Explain away: “How can I refuse an engagement without looking antisocial?”

I have bipolar disorder and it affects my ability to socialise with others. I teach high school, and by the end of the week I am emotionally worn out. I just want to stay home for the weekend and enjoy some peace and quiet. How can I decline social engagements without seeming antisocial or explaining my disorder?

I have a friend who routinely just leaves things when he wants to. It could be midway through a movie and he’ll decide he’s had enough and wander out. You turn your back during a late-night stroll with six people and discover you’re down to five, his retreat back declares he’s tired now. He’s never impolite and would never leave a birthday party or an anniversary. But if it’s low-stakes, and he’s had enough, he just goes.

I admire him for this with the kind of fever most people reserve for professional athletes. I mentally rate his exits by degree of difficulty and panache in the execution. It’s the effortless unselfconsciousness that makes it true greatness, like the way prodigious swimmers look almost lazy as they reach one languid arm out in front of the other and just glide, while the rest of us sputter and think frantically about which leg is meant to do what. Greatness doesn’t think. And nor does my friend; he just works out what he wants to do and then he’s done reasoning.

Nobody minds. We think “he needs his sleep!” if we think anything of it at all. The fact that he’s never once flinched or squirmed or apologised for wanting to go to bed makes the rest of us forget that other people might think there was anything worth squirming about.

This is one of the great gifts of a friendship with the truly unselfconscious: they teach you that people will accept the suppositions you give them. If you apologise and wring your hands over something you’d like to do, people will accept that it is something worth wringing hands over. If you don’t, they most likely won’t.

Likewise, the more explanations you offer, the more people will take it that you stand in need of explanation. One of the most freeing revelations of my life was that you do not always need to explain. “Friday night doesn’t work” is a complete sentence.

Your need to take care of yourself is as legitimate as an athlete’s need to eat more, or a new mother’s wish to keep her phone on in the meeting. The question isn’t how to do it without seeming a certain way but how to stop worrying about how we seem.

Sometimes we feel compelled to offer explanations when we feel ashamed of our preferences or needs. We start imagining that everybody around us is disappointed and wants to hear a justification. They don’t; our mind has just turned them into ventriloquist dummies for its deepest internal impatiences.

The solution is not to perfect the explanations we offer. It’s to turn inwards and make sure our preferences seem authoritative to ourselves. This is not a matter of thinking more. It’s a matter of doing; of making your choice and then just gliding, with the unselfconscious assuredness of someone who knows what they’re doing.