When I was nineteen, I traveled to Colombia to learn about US foreign policy.

I visited a church where the priest was killed while giving a sermon, traveled to subsistence farms that were fumigated as part of the US-funded War on Drug, saw a person who was recently killed lying on the side of the road, sat quietly as paramilitary searched our bus, and heard stories of so many atrocities paid for by my tax dollars.

While I was there, I unconsciously promised myself:

I will do everything in my power to make the biggest change I can possibly make, no matter the cost to myself or the people I love.

For the next six years, I engaged in non-stop activism. I worked all day, nearly every day, and burned myself out. It took becoming a mother to convince me that it was time to release this contract.

I didn’t need to get rid of the heart of the contract—solidarity is still a core value of mine, and I’ve remained committed to organizing for social justice.

But I no longer engage in activism at the cost to myself or the people I love.

When my clients are trying to get clear about what they’ll say yes to and what they’ll say no to, most of them feel stuck because they’re holding on to an unconscious contract—a promise, agreement, or vow to think, act, or feel a certain way that we make without complete awareness.[1]

We form unconscious contracts in reaction to trauma in order to protect ourselves and others from the horrible thing happening again.

Our contracts can act like spiderwebs that keep us suspended from our younger selves’ understanding of the world and hold us back from reaching toward new callings and embodying our full potential.

Later, we feel shame, guilt, anxiety, or other flavor of discomfort when we contemplate acting, in a way that violates the contract.

To access the inner freedom to honor our needs and step fully into our callings, I’ve found that most people must let go of an unconscious contract.

In this article, I’ll share with you neuroscience educator Sarah Peyton’s process for naming and releasing any unconscious contracts that may be holding you back.

The Unconscious Contract Template

Sarah Peyton offers the following structure for naming unconscious contracts:

I, (your name), solemnly swear to (fill in the blank) that I will (fill in the blank) in order to (fill in the blank) no matter the cost to myself or the people I love.

For example, let’s say you decide to go to a yoga class after work, but instead, you stay late working on a project and miss the class. The unconscious contract at play might be something like: I, Veronia, solemnly swear to my essential self that I will prioritize everyone else’s needs over my own in order to keep my place in the group, no matter the cost to myself.

Are you holding any of these contracts?

If you’re curious to find out what unconscious contracts might be holding you back, I invite you to read through the grid below, which shows examples of unconscious contracts that I’ve witnessed my clients bring to our work and that I’ve held myself.[2]

Notice which phrases resonate, if any, and play with mixing and matching the phrases on the left column with the phrases on the right.

Add the phrase I (your name), solemnly swear to my essential self that… to the beginning of each sentence. And add …no matter the cost to myself to the end.

Before you go, however, please know that shining light on unconscious agreements can trigger feelings of sadness, fear, shame, aloneness, and other flavors of discomfort.

Please do your best to accompany yourself with warmth and care as you go. If you start to feel overwhelmed as you go, please stand up, move your arms and legs, bring your eyes up off the screen and look for signs that you are safe, and do anything else that helps you soothe your nervous system. You can return to this practice when you choose or when you have more support.

I will… …in order to…
Squashing Joy  
…not feel joy… …protect myself from disappointment…
…never pause to celebrate… …stay in integrity with the world’s grief and not be fooled into thinking the work is done…
…never play… …not look ridiculous…
Family Wounds  
…never be like my mother/father… …protect others from harm…
…never go into debt… …not become homeless…
…not do better than those who came before… …respect my mother/father/community…
…never forget… …preserve their memory…
…live for those who died… …make sure their death wasn’t in vain…
…not allow myself to live fully… …honor my loved one who died..
…pay for my ancestors’ wrongdoings… …finally make things right…
…suffer for you… …relieve you of your suffering…
…never stop working… …stay loyal to those who came before…
Being Small  
…take up as little space as possible… …not be a burden to my family or society…
…not let myself dream big… …not be stupid or waste my energy on false hopes…
…not achieve more than others… …not make other people feel bad about themselves…
…believe I have no power… …finally get some rest…
…not be as big as I am called to be… …be in integrity with folks with less systemic power than me…
Avoiding Closeness  
…never let anyone see me cry… …not let people take gratification in my vulnerability…
…never let anyone know I’m afraid… …not get taken advantage of…
…never trust anyone… …never be betrayed or heartbroken again…
…never receive care from others… …preserve my autonomy…
…not tell people what’s really going on… …keep people from seeing what’s actually wrong with me…
…never let myself be fully seen… …prevent myself from people not wanting to see me or realizing I’m no good…
…stay hypervigilant… …be ready for whatever might be coming…
…vacate the present moment… …manage my anxiety and not have to feel…
People Pleasing  
…put everyone’s needs before my own…

 

…be a good mother/father/daughter/ son/wife/husband/etc….
…say yes to everything people ask of me… …never be alone…
Self-Compassion  
…turn away from myself… …not to feel my pain…
…never offer myself warmth or care… …protect myself from vulnerability, mistakes, and all the ramifications of all my possible mistakes…
Unrealistic Expectations  
…be as big as I possibly can be and take charge of everything… …hold it all together…
…believe I should be able to manage far more than anyone else… …survive…
…not believe that time limits me… …believe in abundance and not comply with capitalist thinking…
…know the unknowable… …prevent bad things from happening…
…get everything done… …be able to finally rest…
…expend every ounce of my energy… …make the world a more just place…
…never make mistakes… …protect myself from rejection and disaster…
…never feel helpless or powerless… …hold up the weight of the world and not it let crashing down…
…never give up… …not be a loser…
…have all my shit figured out before I try to help anyone… …protect people from harm…
…mask the fact that I still don’t have all my shit figured out… …put a roof over my family’s heads…
Shame & Self-Blame  
…judge myself harshly… …preempt rejection from others…
…not like myself… …not make others reject me by being too boastful…
…never believe my efforts are good enough… …not become complacent or resigned…
…believe I’m “too much”… …avoid falling on my face and doing things that might get me rejected…
…believe I don’t matter and don’t belong… …protect myself from being let down again…
…blame myself… …hold onto hope that I have the power to change my situation…
…compare myself with others… …make my mother/father proud of me…
Do No Harm Vows  
…do no harm… …be a good person…
…never be wrong… …not deserve abandonment…
False Bodhisattva Vows  
…take complete responsibility for solving the world’s problems… …atone for the sins of my ancestors…
…do everything in my power to make things better for my community… …honor the sacrifices of my ancestors…
…sacrifice my own life… …save the world…
…live my life as a constant protest… …say fuck you to the assholes in power…
…carry the grief of others… …make room for somebody else to breathe…

How do you feel after reading through the list?

Sometimes, reading this list can feel overwhelming. Other times, it can feel exhilarating to notice the stories and agreements that are holding us back. You might also find yourself itching to release yourself from the bonds of these contracts.

Here’s what I want you to know:

The most important step to releasing unconscious contracts is becoming aware of them.

Just like with any other story, when we bring our previously unconscious contracts to the light of our conscious minds, we increase our freedom to choose whether we’re ready to divest our attention from them and give ourselves permission to choose a new path.

If you suspect that an unconscious contract may be holding you back from honoring your needs and taking steps toward aligning your life with your values, I invite you to try naming your unconscious contract.

To do so, play with filling in the blanks of this statement, either writing this out in your journal or saying the words out loud.

  1. I (your name)…
  2. solemnly swear to (Who did you make this contract do? Most of the time, we make contracts to our essential selves—the core essence of ourselves that we want so badly to protect. But sometimes we make them to a parent, community, the Universe, or someone else. If nothing else occurs to you, fill in the blank with “my essential self.”)…
  3. that I will… (What did you unconsciously promise to do?)
  4. in order to… (Why did you make this contract? How does it protect you or keep you safe?)
  5. no matter the cost to myself or the people I love

If you feel a bit lost, look at the list above for first-draft ideas.

Look for a sense of resonance, like a charge of aliveness, rightness, of-course-ness, or knowing in your body. When we find words for what’s been held unconscious and let our bodies know that we’ve received their message, our bodies can begin to relax.

Two: Ask your essential self if it’s ready to release the contract.

If you’ve named a contract, ask your essential self—Essential self, did you hear this vow? Does it serve you/me? Do you want me to keep it? Are you ready to release me from this vow?

Alternatively, if you made the promise to someone else, such as the Universe or a parent, imagine that you’re in conversation with them and ask them if they are ready to release you from the contract.

If you do not yet feel ready to be released from the contract, don’t push yourself.

We cling to old contracts when we’re trying to protect ourselves from horrible events happening again. So when we feel attached to a contract, it’s usually a sign that some trauma needs healing and that additional support would be helpful. It can take seconds to years to release an unconscious contract.

Three: Release the contract.

If you sense that your essential self or the person to whom you made the vow is ready to release you from the contract, imagine looking at yourself through the eyes of our essential self or the person you made the contract to and say the following words from their perspective:

“(Your name), I release you from this vow, and I revoke this contract, and instead, I give you my blessing to (fill in the blank).”

Four: Replace the old contract with a new blessing.

The blessing might sound like:

  • “I bless you to easily access all the courage you need to set your to-do list aside and go play and feel good in your body.”
  • “I give you my blessing to not worry about saving money for a little bit, and instead, focus on working toward your long-term vision.”
  • “I give you the blessing to dance to the music, cook delicious food, read novels, and, even, watch tv.”

Notice how you feel in your body after releasing the contract and receiving the blessing, and take in any glimmers of warmth, freedom, or new knowing.

Then, get curious about what next step is possible now.

May you find the freedom to be your full self.


[1] Neuroscience educator, Sarah Peyton, coined the term unconscious contracts and teaches about them in her book Your Resonant Self Workbook.

[2] These examples were inspired by similar grids in Your Resonant Self Workbook. To learn Peyton’s entire framework and see more examples, I highly recommend reading her entire book. Sarah Peyton. Your Resonant Self Workbook: From Self-Sabotage to Self-Care. (New York, NY: WW Norton, 2021.)

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