There’s nothing like a tax return to serve you some harsh truths about your spending. Combing through 12 months of receipts and bank statements, I uncovered an alarming fact. Last year I spent £3,000 on plans I cancelled at the last minute. I’m a serial flake who says yes to invitations for fear of missing out – but chronic social anxiety often prevents me from following through with plans.
Flakiness is an increasingly common problem, with a recent survey from Privilege Insurance finding that more than a quarter of Brits admit to saying yes to a social invitation despite having no intention of attending. We’ve all cancelled plans for valid reasons but some people find it impossible to decline an invitation, even if they know they’re probably not going to make it.
My flakiness comes from a place of fear, not malice. My social anxiety started in my teens and looks like shyness to a casual observer. I used alcohol to help with my social phobia, enveloping myself in a boozy blanket of fake confidence, but since I quit drinking in 2017, I’ve found my anxiety in social situations worsening. I become gripped by a panic that leaves me near mute and unable to make eye contact. My heart races, palms sweat, and I struggle to regulate my breathing.
In early sobriety I threw myself into socialising, determined to prove that abstinence hadn’t made me 'boring'. But every accepted invitation was accompanied by increasing dread in the lead up to the event and if I made it out of the house, I’d feel sick and shaky. Rather than talk to my friends about how scared I was of social situations, I began to regularly cancel plans.
I thought that the more money I spent, the more likely I was to commit. I’d buy train tickets, pay deposits for meals and purchase non-refundable hotel rooms to convince myself that this time would be different. I’d make excuses at the last possible moment, often citing a work emergency or a migraine. Friends were sympathetic at first but some began to suspect I was lying and stopped inviting me out altogether.
Technology has enabled the rise of the flaky friend. It's a lot easier to text someone to let them know you're cancelling plans than to tell them over the phone. I realise this is dehumanising and I know that every time I don’t show up for my friends, I’m damaging our relationship.
When the stark reality of spending so much money on cancelled plans hit home, I realised it was time to seek professional help for my anxiety and to open up to friends about how I was feeling. Thankfully my friends have been supportive, and only wished I’d told them sooner.
When people flake it raises a lot of questions. Most importantly: why? Is social pressure to blame? I spoke to psychotherapist Claire Goodwin-Fee to find out.
What do you think is behind the upsurge in flakiness?
A common issue in the age of social media is 'comparisonitis'. We are often bombarded by images and information showing us how we and our lives should look. We are presented with an unachievable level of perfection touted as the norm. We then compare ourselves unfavourably to others, find ourselves lacking and this can create low self-esteem, leading to cancelling plans because we don’t feel worthy.
Why do we feel pressured to say yes to events?
People are then often afraid of others not liking them and don’t want to say no. They fear being rejected if they are deemed antisocial or not part of the collective group. They don’t want to say no for fear of upsetting someone.
As a society we are not very good at having what we perceive as difficult conversations with other people, yet if we were to tackle the situation then and there, it would be less stressful.
If flaking is induced by anxiety or depression, is it always the best thing to opt out of the occasion?
Not always, because we run the risk of feeling isolated, which will probably increase our sense of failure and further lower our own thoughts about self-worth and esteem. Perhaps speak to a good friend and explain how you are feeling and come up with a practical plan together.
If you suffer from social anxiety, what’s the best way to broach the subject with friends?
You could message them and let them know that you’d love to come to the event but struggle with anxiety. Maybe explain a little of what that feels like, say that you wanted them to know as you would really appreciate their support in coming to the event. Ask if perhaps you can travel together, meet outside or have a code word to use should you need to escape. Write a list of practical ways in which other people can support you and talk about it with your friends.