You’re five years old and you’ve been told that “Tomorrow we’re going to do your favorite activity! How does that sound?” You feel ecstatic. “Yaaaaaay!!! Wooohoooo!” You can’t wait until the next day. You tell everyone what you’re going to do. When you go to bed, you can barely sleep because you’re thinking about all the cool stuff you’ll be doing. If your parents told you the next day, “We’re really sorry, but there’s been a change of plans. We can’t go today,” imagine how we’d feel as a kid; we’d be upset and confused “But you promised!” Why do some kids react stronger than others, and what if the same thing that affected us as children continues to affect us as adults?
While on one hand, as a parent or bystander, we would probably think, “Please get over it, kid. It’s not a big deal.” And it’s true; it’s not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. Those shifty emotions are always so difficult to manage for adults, let alone a child.
When something good is about to happen, the brain releases chemicals for good things coming: happiness and excitement. When something bad is about to happen, similarly, chemicals are released to prepare us for those bad things. Imagine getting a shot of adrenaline and a dose of sleeping pills at the same time. Our body ends up fighting itself to regulate and normalize; being unable to sleep and extremely tired at the same time is not a good feeling. There could be a similar process occurring when we are feeling conflicting or underdeveloped emotions.
We may be acting unreasonable, but it’s completely understandable for a kid to feel this way, given the situation. The question is, how would we help the child learn to cope with these disconnected feelings, the sense of being let down? Just giving things time is always a fallback, but there is something more we can do for the child to help them learn to regulate their emotions.
Pets and Consistency
For those who have pets and have trained them, one thing that may be noticed is that whatever it is we want our pets to do, we need to be very consistent so the pet can learn the pattern. For example, if we want the dog to go to the bathroom outside, we need to be consistent in how we give the dog times to go outside. Eventually, as the dog learns what to do, we can start to relax on the consistent times but be consistent about letting the dog out when the dog is wanting to be let out. If we aren’t consistent, the dog won’t understand anything about what they should or shouldn’t be doing, and they won’t learn to ‘trust’ what we will or won’t do at any given time. How will the dog know that he should wait to go to the bathroom if he can’t trust that we’ll let him out in time?
Not to compare a kid to a pet, but there are many similarities with respect to being consistent. If a parent randomly disciplines their child for not doing homework but doesn’t do so consistently, what are they teaching the child? A consistent parent that is consistently deficient could arguably be better for a child than a parent that is randomly deficient. With the randomly deficient parent, the child has no idea what they are going to get any given day, leading to higher anxiety than if it was predictable.
As a possible analogy, there are studies with rats that may shed light on this phenomenon. When rats are administered consistent shocks versus random shocks, both ‘bad occurrences,’ the ones exposed to random shocks demonstrated much more overall fear and helplessness than the rats that were administered consistent shocks. What this amounts to is a ‘predictable threat’ versus an ‘unpredictable threat.’ When things are completely unpredictable and negative, it amounts to ultimately more chronic stress and helplessness.
This doesn’t mean we have to be consistent all the time. This is only to emphasize that consistency *at the right times* is crucial in training and development. After a time, consistency can and probably should taper off as the child (or pet) learns to navigate to the beat of their own drum and to handle more scenarios. If we’ve been consistent at the right points, the pet will do its best to hold its bladder when we’re running late, and the child won’t throw a fit when we tell them sorry, we can’t do that fun thing today.
If we move from pets and children to ourselves, we’ll find that consistency matters in our own cases too. Remember that our bodies and minds have involuntary aspects to them; what we choose to do consistently is going to govern how those involuntary aspects react to situations. We can train our bodies and minds to do a lot of things, and that training is done through some form of consistent work or effort toward something.
We build habits through this internal consistency. We build a lot of what we do and achieve on top of the foundation of consistent habits and actions. If we get good grades, it’s because we consistently put in the work. If we are good athletes, it’s because we are consistently playing or training that sport. The compound effect of building habits and constantly growing is a result of some form of internal consistency about tackling a goal or task.
Keeping Our Word
It goes without saying that we should keep our word in day-to-day situations. Why exactly, though? Because it’s a lie, and lies are bad? We don’t think of not keeping our word as lying when it’s something simple like promising a child we’ll go to the park. There was no intention of lying; life just happened.
We can’t go to the extreme and never make a promise, or never make any statements like, “I’ll be there.” But we also can’t keep saying we’ll be there when we never make it. The thing is, this isn’t necessarily for the person we are making promises to. It isn’t about lying or not. If we miss the park, that is pretty insignificant compared to not paying our bills because we chose the park over work. Our friend, our kid, or loved one will get over it, assuming it’s not a common theme.
Keeping our word isn’t so we can stay on people’s good sides; it’s all about the effect it has on our mindsets. If we are consistently making promises and not keeping them, we’re also making the habit of breaking promises. When a promise is consistently broken, what can we tell ourselves when it’s time to really do something?
We won’t even be able to say, “I’m going to work out tomorrow,” or “I’m going to make sure to get it done today” or make any commitment “in sickness and in health.” Consistently breaking our promises is telling ourselves that it’s ok, that any and everything we say or promise isn’t really that serious. We can just drift and do whatever we want, whenever we want.
That sounds like a great thing, but it would be like rolling dice. It may be a great ride for a while, but the moment we really need to get something done, help someone, or do something for ourselves, we’d lack the discipline to hold ourselves to it. If we truly want to do whatever we want, whenever we want, we shouldn’t make promises we can’t keep.
What if we want to be consistent, but life is throwing all types of obstacles at us? How do we stay consistent when we barely know what will happen tomorrow or the next day? Being consistent isn’t a matter of taking the exact same action every day as much as it’s about handling and managing the situations being thrown at us in a consistent way.
If, for example, we know we have inconsistent priorities occurring every day in our lives, it would not be rational to promise to do something the next day unless we made it the true priority. It means we would handle inconsistencies consistently. We’d have a mechanism in place to prioritize things as possible. Instead of making promises that we can’t keep, we simply wouldn’t make those promises unless we made it a true priority. For everyone’s sanity, being consistent and saying, “Sorry, I can’t commit to that, but I’ll try to make it” every time is much better than saying, “Of course, I’ll definitely be there.”
To Be or Not to Be … Selfish
Let’s say we’re a doctor who’s always on call. Anytime the phone rings when we’re home, there’s an emergency that we’re needed for. It doesn’t help that we already work long hours. Imagine getting an emergency call and having to say, “Sorry, I can’t save that person’s life right now. I made a promise to hang out with my kid.”
It’s simply not fair, but the example is to underscore an extreme situation and make the case that even a doctor needs to be selfish to take care of themselves. They need their own family time, their own self-care time. Even if someone may die if they aren’t there, it simply isn’t possible to put all the responsibility on them to be able to help 24/7. There have to be boundaries in place, and it’s up to us to make sure those boundaries are reasonable for ourselves.
This translates to many areas of life. We simply have to be selfish to an extent and take care of ourselves before we can take care of others. If we aren’t in good health, how are we going to take care of someone else’s health? If we don’t have money, how are we going to help someone with resources? If we don’t have our own mental and emotional strength, how are we going to be a shoulder to lean on? We need to selfishly ensure we are taking care of ourselves before we help others.
All in all, we should work on being consistent and keeping our word. It will help those we interact with and, ultimately, ourselves. The importance of consistency and keeping our word cannot be stressed enough. The difference between uncontrollable emotions and controllable ones, the difference between instant gratification and delayed gratification, the difference between sticking to a goal and giving up, the difference between achieving our goals and not achieving them all starts with consistency and keeping our word. And to do that, we have to be selfish about making sure we take care of ourselves.
For those still not sold on the idea of being selfish or taking it to the extreme, think about it this way: while being selfish seems to be a dichotomy to caring for others, it’s not optimal to have one without the other. When we help others, we ultimately get more benefit from helping others than if we just cared about ourselves. It is to our advantage to help others. And not only that, when we help ourselves, we are making choices, learning, growing, and working to achieve things. Ultimately, those achievements will have an impact or be impacted by others. We can’t get around interacting with and impacting others even if we wanted to, so why not just accept it? Take advantage of it and be selfishly, consistently committed to caring.