Excuses are Hazardous to Your Mental Health

The last couple of years have been stressful for everyone. But I’m finding that a surprising number of friends and clients used some of that unwelcome … “leisure” time … to accomplish things that they had been putting off. They even admit to me that much of that “putting off” involved some excuse-making.

It’s a rare mental health professional who even talks about the issue of making excuses, much less taking the position that excuses are bad. One of the few, other than myself, who has addressed the issue in writing is psychiatrist Dr. Anthony Daniels, known by his pen name, Theodore Dalrymple. Dr. Daniels writes, “Excuses are barriers to self-understanding. Excuses like, ‘It’s not our fault if we’re obese,’ for example. Or, ‘It’s a disease. It’s the food manufacturers’ and restaurants’ fault. Portions are too big’ … or, ‘it’s genes, evolution, neurochemistry, 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.”

Wise words. Excuses are the primary barriers to self-understanding. When a person blames his or her parents for … whatever, that attitude reveals a failure to understand the real causes of the problem. Your problems are in the present, not the past, and they are primarily due to errors in thinking and/or behavior. They might be subconscious, but that doesn’t make you any less responsible for – and capable of correcting – those errors. If your parents treated you poorly, the effect of that lurks in your ideas, attitudes and outlook on life. Different individuals respond differently to poor parenting. Some conclude that, “This isn’t how people should act, and it’s not how people have to act. I will do differently.” This can be easier said than done, and it can take time to identify all the errors in thinking that lead one to dissatisfaction with relationships. But it is indeed possible.

In its truest form, “therapy” means interrupting behavioral or interpersonal cycles that are counterproductive to happiness. The concept of “interrupting” implies two things. First, that you’re capable of looking at yourself objectively. A good therapist can be a sounding board to help with that. Second, that you’re capable of changing those cycles once you identify them.

Excuse-making short-circuits this process. It’s an easy way out. By externalizing blame, you remove your responsibility and poison any opportunity to make your life better. Dr. Daniels points out that we’ve loosened the definition of “depression” to include most forms of unhappiness. The result is that a significant percentage of adults are on antidepressants. Yes, 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. It might take a few weeks or longer to determine if they do actually help.

Excuse-making has extended the definition of “depression” to include just about every form of unhappiness, to every degree imaginable. In the process, the term has been rendered meaningless, not unlike other now-debunked psychiatric labels such as ADD, ADHD and the like.

Dr. Daniels says that using the crutch “depressed” instead of “unhappy” means someone has to cure it for us. But the only treatment to which you can passively submit is medication. You take it, you 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 that created the problem in the first place. Therapy, or some similar commitment to ongoing self-change, is the only way to move beyond passive submission and into the realm of actual happiness. Beware the excuses and labels! They’re bad for you.