A real text I get from my roommate: “iiiii think ima skip this birthday dinner.” She wants to bail on her plans, but first, she needs my permission. Inexplicably. The fact that she’s texting me tells me that she’s already on an express train to Cancel Town.
As she does, my roommate’s prepared a laundry list of reasons why should she bail—but whether it’s the long journey to the Lower East Side or stomach cramps that’s keeping her back this time, it truly doesn’t matter to me. “You don’t need my permission. If you’re going to ditch then just ditch,” I write.
I understand why she needs the reassurance, though. Even in an easy-to-bail society where canceling plans is a click away, we still feel guilty when it comes to flaking on the bigger things. Those $60 price fix birthday brunches, the girl’s night out with your college friend, the engagement party where you’ll know no one and are minus a plus-one—it’s those more complicated matters in which we’ll resort to reassurance seeking, an anxious person’s go-to move when we need to know everything will be okay.
I should know. Because as much as I’m annoyed by my roommate’s tendency to come to me for permission to cancel, I do the same thing. When I have the urge to bail, you best believe there’s a committee I appeal to—and typically, the person I seek “advice” from depends on the event and how much (or little) I already know I want to go. Many a leadership coach and C-suite executive has professed the value of having a “personal board of directors” or “advisory board,” a handful of people you can count on for guidance. According to Sabina Nawaz, a global CEO coach, writing for Harvard Business Review, “There are three types of people you should include. First, you need fans—people who support you and will deliver tough feedback with kindness and good intent. Second, recruit potential sponsors—senior leaders who can advocate for you when it’s time for a promotion. Third, include at least one critic. These people may be the toughest to approach, but they can be the most valuable.” My advisory board comprises all three.
Rather than seeking validation for the flimsy excuses we use to justify our less-than-gold-star-worthy behavior, we need to assess the friendships themselves
If it’s an event where the right thing to do is to show up, I call up my mom, my critic. Her wise counsel and heavy Catholic guilt-tripping will have me saying, “Fine, fine! I’ll go,” in no time. Or if it’s a gathering where I should go but a financial or travel barrier makes it prime for rescheduling, I email my ever-so-slightly older friend Gaby. Acting as my sponsor, she can properly assess and advocate for whether I should suck it up and spend $15 on cocktails, or fake a last minute stomach flu. And if it’s something where the stipulations feel unreasonable and my appearance doesn’t mean a damn, clearly my roommate is on speed dial. She’s my biggest flaking fan.
That’s the weird thing, though. Even when we ask for someone’s flake approval, we already know the answer we’re looking for.
So what’s at the core of this guilt? Are we afraid of being labeled a bad friend? Are we worried about the FOMO we’ll get after the fact? And when it comes to birthday dinners especially, are we really just upset because, deep down, we’re afraid they’ll drop the ball on our next big celebration? In Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, the professor of business and psychology marks the rule of reciprocation as the ingrained-since-childhood belief that one act of generosity must be repaid by another. So if you give someone the gift of flaking for their birthday, are they going to shoot that “Sorry, stuck at the office!” text back to you on yours? (And on a Saturday?)
I have no effing idea, but here’s my take. Rather than seeking validation for the flimsy excuses we use to justify our less-than-gold-star-worthy behavior, we need to assess the friendships themselves. Look at the crux of why you’re not following through with these plans—are you genuinely too overwhelmed for them, or are you really just trimming the fat of your adult social circle? Neither is necessarily evil, but that’s the one thing to actually identify.
Otherwise, own your right to flake now and then—we know the value of self-care and that nobody will crucify us for wanting to take a mental break—and realize that what matters is making sure to follow through on that reschedule. Or do what you want, you don’t need my permission.
Ready to lean in to your JOMO? Here’s what happened when one editor canceled all her plans for an entire summer. And here are 22 small but mighty acts of self-care to try.
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