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When Excuses Mask the Truth

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We may have a lot of excuses, but does that move a situation forward?

When my daughter, Callan, was nine years old, she had a friend who’d join our family on outings and who’d come over to our house to play—but her friend never reciprocated.

Then one day that friend, Rachel, called. For the first time ever, she not only invited Callan to go somewhere with her, but the invitation was to go miniature golfing! Callan was thrilled.

However, Callan had already made arrangements for another friend, Chloe, to come over that same afternoon. When I pointed that out, Callan quickly noted that she saw Chloe a lot—and this was special.

But wasn’t that just an excuse to bail on her other friend?

So, I told Callan she could go miniature golfing so long as she told Chloe the truth, which would be (if she opted to go) that she was the kind of friend who ditches someone in a heartbeat if something better comes along.

In other words, it was Callan’s choice how she spent the afternoon, but I was not going to allow her to excuse her actions in a way that somehow rationalized leaving one friend for another.

When Callan tried again to justify why she should go miniature golfing, I cut her off. The choice was hers, but it had to include the truth.

Callan was not happy with me. I watched her ponder the dilemma, and I honestly did not know what she was going to do.  After about five minutes, I saw her go and pick up the phone and dial. But I still didn’t know which friend she was calling.

And then I heard her say, “Rachel, thanks for inviting me to go miniature golfing, and I really, really, wanted to go. But  . . . I already have plans with another friend today. I hope you ask me again.”

So, even a nine-year-old understood the difference between rationalizing an action and the actual truth.

But how many times do we cover our own truths with an excuse—and do not even realize we’re doing that? So, here are some common examples when excuses mask what’s really the truth.

An excuse: I was late because there was a lot of traffic.
The truth: I was late because I overscheduled my day and did not allow enough wiggle room.

An excuse: I couldn’t do (whatever) because you weren’t clear what needed to be done.
The truth: I didn’t do (whatever) because I didn’t ask for clarification on how to do the job.

An excuse: I didn’t finish (whatever) because there weren’t enough supplies.
The truth: I didn’t finish (whatever) because I didn’t plan accordingly (e.g. buy enough supplies) to complete the task.

An excuse: I can’t pay my bills because my job doesn’t pay me enough money.
The truth: I can’t pay my bills because I spend more money than I make.

Interestingly, these two different responses—an excuse versus the truth—might also give us some insight as to how our own brain is wired.  For example, the excuse mentality can be thought of as a fight or flight reaction.

How’s that? Well, first the person withdraws any personal responsibility for what happened by pointing the finger elsewhere, and then he or she likely goes into the fight mode if others don’t graciously accept the excuse.

In contrast, the truth mentality can be thought of as a cortex response. Here, the person has reflected on his or her own role in whatever has happened and then accepts full responsibility for whatever has transpired.

This latter kind of wiring also decreases the probability the same action will be repeated. That’s because such people have an awareness that they are ultimately responsible for whatever happened, so they can now do something different in the future to avoid the same scenario.

But that’s why we wouldn’t expect that kind of learning curve with a person whose brain is wired to make excuses. Without any self-awareness and reflection, such people will continue to point to someone or something else to justify what they did and, therefore, will likely repeat whatever they did previously.

So why not ask yourself: How often do I mask the truth with an excuse?  To find out, record a point every time you gloss over the truth and make an excuse (that shifts the focus to anyone or anything but you) for whatever happens over the next seven days. Tally your points at the end of the week.

If you accept this challenge, there’s no way you can lose.  If you have no or few points, you can smile and congratulate yourself. If you have more points than you’d like, you can decide to pause as soon as you realize you’ve inserted an excuse in place of the truth—and then, you can reframe what you say.

This is also great modeling for our kids because here’s yet another humbling truth: If we’re tired of all our kids’ excuses . . . have they learned that response from us?

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