Excuses: Barriers to Self-Understanding

Stick figure pulls a box that reads excuses, excuses, excuses

We’ve all heard (or told ourselves) how it’s wrong to make excuses.

However, we don’t usually focus on why it’s bad for ourselves to make excuses. Usually, the unspoken implication is: “Well, excuses would be nice for me; but I really shouldn’t make them.”

Nice — by what standard?

It’s an exceedingly rare mental health professional who even talks about the issue, much less takes the position that excuses are bad. Other than myself, one of the few who does is retired psychiatrist Dr. Anthony Daniels, known to many by his pen name Theodore Dalrymple, the author of many books on psychiatry, free will and the social welfare entitlement state (even more entrenched in his native home of Great Britain than in the United States.)

The traditional basis for excuse-making, particularly in the 1960s through the 1980s, was parents and family. That’s still around, but the more contemporary basis for excuse-making is genetics. “I can’t help that I’m [fill-in-the-blank]. It’s all a chemical imbalance. My genes and brain chemistry make me do it.”

Dr. Daniels provides some illumination on the subject. Here are some comments of his from a recent Chicago Tribune interview (5-7-15) that a Daily Dose of Reason reader was kind enough to send me.

Q: By giving us excuses for our behavior, you say, psychology becomes a barrier to self-understanding?

A: It’s not our fault if we’re obese, for example. It’s a disease. It’s the food manufacturers’ and restaurants’ fault. Portions are too big.

Q: What are our primary excuses?

A: Our genes, evolution, our neurochemistry, our brain scans, chemical imbalances, our childhoods. I have a friend who goes up to people at parties and says, “I hate my parents; don’t you?” People always go on about how their parents caused all their problems.

It’s true. Excuses are barriers to self-understanding.

When someone says, “My problems are all due to my parents,” it’s a deeper error than mere excuse-making. Such an attitude represents a failure to understand what the real causes of your problems are.

In the present, your problems are due to errors in thinking and/or behavior. Many of these errors may be subconscious, but that doesn’t change the fact you’re responsible for those errors — and, more hopefully, capable of identifying and changing once you recognize those errors.

If your parents treated you irrationally, then the effect they left was on your ideas, attitudes and outlook on life and people. Different individuals respond differently to poor parenting. Some conclude, even before they reach full adulthood, that, “This isn’t how people should act, and it’s not how people have to act. I will do differently and find people to love/do business with who are the same.”

That’s a best case scenario; but it can and does happen.

In the worst case scenario, an adult will realize (if he or she looks inward) that internalized attitudes from the experiences with poor parenting have led to erroneous behaviors and attitudes in the present.

For example, “I gravitate towards people like my parents, without realizing it. I’m just going towards what I know; but what I knew, in childhood, was not good for me. Now I have to make the course correction required and stop interacting with people who aren’t good for me.”

This can be easier said than done, and it can take months (sometimes even years) to identify all the errors in thinking that lead one to be dissatisfied with personal or business relationships. However, it’s possible.

Think about what “therapy” actually is. Therapy means interrupting cognitive, behavioral or interpersonal cycles that are erroneous, problematic or otherwise counter-productive to the attainment of happiness in your life.

The concept of “interrupting” a behavioral or cognitive cycle implies two things. One, that you’re capable of looking at yourself — your past and your present — factually, objectively and rationally. There are plenty of professionals available to help you do so, if you prefer having a sounding board or expert of some kind to guide you.

Two, that you’re capable of changing or interrupting those behavioral, cognitive or interpersonal cycles once you identify them.

Pretty much anyone from late adolescence up through and including one’s 80s or 90s is capable of self-awareness and self-change. Excuse-making obliterates the possibility. Excuse-making is a write-off of yourself. By externalizing blame in a false or exaggerated way, you remove responsibility from yourself, it’s true. But much more than that, you squander any opportunity to make your life better.

Excuse-making is not self-centered, self-serving or “selfish.” Excuse-making is one of the worst possible things you could ever do to yourself.

Dr. Daniels makes some other excellent points in the Chicago Tribune interview.

We’ve loosened the definition of “depression” to include most forms of unhappiness. The result: 13 percent of adults (2013 Mayo Clinic) are on antidepressants.

He’s right. Some people who are on antidepressants do benefit from them. I have even recommended that some people be on them. But that’s only if the person fits a profile of what psychiatry defines as clinical depression, and if nothing else has really worked — and only if the antidepressants actually do help, which typically takes a few weeks or longer to really determine.

We have extended the definition of clinical “depression” to include just about every form of unhappiness, to every degree, imaginable. In the process, the term has been rendered almost meaningless, not unlike other psychiatric labels such as attention deficit — which nearly everybody has, and virtually every boy in a public school now has.

Saying “depressed” instead of “unhappy” means someone has to cure it for us. Using antidepressants is the modern-day equivalent of exorcising alien spirits.

Precisely. The only kind of treatment to which you can passively submit, in the psychiatric realm, is medication. You take it, and see what happens. It’s passive. But even if you take medication, and even if medication reduces your symptoms, you still have to actively identify the cycles of thought, behavior and relating to others that have not been working. You will still need therapy, or at least the equivalent of a commitment to a process of ongoing self-change in order to move beyond mere functioning and into the realm of actual happiness.

Beware of excuses, even when bearing the label of officially approved psychiatry. They’re bad for you.



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