Traffic was horrendous. The system is rigged. They’re looking for someone with more experience. From everyday reasoning to detailed stories that pass blame, we’ve all heard our fair share of excuses. When we’re on the receiving end, it’s easy to spot someone’s motivations, but when we’re giving an excuse, our brains might be masking the truth.
"Making excuses is normal," says Susan David, Harvard Medical School psychologist and author of Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. "It’s important that we have narratives that help us make sense of our lives and our worlds. The problem happens when your excuses take up too much airtime in your lives and stop you from following your heart and your values," she observes, adding, "An excuse that lets you off the hook doesn’t serve you."
Knowing when you’re making an excuse will help you determine who’s in charge: the thinker or the thought, says David. "When the thinker is in charge, you’re coming from a wise place. You can answer the question, ‘Is this what I truly want to do?’" she says. "When the thought is in charge, it could be holding you back."
To know the difference, look for these two red flags.
- Your excuse sounds like an old story. "If you’ve told yourself something along those lines before, and it feels like you’re not objectively looking at the situation," David says.
- Your excuse is surrounded by emotions of anxiety, fear, or anger. "Emotions are difficult and an excuse gives you relief," says David. "It allows you to put aside a move to discomfort. It keeps you safe, but it doesn’t allow you to grow or move toward value."
When you identify your thoughts as excuses, David says there are three things you can do to progress.
One of the main reasons we create an excuse is because we don’t want to do something difficult. A company leader, for example, might need to give negative feedback to an employee. Because that’s a tough conversation, they might create an excuse that they’re too busy.
"It’s forming a mental rationalization," says David. "Instead, you need to step back and notice the feeling of fear. Decide if the action you are choosing not to take will align with your values."
Instead of being driven by thoughts and emotions, David says we should be compassed our by values. "A leader can recognize that fairness is an important value, for example. Tackle the excuse by thinking how fair it is if you don’t give feedback. How fair is it to the rest of team? How fair is it to you?" David says. "Stepping back from the excuse and toward values will help you make choices."
When you’re caught in an excuse, David suggests asking yourself if the action is going to take you toward being the person you want to be over the long term and if it's workable. That answer is a litmus test that will help you discern whether what you’re choosing to do or not do is an excuse.
"Workability is the idea of moving our lives consistently toward what helps us thrive in the long term," she says. "We often do things in the short term that let us off the hook, feel safe, and provide a sense of relief," David explains. "We may feel immediately better in the short term, but if the idea is workable and serves us in the long term, we need to see it as an excuse and move forward from there," she advises.
Sometimes excuses come from seeing the world from the perspective of our personal story. It’s normal to cling to what is familiar, even if it doesn’t make sense, says David.
"When we make the same excuses over and over again, those excuses become so familiar to us that they can be difficult to spot," says David. "It might be something that was drawn on our mental chalkboard when we were in the third grade. Our brains interpret anything familiar as being safe, even if it doesn’t serve us. It’s called self-verification."
If you feel stuck, it could be that an excuse you’re telling yourself is holding you back. In this case, purposefully engage in perspective changing, suggests David.
"Gain the virtue of sitting in a different seat at the table of the situation," she says. "Imagine you are giving advice to someone else. We might feel stuck, but we can almost always identify what to do if we are imagining that the story belongs to someone else."