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I Promise I’ll Stop


I was reading an “advice” column letter from a woman saying that her actively alcoholic boyfriend “promised to stop drinking.” I sighed when I read his words, thinking about all the times they were my words about food and all the times I’d heard clients make the same promise. Famous last words or maybe we should call them famous lost words, because somehow their meaning and importance gets lost in the shuffle of life.

Let’s take a closer look, or as they say these days, a deeper dive into the meaning of this promise and what prompts us to say it. I know what I was feeling when I swore to myself that I would stop noshing and overeating, turning to food when I was upset or bored, and living my life for my next meal. I was beyond frustrated with my terrible relationship with food. I was exasperated, in dire straits, at my wit’s end. I was miserable and couldn’t bear what I was doing to myself any more. In those moments the words “I promise I’ll stop” leapt from my lips, I was fed up with how I was feeding myself.

I know I meant what I said in the moment, certain that if I was fed up enough, my dysfunctional relationship with food would disappear. As if being angry enough would magically catapult me into being a “normal” eater. This is what happens to us: we believe that all we need to do is to be miserable enough and hit rock bottom and this will be sufficient cause for us to change.

Does that idea sound as silly to you as it does to me—that because something is deeply felt, it will bring about a 180-degree change in habits we’ve had for years or decades? To my ears, it sounds like a pledge a parent might try to extract from a child: “Promise me you won’t stay out past nine” or the like. The promise is for a particular time, not a behavior to engage in for the rest of your life. And that’s one of the problems with the words “I promise I’ll stop.” We forget that stopping means later today and tomorrow and the next day, and through all the long, arduous years and decades ahead of us. 

Another problem with the phrase is that it’s superficial and simplistic, minimizing what is needed to stop any self-destructive habit, especially one that involves habituation or addiction. If it were that easy, we could just spout a promise which would change the trajectory of our habits; we’d all be clean and sober and “normal” eaters. Instead, many, many changes are needed in our lives, internally and externally, to break old habits and solidify new ones. And these changes only happen from growing honest, building life skills, taking missteps, getting support, and making that promise every minute of every day. Saying it the first time is only the start of a very long journey.