Excuses have a terrible reputation.
“Don’t make excuses!”
“There’s no excuse for that.”
“I’m tired of hearing your excuses.”
“You had better have a good excuse!”
“C’mon! Keep going! No excuses!”
The real problem with excuses, though is that we often confuse excuses and explanations.
It may seem like I’m splitting hairs here, but excuses and explanations are fundamentally different.
Excuses seek to win, while explanations seek to explain.
Excuses usually turn up when we don’t like or understand someone else’s behavior. “There’s no excuse for hurting me like that!” “Ugh, I’m tired of you making excuses not to come.” “Quit making excuses for her behavior.”
We often use excuses to ‘win,’ or override someone’s opposition to our actions. A good example of a ‘good excuse’ is a doctor’s note that excuses a kid from missing school. The doctor’s note makes skipping school, an otherwise unacceptable behavior, acceptable. A child going to the doctor is deemed more important than attending those hours of instruction at school.
And that’s usually the problem we have with excuses: in order to accept someone else’s excuse, we are admitting that their needs were more important than our own. Someone has to win. But this kind of thinking is too black and white for relationships. In any relationship, from friends to co-workers to spouses, when somebody wins…you both lose.
Explanations bridge the gap between two people. Where an excuse seeks to win, an explanation seeks to explain. Most, if not all, of our conflict with others comes from a lack of understanding and/or compassion. We don’t question or need excuses for behavior that seems “normal” or makes sense to us; we already have empathy and understanding. Explanations help give a context for someone’s behavior, opening up the space for new empathy and understanding – even if you still don’t agree with what they did.
Which leads to the next difference:
Excuses close us off from others, while explanations create connection.
Whenever we attempt to excuse our behavior, our greatest concern is avoiding the consequences of our actions. We believe that if we have a ‘good enough’ excuse, then we are justified in both our choices and however those choices affected anyone else.
Explanations, on the other hand, seek explain our intentions and efforts. They open the space for authenticity, vulnerability, and connection. Explanations aren’t about convincing someone else that you were right; they are meant to let the other person in. Explanations are often a response to hearing how we impacted another person, a way to say, “I’m sorry. Can I tell you how that made sense to me? I want you to know I never planned or meant to hurt you.”
Where excuses are motivated by pride, fear, or shame, explanations rely on humility, love, and connection.
Excuses leave us stuck, but explanations help us grow.
When we rely on excuses, we are deciding to accept things as they are and move forward without examining things further. The hurts never get healed, and we don’t take the time to learn from our possible mistakes. When your only option is to accept an excuse or to not, there is very little room for reflection or growth.
When we take the time to really understand what happened and why we did what we did, we create the possibility for change. Context turns the light on and helps us understand what we may have tripped and fallen over, and then move it out of the way. Context helps us to generate compassion both for ourselves and for others.
The most compassionate way for us to live our lives is with the belief that everyone is doing the best that they can at all times, no exceptions. This doesn’t mean excusing or condoning anything that anyone else does. What is does mean, however, is allowing yourself to be curious. To wonder why. To connect. To hold space for the grey area where neither person has to be right and you can both accept the goodness and good intentions of one another.
Holding that space is what empowers me to be a therapist, a wife, a friend, and a mother. It is what keeps bitterness and resentment at bay. It is the space where I choose to set aside my wants and needs long enough to engage another person’s inner world. It’s the space I hold for all of you.
Because everyone is doing the best they can at all times. No exceptions.
Doing my best with you,
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