The Language of Commitment

The Language of Commitment

What Being There Really Means

by Val Walker, MS

In times of illness, we often need to depend on the help of others, and rely on them to follow through. But when someone backs out at the last minute or breaks a promise, even for understandable reasons, we are left worried, stranded, or vulnerable.

Most family members and friends genuinely care and want to help, but they sometimes fall into the trap of overpromising, or making vague, unclear commitments. Indeed, any of us, in a hurry or in the throes of offering our best, heartfelt intentions, can make generous, but unrealistic promises. Our plans can backfire when we find ourselves overextended, as we scramble to recover from curveballs coming our way and messy, awkward complications.

Most of us already know the basics of making solid commitments – but we all know, as human beings, life doesn’t work so neatly. I can honestly attest to my own habit of overpromising under the influence of powerful feelings like love, guilt, duty, or hope. I’m still learning to keep my word by using the right words in the first place when I make a promise – being mindful of what I say, and thinking before I open my mouth.

For over 20 years, as a rehabilitation counselor facilitating support groups for caregivers, as well as for people living with cancer, I’ve heard the good, the bad, and the infuriating about counting on other people. From their accounts, I’m convinced that even the smallest act of keeping a single promise is deeply reassuring during unpredictable and painful times. Reliable people are comforting because they don’t overpromise, but instead offer what they can realistically, truly deliver.

Thanks to the practical wisdom of hundreds of support group participants who have spoken out about keeping commitments, I’m offering a short list of their suggestions for making a solid, keepable promise.

The Four Elements of a Solid Commitment

1 Keep it specific and tangible

A promise or commitment should never be vague. It’s too difficult to follow through when something’s unclear.


  • Could I call you Monday night to check in?
  • I could text you this evening to see what the lab results are.

Too Vague:

  • Call me if you need me.
  • Let me know how the labs turn out.

2 Keep it simple, in small steps, and time-limited.

Offer help that is easy to remember and that is doable in a few steps, without getting too far ahead of yourself in the planning. When people are feeling very tired and weak with an illness, it might be too overwhelming to think much further ahead than a few days, or even one day. Regular check-ins and small steps along the way make it more manageable for all involved.

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Simple, Clear:

  • I can come by around 6:00 p.m. for the next three days.
  • I could stop by the pharmacy every Friday this month.

Not So Simple, Less Clear:

  • I’ll be there – all through your chemo. I promise.
  • As long as you need, I can always pick up your refills.

Reliable people are comforting because they don’t overpromise, but instead offer what they can realistically, truly deliver.

3 Keep it sincere, which means being realistic and honest with yourself.

This means you may sometimes need to say no. You don’t want to overcommit and risk letting your friend down, or stretching yourself too thin.

Sincere and Realistic:

  • I’d like to wait and talk after dinner when I can really listen.
  • I can certainly do your laundry on Sundays, but weekdays are not good for me.

Overdoing It or Multitasking:

  • We can chat while I make dinner.
  • I can do all your cleaning and laundry.

4 Keep it proactive – a thought-out decision, not a knee-jerk reaction.

Avoid making a commitment in haste without thinking about it first. You can always get back with the person a little later with a well-informed decision. But you do need to make sure you follow up soon and don’t leave the person hanging.

Proactive, Thinking First:

  • I know I can help in some way, but first I’d like to think over the best way.
  • I’m sure I can help. I’ll call you in the morning with some ideas after I give this some thought.


  • No problem; I’ll make it happen.
  • I’ll do whatever you need.

Val Walker, a rehabilitation counselor and grief consultant, is the author of The Art of Comforting: What to Say and Do for People in Distress. You can keep up with Val at

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2016.