As someone whose ADHD went undiagnosed until the age of 28, I am familiar with the shame involved in excuse-making. Sometimes I was accused of this because of the fact that I have ADHD in general, and other times it was a specific product of it, such as forgetting to go to a doctor’s appointment or not doing the dishes. While I do understand that excuses are abound, particularly in regard to this and other ‘organization-based’ disorders, I am also a firm believer in the fact that not everything we fail to do, or do incorrectly, is an excuse. Explanations are also involved here.
So, what is the difference between an excuse and an explanation, and how do we know which category we are fitting into in any given situation? Well, simply put, we use cognition. When making an excuse, we deny responsibility, and there is also usually an emotional component where we get defensive because we are feeling attacked in some way. An explanation on the other hand, acknowledges responsibility for the situation and has a component where the individual is seeking to be understood.
When having a conversation about a situation in which something either did not get done, got done incorrectly, or even just discussing a behavior in general, it is important to understand that the words we use are important. For instance, using the word “why” often has connotations that suggest a person may be justified in defending themselves or their position, and this often leads to excuse-making. Instead of asking “Why didn’t you meet me for lunch on Saturday like you said you would?” it may be less shaming to instead ask, “I am curious to know the reason for not meeting me for lunch on Saturday?”
In the first example, the person on the receiving end may respond by shutting down entirely, or potentially switching to fight, flight, or freeze mode. This translates to un-safety in the receiving person’s mind, and nothing will get accomplished in this state. When we are feeling backed into a corner in this manner, we are much more likely to make an excuse such as, “I wasn’t feeling well.” “I was stuck in a traffic jam for almost an hour, so I decided it was pointless to go.” “I was going to call and cancel, but I left my phone at home.”
In the second example, the approach is nonjudgmental; the situation is approached with curiosity instead of with blame, and this can make all the difference when getting at the true heart of the matter. “I drove past the restaurant and it was packed; I started to panic over the notion of a large crowd, and I was too embarrassed to call and tell you that I couldn’t walk through the door” says a lot more about what is going on than a typical excuse would. In this case, a solution is now possible, because I have communicated having an issue with social anxiety. It has now become a safe space to talk about it further. Some possible solutions might include going to lunch at a later time, or choosing a restaurant that tends to be more private.
Although in a perfect world, it would be great if we could just communicate in this manner with every person we are connected to, but I know this isn’t always possible. Some people will default to the making-an-excuse thing. This can be for a variety of reasons including, they were raised believing there are only excuses; they are trying in their own way, to help you be more accountable; and sometimes they are simply using manipulation to force a behavior they are more comfortable with. It is important to know this about others, because you can choose to, or not to, maintain a relationship with whoever you want to, and you should be able to do it in a way that is also safe for you.
As I have said before in a previous post, failure is an opinion. But, making excuses can also be an opinion. Trying to make us feel guilty for inaction, or perceived incorrect action actually does more harm than good. What does help is better communication, and also approaching the issue with a curiosity that will create understanding. Being sensitive to the fact that there might be good reasons for the behavior – and not just excuses – will go a lot further in preventing total shutdown. After all, the goal of the interaction should be to further a positive connection for all those involved.