Why do people flake out?

 The truth is, the spontaneous, "free-spirit" behavior known as "flaking out" isn't really all that benign.

Story highlights

  • We all flake out sometimes, but it can go too far
  • "Free spirits" may lack conscientiousness
  • Ignoring your friend's constant flake-out can harm the relationship

The rumor: People who flake out are just scatterbrained; it's OK to cut them some slack

We all have that friend who's a bit of a flake. You know which one I mean: the one who RSVPs for events, then cancels at the last minute... or sometimes just doesn't show up at all. The friend who promises to help you with that presentation/bake sale/dinner party, then "forgets" at the 11th hour. It's annoying, but you usually let it slide. After all, you've flaked out a few times yourself, and it's not like your friend's doing it on purpose to hurt you. He (or she) is just a little bit absentminded, and can't help being that way. Right?

upwave: Why do we misplace things?

The verdict: Friends who flake out too often are disrespecting your time -- and sabotaging themselves

We don't want to think that flaky friends are being malicious (even on a subconscious level), but the truth is, the spontaneous, "free-spirit" behavior known as "flaking out" isn't really all that benign. It actually reveals a serious lack of conscientiousness -- and there are a few reasons why someone could be acting this way.

"Some people just can't say no, so they say yes in the beginning, then back out," says Andrea Bonior, a clinical psychologist at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and author of "The Friendship Fix." "It's a classic: They feel guilty saying no and they're afraid of conflict, so they just agree to everything... But you know [that] later on, they're just going to be too busy or too stressed, and get out of it with some lame excuse."

upwave: 3 ways to master the art of saying 'no'

In most cases, flakes have poor time-management skills and think they can do everything in an illogically short time period. "A lot of people overestimate their abilities," observes Steven Berglas, a psychotherapist and author of "Your Own Worst Enemy: Understanding the Paradox of Self-Defeating Behavior." "They overburden themselves and don't leave time to be prepared for critical tasks, so they fail. It's self-handicapping behavior."

But flaky behavior doesn't just hurt the flakes. It often indicates that they don't respect your time -- or even that they secretly feel their time is more important than yours. "These people are a little more self-centered and rarely put themselves in the shoes of the host," notes Bonior.

upwave: How to create healthy boundaries

Ignoring constant flakiness can do a friendship more harm than good in the long run (when someone's not dependable, it's hard to trust them). But before you confront a flaky friend, it's important to figure out whether he or she is an unwitting flake, or whether something darker is going on. "You have to look at if the person is consistent," says Berglas. "If a person is always late, then it's not noxious or intentional. But when they're only sometimes late to make you wait for them, and only when the situation doesn't directly benefit them... then they're trying to establish power. That's being manipulative and aggressive."

It's not all bad news, though: Flaky friends, like good wine, often improve with time, Berglas says. Age teaches them that if they don't change their flaky ways, bad things will happen (e.g., their friends won't include them in future plans). The key is for the flake to realize they need to invest in their community and family by being conscientious and keeping to their commitments.

upwave: CHALLENGE: Get over a grudge already!

When it comes to perpetual flakes -- those who never realize they have a problem -- you may want to stage an intervention. But remember: In most cases, flakes aren't consciously trying to disrespect you. So take care when setting them straight, or you could ruin your friendship. Bonior suggests turning the conversation inwards and focusing on how their lateness disrupts your life and makes you feel undervalued. Then heap praise on them when they do show up on time. A little positive reinforcement now could save you a lot of frustration in the future.

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