It’s Either an Excuse or a Reason, but not Both

I have a friend who, when confronted with something he did wrong, often ends 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 is an attempt to “explain” why a person had no other choice but 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 refuse to behave differently. People who try to combine excuses and reasons are using phony “common sense” to explain away the fact that they actually DID have a choice. Sometimes we really don’t have a choice, but most of the time 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 and continue to strive 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. But that probably doesn’t mean they’re not sorry. 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 inconsiderate: “I didn’t mean it! I’ve really been stressed — that’s why I forgot our meeting.” That may be a nice excuse for them, but it’s a pretty lame reason from the offended party’s point of view.

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’s sincere. 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 is clear and honest.

Is it unforgiving to set the personal responsibility bar so high? No, it is not. 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. Being personally responsible for your actions serves your interest because it enables clear and healthy thinking.

The great majority of 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 grow to live a happy, responsible life.