Imagine your friend invites you to go to a party that is absolutely not going to be your scene. The problem is, they're dying to go. In the past when you've bailed on plans, they didn't speak to you for what felt like an eternity. You really don't want them to be pissed at you, so you begrudgingly agree to go to this stupid party, even though you have dozens of things you'd rather do. Sound familiar? This type of scenario is often called "fragilizing," and it's pretty common in relationships, particularly among people with anxiety.
Basically, fragilizing means you're walking on eggshells or being overly accommodating to avoid hurting another person. You can do this with a friend, a romantic partner, even a child, or a pet. While fragilizing might seem like an effective way to fend off an argument in the moment, or a selfless way to handle conflict, it typically ends up back-firing for both parties, explains Debra Kissen, PhD, clinical director of Light on Anxiety, a cognitive behavioural therapy treatment center in Chicago.
Most of the time, people act this way because they're worried that someone is too sensitive to respond to disappointment, although often this is far from the truth. People with anxiety have a tendency to jump to worst-case scenarios, in this case, that your friend would hate you forever over some minor slight like skipping a party. But here's the gag: "We're doing it to minimize the other person’s discomfort, in theory, but in reality, we’re doing it to minimize our own discomfort," Dr. Kissen explains. Deep down, it probably upsets you to be on the receiving end of their discomfort, she says. So, by treading lightly, we think we're saving ourselves from this unwanted outcome.
Over time, this turns into avoiding topics or situations that you actually really care about just for the sake of skipping an uncomfortable conversation, Dr. Kissen says. And that's a bad thing. "It leads to not having certain important needs met for the individual doing the fragilizing," she says. "It doesn’t challenge one to learn to cope with the distress, and to learn to move through a situation that's complicated or uncomfortable to get to the other side. So, nobody really wins." To be clear, there's nothing wrong with you if you're prone to fragilizing, and it doesn't necessarily make you a "pushover" either. But it's just not the most effective way to move through pain points in a relationship.
If you're determined to stop doing this, it's important to start small, and choose one specific area or relationship where you want to improve, Dr. Kissen says. For example, if you always tell your partner you "don't care where you eat," even though you actually do care and have an opinion, you could start by voicing your thoughts in the moment. "Pick really specific ways to work that muscle of learning to tolerate other people’s emotional distress," she suggests. Chances are, people might be upset every now and then — but that's really not the end of the world. "See that person as a harmless but tantrum-ing human," she says. "It's not anything bigger than that." (Of course, there should be a big disclaimer here that if someone responds in a way that makes you feel unsafe, this sort of strategy doesn't apply.)
Ultimately, the opposite of fragilizing is being assertive, which we could all stand to do. In life and relationships, sometimes you have to have a tough conversation or deal with a disappointment in order to grow.
In short, your friend will understand if you cancel.