Wednesday 30 September 2020

The Hidden Cost of Unreliability

Call me irresponsible
Call me unreliable
Throw in undependable too

(James Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn. “Call Me Irresponsible.”)

At some point, we’ve all had issues with unreliability. The friend who always turns up late. Workmen or deliveries that fail to show when they’re supposed to. Appointments cancelled at the last minute. Friends who expect us to be there for them but rarely return the favour.

These are annoying but we understand life gets in the way sometimes, and we acknowledge we’re not always as reliable as we’d care to admit. Dealing with repeated or chronic unreliability is a different matter. If unresolved it can lead to anger, stress, anxiety, and other health issues. So let’s take a closer look at the hidden cost of unreliability, including the impact our own unreliability can have on others.

What Is Unreliability? defines reliability as things “that may be relied on or trusted; dependable in achievement, accuracy, honesty, etc.” Unreliability, then, is something or someone that cannot be trusted or depended on.

I gave a few personal examples earlier. Others include organisations and professionals that fail to follow through on promised action, or pass queries and complaints from one person or department to another. Unreliability in public services such as benefits, health, or public transport affects us all.

Coronavirus has brought uncertainty and unreliability on an unprecedented scale to many areas of our lives. National, regional, and local restrictions are changing all the time, making it difficult and stressful to plan anything more than a few weeks ahead. Nothing seems as safe, reliable, or dependable as it did before.

How Does It Feel?

Unreliability at an organisational level undermines trust and leads to delays and uncertainties that seem unreasonable because they are rarely explained to us. We may feel belittled or disrespected, as though we don’t matter enough for others to consider our situation or feelings. A friend explained that people don’t realise how much it takes it out of someone living with mental illness when people behave unreasonably towards you or mess you around. Another friend expressed it this way:

Unreliability is hurtful. Letting others down is kind of like betrayal. When you’re counting on someone [and they let you down] it hurts because you feel like you don’t matter.

Fran recognises that people have their own lives to live and may not always be available when she needs them. That said, she expects people to deliver on their promises. As recounted in our book High Tide, Low Tide:

Fran [...] asks only that people respect her enough not to promise what they have no intention of delivering. (“Yes is OK. No is OK. Not right now is OK.”)

In many ways, spontaneity is the socially acceptable face of unreliability. Fran builds space into her schedule for spontaneous invitations and trips, but she can be overwhelmed if too much happens in short order. It costs her energy to hold space for meetings and events, and to recuperate afterwards.

I’m better at dealing with spontaneous opportunities than I used to be, but I still prefer to know what’s coming up. At some level, I fear the spontaneous because it short circuits my cautious, rational side. On the other hand, too much structure can be stifling and restrictive. A modicum of randomness can open the door to things we’d never consciously plan into our lives. As a friend said to me recently, “Sometimes when we let go, we can have a new experience.”

Why Are People Unreliable?

Working patterns, family commitments, and other priorities can make it hard to plan ahead with any degree of certainty. On top of that, emergencies and crises can arise for any of us, meaning we need to change or cancel our plans. I was once cross at Fran for missing our scheduled video call only to learn later that she’d been supporting a friend. I’ve cancelled on Fran for similar reasons and she is always more gracious and understanding than I was on that occasion.

Some people seem incapable of arriving on time no matter how many reminders they’re given or how much they are prevailed upon. It’s part of who they are. I’m reminded of friends from years ago. To be fair to them, they rarely turned up late but the way they got ready was — from my point of view — fraught with delay, hesitation, distractions, and fuss. Being around them if we were going out left me stressed and anxious.

Mental illness can challenge our ability to behave reliably. Writing from the perspective of someone living with bipolar disorder, anxiety, and chronic migraines, this author describes how her conditions make her, in her words, an unreliable person.

I’m not the most reliable person right now. My disorder is preventing me from being so. I would like to be more reliable, a better friend, a better wife, a better mom, a better employee. I just can’t, not right now.

In an open letter to a friend, bipolar expert Julie A. Fast explains “why I can’t always do fun things with you.”

It’s the bipolar. I don’t ever use bipolar as an excuse for bad behavior. That is why we are such good friends. You trust me and I trust you. But I know that my inability to be as social as you might like can cause us some problems.

On its own or in combination with other conditions, anxiety can contribute to what other people perceive as unreliable behaviour. This is explained well in this post by Katie Andrews Potter, and in my article for bpHope on bipolar disorder and anxiety. As this article on the impact of addiction makes clear, “the inconsistency, unreliability, and lying involved with addiction” can be profoundly destabilising for everyone involved in the person’s life.

Physical health issues including chronic pain, fatigue, exhaustion, and insomnia can all affect our ability to function as reliably as we’d wish. The fear of failure, of disappointing others, or of not following through on our promises can also cause us to pull out of arrangements and commitments.

What Does Unreliability Cost Us?

Other people’s unreliability can lead to us feeling frustrated, anxious, stressed, and hurt. Processing these responses — and rescheduling cancelled appointments, meetings, and events — takes time and energy we may need in other aspects of our lives. Over time, it can lead to any of the physical, mental, and behavioural symptoms of stress.

If we are — or are perceived as being — unreliable it can lead to difficulties in our relationships, lost friends, lost jobs, and lost opportunities. It can also lead us to lose faith in ourselves; arguably the greatest loss of all.

How to Handle Unreliability in Ourselves and Others

We can begin by learning to handle our emotional responses safely, for example by sharing with those we trust. We might also consider if we’re responding in unhealthy ways or to an unhealthy extent.

Generally speaking, the problem isn’t that people change their mind or fail to fulfil their commitments it’s that they don’t let us know what’s happening. Keeping the channels open is the healthiest approach. A few years ago I arranged to meet a friend for coffee. I was there early as usual. The time we’d agreed came and went and I started wondering if she’d forgotten our meeting. Soon after she messaged to say a friend was in crisis and needed her support. She asked if I wanted to postpone but I was happy to wait for her. She was an hour late in the end but it wasn’t an issue because she’d kept me informed.

Not everyone does that. The New York Center for Nonviolent Communication (NYCNVC) runs an online course in compassionate communication. One lesson features a story similar to my cafe experience, except that the friend is habitually late.

This became a huge source of pain for me. I brought this to his attention on more than one occasion, hoping he would see my pain and start showing up on time. The more he showed up late, the more angry and disconnected I became.

The narrator realised he wasn’t angry at his friend’s lateness, he was angry because his needs were not being met while waiting for him to turn up. Rather than cancel further meetings as he’d been considering, he took the initiative. On future occasions, he brought a book or work to do while he waited for his friend to arrive.

It’s a great example of taking responsibility even when it’s the other person who is being unreliable. We do this by recognising that we rarely know what’s going on for other people and what they’re dealing with, by taking responsibility for ourselves, and communicating what we expect from others. Ultimately it’s down to us whether to accept our friends, colleagues, or family members for who they are.

Are there times when you are unreliable with others? Are you someone who always arrives early for meetings and hates being late? Do you struggle with other people’s unreliability? Have you found ways of navigating how you feel when other people, or life itself, let’s you down? We’d love to hear from you.


Photo by freestocks on Unsplash


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