Reality Check: Do I want to be excused?

May I be excused? A more effective question is, “Do I want to be excused?” Taking it one step further, “Do I want to make excuses for myself?”

What is the purpose of an excuse? It provides a way of looking at an action (usually a negative action) to make it seem ok. It gives us an “out.” The excuse doesn’t make the situation better, but it can make our action seem more understandable and acceptable to us (even if no one else accepts it.)

For example, “I couldn’t pick up your groceries because I was too tired.” “I sounded angry because I was in a hurry.” “I forgot your birthday because I have so much on my mind.” “I can’t pass in my homework because the dog ate my iPad.”

Aside from the iPad-eating dog excuse, (which was undoubtedly valid), these examples show how easily we justify actions by excusing ourselves.

Excuses can help us feel that we’re not responsible for what we’ve done. Valid excuses are especially tempting. However, no matter how valid, does an excuse help us achieve our goals?

Phil wants better relationships. He’s noticed that some people manage to have great relationships with everyone. That’s definitely not the case for Phil, and he realizes that he’d be happier if he could get along better with people.

Now, Phil’s wife, his family, even his co-workers have told him that he can be harsh and unpleasant. Phil doesn’t believe it. They must be mistaken.

Phil was in a meeting when his phone rang. It’s his mother-in-law, asking him to stop by and look at her leaking faucet. Phil is irritated and snaps, “I don’t have time for this; don’t call me at work.” Then he hangs up.

This upsets his mother-in-law, and Phil later apologizes. “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. You shouldn’t have taken it that way. But I was in an important meeting and didn’t have time to talk about faucets.”

Although Phil apologized, essentially he’s also saying, “…but it wasn’t my fault!” He knows he didn’t handle the situation well, but he had a valid excuse.

Phil says he wants better relationships. The phone incident, followed by his “apology,” did not help that relationship; it made it worse.

However, Phil thinks he’s done everything he can. He had an excuse for his behaviour; there was nothing else he could have done.

Or was there?

Phil had choices. He could have chosen to let the call go to voice mail. He could have chosen to answer the call, tell his mother-in-law that he can’t talk now but he will call her back in an hour. He could have excused himself from the meeting by saying, “I have to take this call; please excuse me for 5 minutes.”

Choice theory suggests that excuses, even valid ones, stand in our way. By excusing his behaviour, Phil isn’t holding himself accountable. He’s not acknowledging the damage caused by his action, nor is he thinking about how he might improve his behaviour next time.

Does making excuses help you? Or hurt you?

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