Growing up, I used to hear this statement a lot: "You have an excuse for everything … quit making excuses!" Whether it was from my parents, teachers, or my high school basketball coach, I had what I thought was an air tight response: "They're not excuses … they're reasons." It wasn't until recently I started reflecting on the nature of excuse making and had some insights that clarified this issue for me.
I was working with a group of children ages 7 to 11 and we were discussing anger. Each child was sharing why they thought they had an anger problem. As I listened, I noticed there was a theme of various excuses from the ridiculous to completely logical and sophisticated. My gut instinct was to self-righteously stand before them and proclaim that they "quit making excuses." But then I heard my inner childhood's rock solid defense attorney whispering in my ear yet again … "they're not excuses…they're reasons." It was at this point I realized it would do them no good to simply tell them to quit making excuses. We were going to have to dig deeper into the nature of excuses first.
So what is an excuse? The definition that came to mind for me in the moment was that an excuse is a reason we think we feel or behave the way we do. The word "think" is emphasized is because ultimately an excuse is just a thought disguised as a logical explanation. It is way of defending or justifying our feelings and behavior. It isn't actually true. In fact, no matter how sophisticated the excuse, you will always find an exception to the rule, which disqualifies it as being true.
This became clear to me when I was working with a patient who stated his anger is often triggered by loud noises. Noise sensitivity was his go-to excuse for his acting out. One day I went to pick him up in the gym for a session, where he and several other patients were playing volley ball. Now I am not usually bothered by noise, but when I walked in the sound of teens hollering and trash talking, enhanced by the acoustics of the gym with the added blasting of music in the background was extremely piercing and obnoxious to me. After what I assumed was rescuing him from distress, I made the comment, "I bet you were having a hard time in there." He looked at me confused and replied, "What do you mean? Oh the noise? I wasn't even paying attention to it because I was listening to the music." And that was when it hit me … he only has the "noise sensitivity issue" when he thinks he does.
For the next few days, I started noticing all the excuses I had made up over the years to justify my feelings and actions. This realization did two things for me. First, it helped me to have more compassion for when people innocently make excuses for their behavior, including myself. An excuse is simply an attempt to protect the self or ego if you will — a defensive stance — but it always exists in the world of opinion. Secondly, I realized that excuse making was at best an unnecessary exercise, and at worst a major barrier to change. As long as we have a justification, it won't make sense to explore possibilities of feeling or behaving differently. And interestingly enough, the more logical the justification, the more closed off we are to lasting change. This might explain why many people who have survived adverse life circumstances and events stay in therapy so long.
There is a term used in magic performance, "Don't run when nobody's chasing you." This refers to the situation when a magician continuously shows his hands empty, thus subtly suggesting to the audience he may in fact have something hidden in his hand, arousing suspicion. Making excuses is just that. It is an attempt to protect something that not only doesn't need protecting, but doesn't even exist in the first place. At the end of the day there is ultimately only one factor that determines our experience and that is our present moment state of mind. So when we feel tempted to grab the low hanging fruit of a really good "reason" for how we feel, pause a second and ask yourself, "Is this really true or am I missing something about state of mind? Maybe then you can safely say to yourself, "No more excuses!"