Fellow wellness seekers, I want to use this space to have a serious chat about “cancel culture.”

But before we get going on that, I want to be clear: I’m not talking about “cancel culture” in the sense we’re used to hearing about it in popular media, whereby a celebrity or public figure gets dropped from the conversation due to a variety of social and political faux pas.

No, I am literally talking about cancelling – as in, deciding not to do something you initially said you’d do – and the surrounding culture that has somehow made cancelling okay, if not trendy, to do.

Consider this scenario: you make dinner plans with a friend a couple of weeks out.  Reservations are made, timings are confirmed – and then the day before you’re set to meet, she cancels.  Worse?  A few hours.  Worse still?  You’re already en route.

Most likely, she’ll pipe in with some sort of ironclad excuse – sick kids, working late, mixed up the date/time, we all know the usual suspects – and you’ll be left frustrated and wondering why you even bother to make plans in the first place.

On the flip side – maybe you’re the chronic canceler.  You make plans that sound good when they’re a month away, but as they draw nearer, you find yourself looking for any reasonable way to get out of them.  Anxiety might be one reason.  Overbooking, people-pleasing, FOMO[1] and burnout are other common reasons. But at the heart of all of it lies the question:

Why – and when? – did it become okay to just bail on our commitments?

As a personal trainer, I am particularly sensitive to cancellations because they have been a recurrent problem – yet also a consistent mainstay – throughout my career.  When I was just starting out, I gave clients the benefit of the doubt more often than not.  Sure, you’ve got a flat tire.  I understand, you’ve suddenly developed a migraine.  Of course, your meeting (which was mysteriously scheduled just before our session) ran long.  And each time a cancellation happened, my income, schedule, and sanity took a hit.

After a few years in the industry, I changed my cancellation policy to 24-hour notice with half payment.  Miraculously, the migraines and long meetings happened far less frequently.  My current policy is 12 hours’ cancellation with full payment, and believe it or not, I’ve heard about fewer flat tires and sudden schedule changes than ever before.  I am even considering moving my policy to 8 hours simply to see if I can “influence the universe” to keep freeing up clients for my workouts…ahem.

I admit I sound a little snarky here.  But you catch my drift.  When disincentives – particularly financial – exist with external enforcement, cancellation becomes a far less appealing option. People are left to confront their own excuses for what they (most often) are: self-rationalised bail-outs.  A fellow coach I respect once said that “excuses are just challenges we refuse to meet,” and I couldn’t agree more.  Unless it’s a genuine emergency – which except for the unluckiest among us, we can generally say are few and far between – the choice to cancel is exactly that.  A conscious choice.

Harper’s Bazaar published an article[2] about “the culture of bailing” and why cancelling plans has become so appealing, and the conclusion was basically this: we have evolved, via technology and social norms, to embrace a “lack of felt responsibility.”  It’s far easier to toss out a text or respond to a group email at the last minute than it would be to actually pick up the phone or cancel face-to-face.

Moreover, the more ingrained cancel culture becomes, the harder it is to call someone out on what is, essentially, a selfish act.  When the socially acceptable response to someone’s cancellation is to accommodate or reinforce it, that only solidifies the habit.  Harper’s suggests that those who cancel frequently begin to erode their empathy and understanding of consequences for the other person, whereas those who are consistently cancelled upon develop “loss aversion” attitudes that actually make them more likely to bail on a future commitment.  It’s a lose-lose for us all.

So what can we do?

Science shows[3] that sticking to our intended outcomes, which creates certainty and trust, is better for our brains than uncertainty, which causes anxiety and depression.  Executing social plans rather than diverting or delaying them gives us a dose of feel-good hormones (like oxytocin, the attachment hormone) that can inspire future behaviour.

A quick caveat before we close: there are, of course, times when looking after ourselves, our families, and our mental health must take priority over commitments made under sunnier circumstances.  The occasional and heartfelt cancel, accompanied by genuine regret and human concern, is inevitable.

But the keyword there, of course, is occasional.  I always tell clients, one “miss” on your actionable daily goals is understandable.  Two “misses” means you’ve started moving toward a new goal – in the exact opposite direction.  The more we choose a certain action, the more it becomes an identity – we either become more reliable, or we become flakes.

I challenge you to buck the system.  Counter the culture.  And most of all: show up.

[1] Fear Of Missing Out, in case you didn’t know!

[2] https://www.harpersbazaar.com/uk/culture/a19717552/the-culture-of-bailing-why-we-love-cancelling-plans/

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3008658/

By Amanda Lim, Founder & Director at Peak Health Consultancy at https://www.facebook.com/peakhealthconsultancy