We've all been there: You have dinner plans with a friend, but a project blows up at work and you have to stay late. Or there's a birthday party, but you're so sick you can't even crawl off the couch. Whatever the reason, you have to cancel plans—and you feel horrible doing so.
That reaction is called "friend guilt," and experts say it's on the rise. [Tweet this fact!] "Friend guilt is increasingly common among 20-somethings," says Carlin Flora, a friendship expert and author of Friendfluence: The Surprising Ways Friends Make Us Who We Are. "No matter what they do, they feel like they're not being a good enough friend." There's always someone you "should" be calling, a happy hour you "should" be attending, or an email you "should" have replied to long ago—or so you think. But here's the catch: Even though feeling this way means you have good intentions, trying to please everyone is unrealistic—to the point that it could actually leave you feeling even worse.
Our "More" Society = More Guilt
What's making us all think we're horrible friends? First, there's simply more going on. In addition to working longer hours, there are more events to attend—and consequently, more to miss. "It all goes back to the rise of Internet culture," explains Catherine Cardinal, Ph.D., a self-esteem expert and founder of the life coaching service Wise Women Rock. "People have access to more information, so they're getting involved in more activities. And then they're inviting everyone in their social networks to come to their events, so it ends up being this big onslaught of gatherings galore." And since you probably aren't looking to speed-date through your social life and try to hit every single event, you end up feeling guilty about the ones you skip.
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Another reason friend guilt is increasing is, ironically, narcissism. "Social media has turned a lot of people into self-obsessive creatures," says Christine Hassler, a millennial expert and author of 20-Something, 20-Everything. "People think that their presence matters more than it does and that by not showing up, the party won't be complete or the host will be heartbroken, when usually everyone pretty much understands."
Have a Clear Conscience
Luckily you can head off a friend guilt trip: It's all about ranking your buds—in your head, of course, not out loud!—and putting your best ones first. "Acquaintances and best friends simply don't carry the same weight and therefore don't get the same treatment," Flora says. If you continually fail to make time for your pal who's been there through every breakup, new job, death of your dog, and more, you should feel bad because she's a big part of your life, Flora explains. But politely turning down an acquaintance's invitation or occasionally canceling on her is nothing to regret.
"Misplaced guilt about third and fourth-tier friends and acquaintances can cause unnecessary distress and drain you of emotional energy," Flora says. "If you're constantly stressing about people who don't matter to you as much, it could affect your self-image and make you think of yourself as a bad friend in general, which you're not."
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To be sure this doesn't happen, don't mindlessly accept invites. Think about them on a deeper level, decide which event takes priority, and then proceed accordingly with a yes or no—never a maybe. [Tweet this tip!] "In today's FOMO world, we don't want to miss out on anything, so we say maybe to everything to allow ourselves more possibilities. But being non-committal is harmful to your psyche because you end up creating false expectations, which makes you feel extra guilty when you don't follow through," Hassler explains.
If you do say yes, mark the date on your schedule and cross your fingers that no last-minute emergencies pop up. If you decline, keep things polite and short. "Long explanations of why you can't go reinforce your feeling of guilt because they make you feel like you did something wrong," Hassler says. And you didn't—so let it go.