Tell me if any of these sound familiar to you:
“You’re just making excuses.”
“Quit trying to excuse your behaviour!”
“That’s not an excuse, young lady/man!”
Ugh. Either we’ve just travelled back in time or I’ve joined the military (I can just see the Rotten Tomatoes review for that painful-to-watch movie). Many of us grow up in environments where we’re told not to “make excuses.” An “excuse” is simply evading responsibility. It means we’re immature and selfish and spoiled. It’s a sign of poor character and even poorer parenting.
Of course, the actual message most of our parents/teachers/coaches were likely meaning to give us was “Don’t fabricate completely unreasonable, outlandish excuses that deny responsibility rather than acknowledging that you may have played a part in whatever just happened” (e.g. dog ate homework, didn’t know stealing candy was wrong, thought they were virgin magaritas, etc.). But, when we’re 5 or 10 or even 15, we don’t generally have the cognitive flexibility to distinguish between an “acceptable excuse” and an “unacceptable excuse.” As a result, we interpret all excuses as unacceptable, and from there forward don’t allow ourselves “off the hook.”
“That’s not true!,” you say. I’m allowed an excuse, but only if it’s good enough. So what qualifies as a “good enough” excuse?
See how you react to these statements–which ones would you consider an acceptable excuse for not meeting expectations?:
My healthy, young direct family member died suddenly and traumatically.
My Grandma died after a long battle with Cancer. She was 94 and had been palliative for 2 weeks.
My dog died.
I was sick with the flu.
I was sick with a headache.
I was sick with cramps.
I felt depressed.
I was tired.
They were provoking me.
I felt like it.
…and so on.
How did that feel? Now go back and read it again, this time imagining a friend were offering you these excuses. If there’s a difference, you’re likely harder on yourself. But even if there’s no difference, having the same expectations for others that you have for yourself doesn’t necessarily mean you’re understanding flexible with those expectations.
Nearly every time I take a client back to what was happening in their life and environment at the time of their said regret or inability to meet expectations, they say, “Well now it just feels like I’m making excuses.” “Sure, I was incapacitated by depression, but that’s not an excuse.” “Yeah, my wife had a miscarriage, but that’s harder on her, and she went back to work the next week.” “OK, I studied the wrong textbook, but that’s definitely no excuse.” (Sidebar: Once, I bought and studied the wrong textbook for a course. True Story. I bombed the test. The end.).
Anyway, for those of us who are quite hard on ourselves, any mistake or transgression is internalized and met with shame and self-blame. This is called the self-effacing bias–something that’s common to Eastern cultures and people who are depressed or have perfectionistic tendencies: we internalize failures and externalize successes.
So now let’s move into the semantic nuances that can determine how you feel in response to your eff-up or shortcoming:
Excuses Vs. Explanations
Sure, they’re synonyms in Webster’s, but they have very different connotations for most people. Rather than trying to differentiate between what you determine to be acceptable and unacceptable excuses, consider using the word “explanation” in its place. Naturally, as a human being, you’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to hurt people, and you’re going to forget or break promises. There is a certain level of responsibility that’s important to take here, so that you can learn from it and move forward. By doing this with compassion and respect, in a way that aligns with your values, you’ll be able to view it with guilt and not shame, thus learning from it and moving on. You’re not “explaining away” or forgetting whatever just happened; you’re shedding some more light on the situation so you can view it more objectively and helpfully.
Consider making room for both taking responsibility AND explaining, rather than one or the other. How do I do that, Megan? Well! Let me elaborate! We’ll look at taking responsibility first:
Self-compassion is very important in this process. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned in previous posts, perfectionism and depression tend to tell us to globalize errors so we identify them as a part of our character rather than a snapshot in time. For example, I failed the test and therefore I’m a failure. I hurt their feelings so therefore I’m a bad person. I skipped the gym so therefore I’m lazy. This makes it very difficult to take responsibility, if taking responsibility for mistake means you’re a flawed person (this might also be why you get defensive or distraught when receiving negative feedback). Think state vs. trait. Guilt around a situation vs. shame around existing. Then, Consider following some of the guidelines in this post for acknowledging your error.
Now, let’s look at explaining your behaviour. Again, not denying your role or evading responsibility, but looking at external variables (ones out of your control) as well as the internal ones you’ve likely already identified. Chances are, there are multiple influential, environment, relational and contextual factors coming into play. When you made the plan or promise that you ceased to follow-through, or when you said that uncouth comment, or when you forgot that appointment, you did so based on the information you had at the time. New information is available to you now, and that might change what you expect from yourself in terms of doing or not doing the said task. Take into account things like your mood, sleep, energy level, past-experience with the subject/situation (or lack of past experience), expectations at the time, difficulty of the task, and human…ness. Acknowledge how you might have chosen to act differently if you’d known the information you know now, but that you didn’t have that information at the time because, again, you’re haphazardly trudging through this thing called life just like the rest of us.
To sum, next time you’re beating yourself up for doing something wrong (or neglecting to do something “right”), and you’re telling yourself (or being told) not to “make excuses,” try taking responsibility and explaining. This is the self-compassionate way. The likely result is that you will have a better understanding of “why” you acted in a way that didn’t live up to your expectations or align with your values, experience less abuse from your critical inner voice, and feel less shame. Self-compassion win!