Is it a reason—or an excuse?

I have a friend who, when confronted about something, will often end his explanation with, ‘Well, it’s not an excuse, but it IS a reason.’ Though it always gets a chuckle, the expression doesn’t really resolve anything.

A reason tells you what caused something. An excuse ‘explains’ why a person had no other choice other than to act as he or she did. For example, “I treated you badly because I was drunk.” Being drunk explains the rudeness, but it doesn’t excuse the choice to get drunk in the first place. Or: “I’m nasty to my kids because my parents were nasty to me.” That explains where the nastiness was learned, but it doesn’t excuse the choice to not learn new habits and behave differently. People who try to combine excuses and reasons are using phony ‘common sense’ to evade, rationalize or explain away the fact that they DID have a choice. Sometimes we actually have no choice, but most of the time in day-to-day life we do.

A person who actually knows the difference between a reason and a choice might say, for example, ‘I missed our therapy appointment. There’s no excuse, and I’m sorry. I’ll pay you for it.’ Or: ‘I stood you up for our dinner date. There’s no excuse, and I’m sorry I ruined your evening. Please let me make it up to you.’ Those who acknowledge their errors without resorting to excuses are comfortable with their own imperfections, while striving for higher standards. When they say, ‘I won’t do it again,’ they really mean it.


Sadly, that healthy attitude is often not verbalized after somebody wrongs another person. Does it mean that they’re not sorry? Actually, no. In fact, decent and conscientious people don’t like to see themselves as rude and thoughtless. But unfortunately, the natural tendency is to go on the defensive; fabricating excuses to avoid seeing themselves as imperfect and/or inconsiderate: ‘I didn’t mean it! I’ve really been stressed—that’s why I forgot our meeting.’ Maybe a nice excuse for them—but not a very good reason to the offended party.

If someone disappoints you by doing something thoughtless, you’re probably not interested in excuses or explanations. Though there is a valid distinction between the two, the offended party is not emotionally ready for a reason, at least not at first. Even a legitimate explanation will sound like a flimsy excuse. At this point, all they really need is acknowledgement. Something like, ‘I know I did this, and it was wrong. I know nothing can make it better right now, but I will try to make things right in the future.’

Most transgressions are forgivable, as long as the offending party shows the right attitude. The right attitude isn’t a skill or a technique—it’s something that comes across as sincere and genuine—simply because it is. And it will not be laced with excuses.

Another word for excuse is ‘rationalization.’ My favorite definition of rationalization is ‘rigging the conclusion.’ We play a trick on ourselves by leaving out relevant facts and circumstances, suggesting cause-and-effect when there is none. Notice how the same situation can look completely different, depending on whether you rationalize or think in plain English: ‘I was tired from a late night and I backed into my neighbor’s car by accident.’ (Both statements are facts, but the rationalization implies a connection between the two that doesn’t make sense.)

Here’s the same thing in plain English: ‘I wasn’t paying attention, and I carelessly backed into my neighbor’s car.’ (Bingo! The cause-and-effect relationship between the two facts is clear and honest.)

It may be true that being tired from a late night contributed to poor driving. That’s a reason. But to convert it into an excuse requires manufacturing a cause-and-effect relationship that’s not there. It’s NOT a ‘done deal’ that you’ll back into somebody’s car just because you worked late.

Is it unforgiving to set the ‘personal responsibility’ bar so high? No. It’s a lot healthier to confront reality head-on than to insult yourself (and others) by sugarcoating or rationalizing. And nobody’s going to buy it but you anyway. Being personally responsible for your actions serves your OWN interest because it enables clear and healthy thinking.

Many excuses and rationalizations stem from faulty premises. An example of a faulty premise is the notion that a mistake is a disaster. I maintain that if everyone’s still alive, no mistake is truly a disaster. Acknowledge mistakes by affirming the truth and moving on. Personal accountability isn’t an unpleasant obligation. It’s how we think, grow and learn to live the happy, responsible life.