BY: T. Franklin Murphy | September 27, 2019 (modified February 6, 2023)
Excuses dodge responsibility, saving the ego but cheating ourselves of wisdom. Each experience carries wisdom for a healthier future.
We want a better life, stronger relationships, and successful careers. Obtaining these notable desires, requires work. We must commit to action, and persistently overcome obstacles. The hallmark of successful people is honoring the commitments (both to themselves and others). Yet, most of us aren’t consistently stalwart. We fail, letting ourselves and others down. Sometimes unplanned circumstances intervene, making success impossible. But typically, most obstacles are surmountable; what fails is our willingness to exert effort in the face of unplanned circumstances.
Our motivation first teeters and then eventually falters. We soothe the discomfort by dodging responsibility, excusing our broken commitment by the size of the obstacle. “The circumstances,” we tout, “are the villain,” relying on a comforting narrative of misfortune and victimhood. “I would be great,” we mourn, “but the world won’t let me.”
“He who can’t dance claims the floor is uneven.” ~Ancient Hindu Proverb
Action is Goal Directed
All living things are goal directed—actions are movements to fulfill a specific need or desire. This simple explanation, however, fails to adequately represent our complex human condition. We simultaneously entertain many conflicting goals that vary in priority and requirement. We must cohesively integrate the wide swath of demands into a single whole.
We have a cockeyed approach to this massive undertaking with actions that appear counterproductive to stated goals. We minimize the conflict with self-justifying deceptions. We make promises to change but then act with limited commitment. When the slightest interference intrudes, we shift gears, break the promise, and focus on alternative causes for disruption. We again lament, “I would’ve been great, but. . .”
Self-Improvement is Difficult
Change is difficult, requiring a commitment to surmount unknown obstacles. A successful commitment doesn’t cede to unplanned events; it figures an alternate course. An interruption doesn’t void responsibility to honor the vow. The successful life requires holding that vision of betterment, no matter what difficulties surface. Interruptions must always be part of the plan.
We routinely fail in our magnificent soul-crafting and relationship building endeavors, breaking well-intended commitments. These failures are only momentary when followed with healthy repair. Our response to difficulty defines our character; we either move forward with grace or avoid and settle for less. These are high stake games—the critical junctures in our lives.
The Value of a Commitment
Underlying a commitment is an expectation of fulfillment. This is true even when the promise comes in the form of a personal goal to improve. Goals are critical for personal development.
These are commitments whether written, verbalized or thought. When we commit to do something and don’t follow through, the failure weakens the reliability of our words—they lose power. If I habitually follow through, my words are strengthened. Written, spoken or thought, the goal of committed people motivates action and carries value.
Failure and Justification
Emotions are part of this cycle. Healthy anxiety motivates action. When we are a person of our word, failing to honor a commitment creates discomfort. Properly used, discomfort encourages action. However, we are tempted to minimize the discomfort with justifications. This is the grand invitation for excuses. We minimize and justify, directing attention somewhere other than ourselves.
Some failures are unavoidable, and explanations are appropriate and helpful: “I’m sorry I missed the annual budget meeting, I was in a serious accident.” Other reasons are a choice but rely on generally accepted priorities: “I can’t make the luncheon; little Johnny is not feeling well. I’m going to pick him up from school.” The legitimacy of unavoidable events or a generally accepted priorities diffuse judgmental reactions. We may fail, but the failure doesn’t tarnish our otherwise consistent reliability.
There are less honorable escapes. When we have a pattern of flaking, even legitimate excuses hold little weight. We are seen as unreliable. Our excuse is not buoyed by a favorable past, and only seen as an attempt to weasel out of responsibility.
Whether an excuse is legitimate or not, basic laws are not invalidated. Blessings are predicated on compliance to these laws. For example, trust is built from predictability. When we know someone honors their commitments because we have repeated experience with them following through, we trust their word.
Trust doesn’t evolve from repeated failure garnished with an elaborate excuse. The escape artist, uncommitted to their words, misses the point. An excuse doesn’t invalidate the law—no matter how articulate. If you miss half of your engagements, your promise loses negotiating value. Trust doesn’t exist. If you’re late to the banquet, you will miss the first course, no matter how elegant the reason for your tardiness.
See Behavior and Consequence for more on this topic
Personal Damage from Habitual Excuses
Excuses wouldn’t be so terrible if they only softened the reactions from those impacted; however, habitual failures always accompanied by excuses impact our lives in dramatic ways—they impede learning. They weaken motivation. Our practice of mediating guilt interferes with drawing essential lessons.
Dr. Wayne W. Dyer, psychologist and writer, says, “we use excuses for behaving in ways that don’t help us achieve the level of health, happiness, and success we desire.” He continues, “The only thing an excuse gives you is an option out of the life that you desire.” (2009).
A great nation is like a great man: When he makes a mistake, he realizes it. Having realized it, he admits it. Having admitted it, he corrects it. He considers those who point out his faults as his most benevolent teachers. —Lao Tzu
We soothe the anxiety of failure with justification; but these justifications interfere with implementing life enhancing changes. We learn that falling short of expectations isn’t all that bad, and we settle for less, opting out of the life we desire.
When we tie a string of troubles to a critical moment in the past, we revisit that moment. A healthy explanation aids processing of errors and integrates new wisdom into present decisions. But even years or decades later after an event, our re-examinations still our plagued by a bothersome ego.
Our fragile self may struggle to accept that a personal choice was responsible for years of suffering. The ego charges to the rescue, blurring the obvious by soothing the guilt with the sweetness of an excuse. We play along with the silliness, sacrificing personal freedom for the decorated costume of justification.
We are masters of micro-analyzing the roll of extenuating circumstance (the roll of others, troublesome events); but grossly ignore the obvious common denominator in all our failures—ourselves.
Many wounds never heal because we bandage them in the contaminated cloths of self-justification. We numb the pain but ignore the gashing injury and traumatized flesh. The deep tears in our psyches need more than a bandage, they need sutures. We heal through the cleansing acceptance of personal responsibility, inviting freedom back into our lives by choosing better paths.
In a paradoxical twist, our denial of freedom, excusing harmful action, deferring to a predetermined life is the most vivid example of freedom—a choice not to choose. Not only is this an expression of freedom but, as Sartre prefers, the condemnation of freedom. we are “condemned to be free.” (Reynolds, 2014, p. 56).
In Dante’s classic, The Divine Comedy, the pilgrim traveling through purgatory encounters a common theme. The resident sinners, condemned for their actions during life, denied responsibility, blaming others and adverse circumstances for their plight. They had a deterministic philosophy. They sacrificed their freedom and let life determine the consequences. Their deterministic view soothed guilt but didn’t prevent the hellish consequences. The sinners explained away responsibility with “I had no choice.”
Dante’s portrayal of wrong doers is purely fiction; but not without scientific support. In interviews with perpetrators of serious crimes, researchers found that “most of the perpetrators reported, at least in retrospect, that what they did was reasonable; their actions might have been regrettable, but they were understandable, given the circumstances.” (Tavris & Aronson, 2008, location 3042). The investigators reported that nearly half the perpetrators said they “couldn’t help” what happened— “I had no choice” (Location 3049).
The Destructiveness of Self-Justification
Self-justification is more destructive and dangerous than the explicit lie. We justify in the dark corners of the mind, believing our excuses, and miss the obvious lessons. Aldous Huxley was on point when he stated, “There is probably no such thing as a conscious hypocrite.”
The highest value of Sartre’s existentialism is authenticity. We are authentic when we accept reality and maintain the freedom to respond. Authenticity conflicts with the ultimate excuse—I had no choice. The world may seemingly turn against us, but while facing the fierce winds and torrential rain from the brunt of the storm, we can stand strong, retain our freedom, and move ethically towards our dreams instead of taking cowardly refuge in ego-saving excuses.
Our memory yields to the excuse, recreating a past that better meshes with justifications. We distort reality and lose authenticity. “Memories are often pruned and shaped by an ego-enhancing bias that blurs the edges of past events, softens culpability, and distorts what really happened” (Tavris & Aronson, 2008, location 136).
Over the last hundred and fifty years, science has expanded our understanding of human motivation. More recently, we have witnessed biology and psychology joining forces, interweaving brain activity with behavioral responses.
Our learnings have confused historical acceptance of personal freedom. Somewhere in the fog, between the known and mystery lies freedom—the power to choose. Dr. Phil Zimbardo (known for his directing role in the Stanford Prison Study) reminds readers that understanding the “why” behind an action doesn’t excuse the action. Psychological analysis is not “excusiology” (2007, Location 5441).
We struggle with this. Integrating a growing body of knowledge without excusing culpability is proving difficult. Just as the prisoners reported lack of responsibility by identify an extenuating circumstance, we also tend to excuse misguided behaviors by blaming action on an outside event that proceeded the destructive choice or evidence of biological correlations.
Behavior is not random, there’s always a host of underlying causes. Human behavior should be examined in connection with the situational forces; but not excused by the presence of those situational forces.
The magic of human consciousness endows us with the ability to inhibit impulsive action. This power is largely attributed to the executive functions of the prefrontal cortex. Our biological construction creates freedom, blessing (or in Sartre’s expression—condemning) us with the power to choose. Just because we can identify an external force that triggered the firing of neuronal groupings doesn’t unequivocally excuse the action.
Harvard professor and cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker supports this view. He writes, “But when we attribute an action to a person’s brain, genes, or evolutionary history, it seems that we no longer hold the individual accountable.
Biology becomes the perfect alibi, the get-out-of-jail-free card, the ultimate doctor’s excuse note.” He continues, “The explanations may help us understand the parts of the brain that made a behavior tempting, but they say nothing about the other parts of the brain (primarily in the prefrontal cortex) that could have inhibited the behavior by anticipating how the community would respond to it” (2003, Location 4061).
Our Explanations Have Power to Motivate Change or Justify Inaction
A person lost in a stagnating life, instead of relying on insightful explanations to direct attention to dangerous threats, uses explanations as exemptions. Their response to valuable information fails to better their existence, keeping them stuck in an excuse driven mire.
They protect themselves from the anxiety by denying their innate freedom to respond. They further the harm by hedging their bets, building escapes into all endeavors—keeping a firm grasp on excuses to employ when motivation wanes. They secure limited futures. They become the sinners in Dante’s hell, the prisoners with no choice, and helpless captives to a variety of addictions. They can’t dance because the floor is uneven, they can’t run because they have a wooden leg.
The reality is we will repeatedly fail. We only succeed after failures by drawing healthy conclusions from the surrounding circumstances and authentic acceptance of our response. We can utilize this wealth of information to improve our lives. A proclivity of our mind is to protect against discomforting emotions.
Unconsciously, we employ defenses to intervene during these troublesome moments, soothing the pain. But pain is our greatest instructor; but only if we are willing to be the student. We must honor the feeling effects as part of our biological cues to learn. “A richer understanding of how and why our minds work as they do is the first step toward breaking the self-justification habit. And that, in turn, requires us to be more mindful of our behavior and the reasons for our choices. It takes time, self-reflection, and willingness” (Tavris & Aronson, 2008, location 642).
We shouldn’t punish ourselves for every misdeed. We can accept our significant role in the happenings, embrace our freedoms, and still compassionately hold our ailing psyches while we work through the blunder.
Dyer suggests that awareness is the correcting solution. You improve through “simply being cognizant of your excuse making.” He teaches that this awareness “will open you up to vast arenas of new possibilities.” We can “transcend the ordinary, mundane, and average with thoughts of greater joy and meaning; you can decide to elevate your life, rather than have it stagnate or deteriorate with excuses” (Dyer, 2009).
When we face our mistakes, taking responsibility for them, our new authentic relationship with life can be exhilarating and liberating. With acceptance of personal freedom, we infuse our lives with power, giving energy and vitality to withering resolves. With resilience, we can escape the confining cycle of faulty action followed by habitual justification. We have a choice. We can act with commitment, making sharper, smarter and conscious choices to improve our lives. We can gracefully dance on the uneven floor of life.
Dyer, W. W. (2009). Excuses Begone!: How to Change Lifelong, Self-Defeating Thinking Habits. Hay House Inc
Pinker, S. (2003). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Penguin Books; Reprint edition
Reynolds, J. (2014). Understanding Existentialism (Understanding Movements in Modern Thought). London: Routledge.
Tavris, C., Aronson, E. (2008). Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. Mariner Books; Revised, New edition.
Zimbardo, P. (2007) The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. Random House; 1st edition