The dangerous power of a personal vow

Have you ever made a vow? I’m not talking about wedding vows, which we exchange in a moment of hope, love and optimism. I mean a personal promise that is born in a moment of passionate anger, frustration or fear.

They usually begin with, “I will NEVER…” as in:

“I will NEVER again work for another person as long as I live.”

“I will NEVER be dependent on a man for money.”

“I will NEVER be a burden to my children.”

Vows spring up from helplessness and allow us to feel a sense of control over the future. We make such promises to protect ourselves or our loved ones from pain. But there is a problem with these personal promises. Once we make them, they spin out of our control.

Life is fluid but our unconscious is rigid

When we make a promise with such emotional force, our brain takes it very seriously. It senses we are in danger if we do not fulfill this promise. So it will do anything it can to make sure we follow through.

This is due to the intense emotion behind them. When vows are fueled by passion, our unconscious mind seizes them, and draws them down deep into the brain’s limbic system, where our emotional memories are recorded. The limbic system has one job: to keep us safe. It records our intense emotions so that when we feel them the next time, our subconscious can react automatically to protect us. This automatic response is out of our control.

The problem is, life is fluid but our unconscious is rigid. When circumstances change, the unconscious brain does not. It rigidly holds on to our promise.

Here’s an example. Christine’s parents separated when she was young and her father moved away. His phone calls and child support payments were sporadic. Christine and her mother never knew when or if they would hear from him. The times she did speak to her father, he would promise to send her a gift and to visit her soon. But more often then not, he would not follow through. He agreed to contribute to her college tuition, but that turned out to be another empty promise.

Frustrated and deeply hurt, Christine told herself she would never rely on a partner to support her. Her financial independence became a source of pride. Even when she married, she and her spouse maintained separate accounts and she enjoyed being able to maintain her lifestyle without having to rely on her spouse for support or approval. The arrangement worked well. Then they decided to have a child.

Within six months, their relationship was strained. Christine struggled with exhaustion trying to keep up with her job and caring for their baby. Her spouse felt increasingly unappreciated and isolated as Christine turned more and more to her mother for support. What was happening?

The unconscious brain dictates our actions

Without Christine ever being aware, her unconscious brain sensed danger when their baby was born and rose up to protect her. It did so superbly. It remembered Christine’s vow never to rely on a partner to support her. Now it was directing Christine to find any means possible (going without sleep, turning to someone other than her partner) to support herself and her new child.

If someone asked Christine if she wanted her partner to be a fully involved and supportive parent and spouse, she would have said, “Of course I do!” This is the power of a vow. It operates deep in our unconscious, disconnected from logic. Its automatic response gives the appearance that we are making a rational choice. In fact, we have no choice. The unconscious brain dictates our actions.

Identifying the original emotions that triggered the vow gives us control

So how do we regain control? As with any limiting belief, you know there is a problem when your actions do not match your intentions. When you find yourself stuck in a pattern of behavior despite your efforts to change, then it’s time to reflect. Ask yourself, “What am I afraid of? If I stop acting this way, what might happen?” You can also try to feel into the emotion. Sit quietly and check in with your body. What emotions do you notice? Does an image or phrase appear? How old is this emotion? Can you remember the first time you felt it? What happened then?

These questions help us get to the root of the matter. When we identify the original emotions that triggered the vow, then we regain control. The vow rises to our consciousness, where we can examine it and determine whether or not it still serves us. Only then do we have the power to choose how we will move forward.

Emily Shull is a Certified Money Coach® and founder of Me Myself and Money. She helps individuals and couples understand and transform their relationship with money. She splits her time between the U.S. and the Netherlands and serves clients virtually. You can schedule a free consultation call here.