Why do people make plans or accept invitations, only to cancel them at the last minute? It’s so annoying!

This question has vexed me for years, largely because I’m one of those annoying plan cancellers.

I’ve bought expensive tickets for events I was hugely excited to attend, RSVPd yes to parties where I’d get to see beloved friends, even been the organiser for get-togethers of favourite people.

But as the date approached I’d get sick, or manifest some other (genuine) emergency, or give away my ticket, or, if no-one else was affected, simply not turn up.

Only recently have I worked out what’s going on, and identified the stages I go through as I make and eventually break plans.  So I thought I’d share my little insights in the hope that they save you some personal drama.

The Introvert’s 5 Stages Of Cancelling Plans

Stage 1: Commitment.

Recently a friend invited me to his birthday dinner.

‘Let me know where and I’ll be there.’ I texted back, upbeat and confident that I’d follow through on this simple and apparently pleasant thing.

But it was the start of a cycle I’d experienced many times before. A more observant person would have recognised the warm-up to this familiar dance.

Not I. I would be quickstepping mindlessly for ages before recognising the moves.

The problem, as I’ve now come to realise, is that Future Me is an extravert. Future Me accepts invitations with gay abandon. Future Me suggests get-togethers when flush with affection for her friends.

Future Me is genuinely excited by the prospect of these outings. She cannot imagine any change of mind. Her desire to go is unequivocal. The further in the future, the more delightful the picture she plays in her mind. Heads thrown back in laughter, backs slapped. Happiness.

Of course Future Me never consults with Present Me, the one who must actually turn up. And Present Me is an extreme introvert.

As time passes and Present Me starts to emerge, things take a turn.

Stage 2: Seeking Reassurance About The Event

Once Present Me rears her head, there is often an attempt to gather more information.

Questions of guest list and location are asked, in an effort to lock down the style of the event and begin mental preparation.

Where will it take place? Who will be there? How many people? How many strangers? How crowded, how noisy, how likely the need for small talk?

It’s important to rule out some of the more alarming possibilities. Phrases that instantly raise the introvert’s blood pressure include communal restaurant tables and organised group activities.

If the guest list is small and the venue conducive to genuine and stimulating conversation, then the introvert is reassured. At this stage they may exit the Cancel cycle and proceed to actually attend the event.

But if the venue is large or conversation with over-friendly strangers likely or if noise will limit conversation to small talk then the introvert will become skittish.

At this point they may start to entertain fantasies of requiring surgery or being conscripted to top secret government work in order to have to stay home.

There is now a gradual coming to grips with the reality of the event, and a transition to the next stage.

Stage 3: Mild Panic

As the introvert enters this stage they will seek evidence that the event may not be proceeding.

Often they’ll use overcompensating joviality or an excess of punctuation and/or emoji in an attempt to hide the subterfuge. They might text:

Hey are you excited about your party?!? 🙂

In fact this is a veiled attempt to find out if there’s any chance the event will be cancelled. They’re hoping to trigger a response along the lines of:

Actually I’ve had to cancel because [some benign reason].

The now slightly desperate introvert may even hope their message will subliminally manipulate the organiser to cancel the event:

Now that I think of it, it’s probably a dumb idea to have a dinner for my birthday and invite all my friends. Your jovial enquiry has made me see the light. I shall cancel at once.

If notifications of cancellation are not forthcoming, then the introvert will shift into the next phase.

This transition is often swift and violent.

Stage 4: Blind Terror and Frantic Attempts At Escape

At this point the introvert will resemble a deer caught in headlights. Immobilised, terrified, having no idea where to run.

They will see their situation clearly for the first time. The reality will dawn that they are well and truly cornered. Not only did they commit wholeheartedly to the occasion at the start, but they’ve now further trapped themselves by showing great anticipation.

Two possibilities will present themselves to the introvert:

1. Get sick

No I don’t mean say you’re sick, I mean actually get sick.

This was my default strategy for many years before I understood that Future Me is an extravert and will happily fill my diary with commitments that I simply do not have the psychological resources to see through.

Once in Stage 4 I’d wake up with a sore throat and fever. I’d go through boxes of Aloe Vera tissues, miss days of the gym and work. Quite often I would have the flu for two weeks.

When my near-delirium meant cancelling, my relief would be palpable. But I still didn’t, in those days, connect the only-before-social-events-illness with avoidance.

Finally the pattern become so ridiculously obvious that Craig commented on it, and left me mentally racing back through years of social engagements thinking, huh.

As often happens when a psychological pattern switches from unconscious to conscious, things shifted, and I’m happy to say I no longer use this strategy.

2. Fess Up

Instead, over time I’ve developed the willingness to explain that I’m hopeless at parties or big gatherings or whatever, and to ask to be excused.

This has taken a lot of personal growth, as I haven’t always had the clarity to understand what was going on for me, or the courage to be honest about it.

But I have very cool friends. Invariably, once I’ve plucked up my courage, crafted my explanation, parsed my explanatory text through a couple of beta readers, and sent my message, the response is warm and understanding.

Stage 5: Cancellation And Relief

The final stage of cancelling plans for the introvert is sheer, beautiful relief. Usually celebrated with the psychological equivalent of a magnum of champagne: an evening of carefully curated Netflix viewing. Possibly while drinking an actual magnum of champagne.

Recognising the cycle of making plans, panicking, and cancelling plans has been life-changing for me.

A major turning point was a Christmas event I went to a few years ago. A number of my friends were going to be there, so I RSVPd yes! and bought a fab dress and purchased my ticket.

The closer it got, the more dread I felt, but I focussed on the fact that I’d see my lovely friends.

Once I got there though, I found a loud, crowded venue. It was impossible to have a conversation – at least for me. I had to yell, which I hate, and I said ‘pardon’ so many times that eventually I just gave up and started nodding periodically, having no idea what I was agreeing with.

After about twenty minutes I couldn’t take it any more. I snuck out, found a taxi, got the driver to stop at KFC, messaged Craig to say I was miserable and coming home with a bucket of chicken. As I cradled my bucket and inhaled the secret herbs and spices in the taxi, I realised, this is who I am. I don’t like disappointing people but I just can’t be different and it’s so exhausting to try.

I still occasionally fall into to the trap of letting that socially promiscuous trollop Future Me commit me to too many or too large engagements, or too many of them too close together. As I did recently with my friend’s birthday dinner.

But my friends are pretty cool, and it’s usually no surprise to them when I pull out.

And then we make a smaller, more intimate date.

And those I always keep.

Addendum: Should There Be A Stage 6?

When I look back on this pattern, I feel guilt is suffused through every stage from 2 onwards. It’s part of the anguish of the entire cycle.

But when I recently shared this article on Facebook, many people suggested there should be a separate Stage 6: Guilt.

What do you think?