We’re living in a time when being an introvert, wanting to be alone, loving Netflix and your couch, and canceling plans has reached meme status. While I wouldn’t quite say it’s trendy to opt out and stay in, the tweets, T-shirts, mugs, and art aren’t exactly discouraging this behavior either. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing! I love that we’re regularly being reminded to take our own needs seriously! This can be especially reassuring for folks dealing with mental and physical health issues that zap their energy, or for homebodies who care a lot about their sleep schedule (hi, me). The memes (and the fact that cancelling via text at the last minute is almost always an option) can make it very easy to bail without giving it a second thought. Which, to be honest, I don’t love! (I’m a big believer in giving everything a second thought!!!)
Canceling plans sits at the intersection of showing up for yourself and showing up for other people. On one hand, skipping a social event can often be a much-needed self-care move. When you know in your heart that you don’t have it in you to socialize, and are confident that doing it anyway is going to make you feel worse, it can be a huge relief to just let yourself opt out. And so often, canceling is perfectly fine, and the other person won’t mind or think much of it. (They might even be relieved; I’ve definitely been in that position before.) And sometimes, cancelling plans is the best way to be a good friend—after all, you can’t fully show up for other people if you’re not taking care of yourself, and regularly attending hangouts when you aren’t up for it isn’t good for anyone.
On the other hand, sometimes showing up for other people means literally showing up for them, and it can be frustrating to be on the receiving end of a cancellation—particularly if you’re the one who arranged your schedule around the event, declined other invitations for that day, were really looking forward to the get-together, or are dealing with a person who regularly flakes. Canceled plans can be inconsiderate and TBH disrespectful, especially if you’re dealing with a repeat offender.
That said, sometimes you just need to bail. You’re coming down with a cold or emotionally drained or you have to work late—whatever. It happens, and that’s OK. So, the question for anyone who prioritizes Me Time but also cares a lot about their friendships and their friends’ feelings is: How do you know when, if ever, it’s OK to cancel?
Should you cancel or nah?
If you’re a people pleaser who is trying to get better at practicing self-care, here are some questions to ask yourself the next time you’re struggling to decide whether or not to cancel.
How are you actually feeling right now? What is it that’s making you want to cancel?
It’s easy to think, Ugggggghhhhh, I don’t want to goooooooooo, without really knowing why you want to opt out of the hangout. So start by taking inventory of your feelings, and try to figure out what specifically you need in this moment. Getting to the root of your desire to cancel can help you determine whether skipping the event will actually solve your problem, and decide whether being social will do more harm or good.
If you don’t cancel how would you feel during and after the get-together?
Will you be able to be truly present—i.e., fully focused on your friend, with your phone put away? Or will you feel stressed, impatient, and/or distracted? Will you feel happy and energized the next day…or will you resent the friend for inviting you in the first place, or for the time and money you spent on the outing? Be honest about whether you’re going to be able to give your friend your best (or best-ish) self in this moment. If you’re going to be there physically but will be on on another planet emotionally and mentally, that’s a strong sign you should cancel or reschedule.
If you bail, how will you feel?
It’s also worth taking a minute to consider how you’ll feel during and after cancelling. If you opt out, will you actually relax/study/rest/do chores with that time, or will you just feel guilty and putz around on Instagram instead? Will you spend more time and energy trying to make it up to the person later than you would if you just went? If your goal is to make a decision confidently and fully own your choice, thinking about it from different angles like this can be super helpful.
Is there anything you wish you’d done differently early on?
Perhaps when you were making these plans, you told yourself you’d feel more enthusiastic about roller skating or amateur improv or music festivals by the time the big day rolled around…but now that day is tomorrow and wow, yeah, you still hate all of those things and really want to cancel. Which I get! I used to find myself in that position regularly! That’s why I’m such a big believer in just saying no to invitations when you’re asked.
If you determine that you should have just declined at the outset, or spoken up about your needs and preferences sooner, consider making a deal with yourself: you can opt out this time, but the next time a similar invitation comes your way, you have to be honest and say no up front—even if it’s hard, and even if you don’t have a “good” reason. You owe it to yourself and to your friends to do that work.
Is this more of a Them problem than a You problem?
If you’re inclined to bail because you feel terrible every time you hang out with this person or group of people, that’s…very good information to have! In that case, maybe don’t just consider canceling these plans; consider whether this relationship is actually worth your time in the first place.
You OK, buddy?
If you’re regularly canceling plans (or just seriously considering it) because you feel tired, overwhelmed, or just not up for it, do yourself—and your pals—a solid and consider whether something deeper is going on. Losing interest in socializing and being perpetually exhausted can be a sign of mental or physical health issues, so it might be wise to start keeping track of these instances in a journal or an app. Note who the plans were with, what feelings made you want to cancel, and how you felt after the fact (regardless of whether you canceled or attended). Even if you don’t go that far, you could still look at your calendar for the past few months and do some self-reflection. If you find that you’re canceling more plans than you’re keeping or you feel drained all the time, it might be time to talk to a healthcare provider or therapist.
How to cancel plans graciously
If you do decide to cancel, it’s not the end of the world. Seriously! Sure, your friend might be bummed out, but I’ve found it’s helpful to think of this as the natural and correct response from them, even if you definitely made the right choice for yourself in this moment—i.e., you’re not wrong to cancel, and they’re not wrong to be kind of disappointed. That said, putting a little thought into how you cancel is what will keep cancelled plans from turning into five-alarm friendship fire. Here are some tips to keep in mind.
Think about whether you can adjust the plans in any way.
More often than not, our friends just want to see us, and don’t care about going to a fancy restaurant or doing a cool activity. So think about what you would be up for doing, and consider offering that as an alternative to your pal instead of outright bailing. You might say something like this:
“Hey, friend, I’m completely exhausted and broke right now, and am honestly feeling very stressed about our plans for tomorrow night. I really want to catch up with you, though—would you be up for coming to my place and letting me cook you dinner instead of us going all the way to New Jersey? And we could still plan to go to Medieval Times next month, once I’ve finished this big project and my bonus paycheck has hit.”
Even if they say they’d rather just cancel, most people will really appreciate the fact that you asked them to be a part of the decision-making process. It communicates that you genuinely care about them, but still know how to set boundaries and honor your own needs.
Try to be as honest as possible about why you’re canceling.
Y’all: don’t say your car broke down if you’re actually hungover as hell. A lot of the time people can tell when you’re bullshitting them, and an obvious fib can do more damage than the reality you feel a tad embarrassed about. Remember that being honest is an act of vulnerability, and that vulnerability can actually strengthen a friendship.
Know that canceling means you’ll immediately earn the title Captain Rescheduling and the responsibility that comes with it.
If at all possible, reschedule in the same conversation so the friend knows you are still genuinely interested in hanging out with them. If they don’t confirm or they seem kind of disinterested, follow up within a week to try to plan something new.
Acknowledge that canceling, especially at the last minute, can cost your friend time, money, and energy. That might mean Venmoing them for, say, the cost of their ticket, or the cancellation fee they’re now on the hook for. If it was a group gathering where you were responsible for bringing something (wine, dessert, etc.), offer to drop it off anyway, or send it with another friend if that’s feasible. And always make this part of your initial cancellation message. (So: “I’m so sorry to have to do this, but I’m not going to be able to make it to our mani-pedi appointment tomorrow. The salon’s website says we’ll be charged a $ 20 fee, which I will obviously pay.”)
Own what you should have done differently.
Most of us just want to feel like the person at fault for our minor inconvenience or disappointment is taking the situation seriously—and showing that you’ve done some self-reflection can really help communicate that. So you might want to say something like, “I’ve realized that when I’m this busy with work, I’m probably never going to be able to make weeknight hangouts happen, but I didn’t want to admit that when you invited me, and I apologize for that.”
Make sure your tone/apology is appropriate for the nature of the event.
There’s a huge difference between asking to reschedule a coffee date with a coworker pal, and telling your best friend you won’t be coming to their wedding next week. If you’re overly apologetic for a fairly minor cancellation (e.g., “I’m the absolute WORST. Do you totally hate me? Can you ever forgive me?”), you run the risk of making your buddy feel like they need to comfort you. (It also just comes off as pretty insincere.) But being really casual and nonplussed about a kind of significant cancellation isn’t a good look either. If you’re tempted to overcompensate (or be rather dismissive), it might be because you’re actually feeling a bit vulnerable or uncomfortable about your choice. While that’s totally normal, it might be a good idea to take a moment to center yourself and really own your decision before you talk to your friend. That’s what’ll allow you to operate from a sincere, confident, conscientious, and emotionally honest place when you do ultimately cancel.
Know your audience.
Listen: I don’t know your life. You know your people and their feelings about cancelled plans better than anyone, and the best thing you can do is trust your gut and communicate the cancellation in the way that makes the most sense for this particular friendship.
One final tip: embrace quasi-spontaneous plans
I can’t believe that I—a person who would schedule every pee a month out if it were possible—am about to say this, but…I am beginning to suspect that scheduling hangouts too far in advance might actually be contributing to our collective desire to bail. I get that scheduling weeks ahead of time can make it easier to make and keep plans. And, of course, when you and your friends are busy people (or will, say, need to hire a baby-sitter), this kind of organization is a necessity. But I’m also realizing that a lot can change in a few weeks! The giddy optimism you felt when texting all your friends to make happy hour plans on a gorgeous day in late October can feel foreign come mid-November when, suddenly, Thanksgiving is apparently??? next week???? and it’s been raining for 10 days straight. The more time that passes between making plans and doing the thing, the more time you have to dread the hangout—which is a bummer, even if you ultimately go and enjoy yourself!
With this in mind, I’ve started experimenting with less advance planning. While making impromptu (or impromptu-ish) plans won’t always work out, there’s something to be said for occasionally reaching out to friends a day or two in advance to do something fairly low-key (like a quick pre-work coffee, lunch, or a super casual at-home hangout where no one is expected to clean their place first). As long as you go into it with full awareness that your friend might not be willing or able to make it happen (so: add that “I know it’s last minute!” disclaimer, and don’t hold it against them if they can’t make it work), it can be worth a shot.
Turns out, this approach is actually more chill and effective than I thought! There’s something about it that feels really wholesome and good—intimate, exciting, reminiscent of college. I’ve even gotten wild and sent an “I’ll be in your neighborhood text” a few times recently! What can I say? Sometimes, the spirit moves you, the calendar stars align, and you are able to have one of those magical, unstructured, unplanned hangouts that is very much aided by the fact that no one had time to overthink things. It’s the exact kind of adrenaline rush that a person who loves their planner and hates adrenaline rushes can come to appreciate.
Rachel Wilkerson Miller is the author of Dot Journaling: A Practical Guide and a former senior editor at BuzzFeed. She is currently working on her second book, The Art of Showing Up: A Guide to Taking Care of Yourself and Other People (The Experiment, Spring 2020). You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram, and read her blog here.
The content of each “A Little Better” column is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of SELF or SELF editors.