments below.  Also, be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Scott Herbst, PhD is the founder and Lead Trainer at SixFlex Training and Consulting.  After six years in academia, he left to pursue his passion of training leaders and managers to create, manage, and communicate in work environments where people are productive, excited, and vital.  As a course designer, he grounds his curricula in cutting edge research in language and thinking as well as decades of research in operant performance.  As a trainer, he is an engaging and powerful speaker who makes learning fun and exciting.   You can visit his company site at www.SixFlexTraining.com, or email at [email protected] for more information.

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