Why We Make Excuses and How To Stop

Let’s get real here, just for a moment. It’s ok, it’s just us and we will not judge. How often do you find yourself making excuses for things? If we think about the sheer number of times that we’ve used an excuse to justify our own or another person’s actions or behavior, it can be a little overwhelming. Ranging from “my alarm didn’t go off” to “he’s/she’s just stressed,” excuses can permeate every area of our lives including our professional and personal relationships.

It may be tempting to try to “explain” a situation and seem like a harmless little thing, but the actual reasons why we make excuses can be a serious red flag. Excuses can provide an emotional “safety net” from our actions, making it easier and easier to continue with harmful behavior and develop bad habits. From understanding our motivations for consistently making excuses, we can develop a more effective strategy towards resolution.

“I didn’t realize that excuses are a problem.”

No matter how you view excuse making, whether it be a serious issue or a small annoyance, the fact is that excuses can be harmful to our relationships and businesses. Let’s look at an example of a chronically late employee. With a bevy of excuses ranging from “I didn’t hear my alarm” or “traffic was a nightmare,” there are a lot of things that can go wrong when we are trying to get out the door (you can read more about that in our article on how to deal with chronic lateness).

But when it happens day after day, we are not dealing with explanations, we are dealing with excuses. What that means is that the person having the issue is not taking any action to resolve the problem; they are continuing to perpetuate the negative behavior and relying on an explanation to help them avoid dealing with negative repercussions. The problem here is that being late affects the overall business negatively and costs money. Not only is the employee late, but you have to spend time addressing the issue.

Additionally, the lateness comes at a cost to the client experience, whether that be in the corporate world or in the salon. By not being respectful of their time and schedules, a client may choose to take their business elsewhere thus resulting in further profit loss. Bottom line, when we continuously make excuses for our bad behavior, we are telling others that we do not respect their time, their effort or, depending on the sophistication of the excuse, their intelligence. Excuses are the ultimate sign of disrespect and with chronic use, a relationship killer on both the personal and professional level.

“I didn’t know I was making excuses.”

If excuse making is such a problem, why are we doing it? The reasons for making excuses vary, but there are some common motivations:

  • Reinforcements: The start of our excuse making usually happens when we are young. The more and more we realize that by offering an excuse we can “get out of something” the more likely we are to keep doing it. Add up a lifetime’s worth of successful excuse endeavors and this can be a tough one to break.
  • Memory Distortions: This one is a little more complicated. Basically, the first time we tell an excuse, or a tiny little lie, or “massage” a story somewhat, it becomes a part of our source memory. Which means, our actual recall of the events are distorted and while the excuse may not be valid, the teller honestly believes it to be true. Even if the corrupted memory didn’t stem from a small dishonesty in the first place, the human brain is very susceptible to the implantation of false memories. If you were to read a series of words like “cake, candy, honey, sugar” and later were asked if the word “sweet” was in the series, the chances are good that you’ll think it was. The sweet words in the list conjure up the category label and now it becomes part of your neural network. According to the cognitive explanation, lies and excuses build on each other and create their own supposed truthful memories.
  • Preservation of Your Personal Identity: Or best described as “you are what you believe yourself to be.” Anything that conflicts with our sense of our own personal identity will be actually discarded from our memories. So, if we think of ourselves as honest people and we happen to tell a little white lie one day, our brains will seek to suppress the memory of that lie in the future, as it is conflicting with our perception of ourselves. In which case, our brains lead us to believe that the lie or excuse is actually what happened.
  • Self-Serving Biases: This is similar to personal identity in that we often tend to think quite highly of ourselves. Which means, if we are to act negatively it must be because of an outside environmental cause, not because we didn’t accomplish something. In other words, the reason that we were late is not because we didn’t get out of bed on time, it’s the alarm/traffic pattern’s fault.

“It’s hardwired into my brain.”

Just because there are natural inclinations to making excuses, it doesn’t mean that they are inevitable. Beginning to decrease a dependency on excuses starts with a true evaluation of ourselves and our habits. By taking a hard, objective look at our own tendencies, we can begin to identify chronic problem areas and adjust our actions accordingly.

If we find ourselves constantly making excuses for being late, maybe it isn’t always the highway’s fault. By trying something as simple as setting an alarm 15 minutes earlier, we can correct the behavior that makes us run late and negate the need for an excuse later on.

The most important step to stopping the cycle of excuse making is to get brutally honest with ourselves. We all make mistakes, and we all have flaws, but once we begin to identify and own those aspects of ourselves, we can start to correct our own shortcomings and work towards becoming the version of ourselves that we truly aspire to be.