Reasons and excuses: finding understanding

If our childhood lacked empathy, we can grow into adults who feel and behave as though in court. Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

We all like to explain our actions, and those of other people. Reasons are what we call those explanations we consider good and reasonable. Excuses are what we call those explanations which we consider morally deficient.


For example, Ann was late to work for the third time in a week. When she arrived, her boss asked her why she was late. ‘Bad traffic,’ she said. ‘I’m fed up with your excuses,’ said her boss. Using the word ‘excuses’ implies a negative value judgement on the part of the speaker.

When we seek to give a reason for our actions, we are often, in our heads, facing an imaginary court of judgement. Our aim is to offer a reason to which the listener will be sympathetic. The desired outcome is to avoid being punished, or thought badly of.

For this reason, we tend to dress up our reasons in flowery language when it is our behaviour we are talking about. In contrast, when talking about other people’s behaviour, we tend to offer more basic, less nice-sounding reasons, or no reason at all.


In childhood, we learn our language of reasons and excuses from parents and peers. Parents act as a filter through which we try out different phrases. If a parent was a good and kind negotiator, we may grow up able to offer good explanations of our behaviour in a non-defensive manner. On the other hand, if a parent was a bad listener, and ungenerous, we may grow up silent about our own behaviour, because our childhood self decided explanations were not worth it. Alternatively, we may grow up vocal and full of excuses, because our childhood self decided that the best defence is a quasi-legal defence!


In adulthood, we see the effects of all this childhood ‘training’. We all know people who say very little about themselves, and find it very difficult to talk about their own motivation and behaviour. We also all know people who constantly offer justifications for their own conduct, as though defending themselves in an imaginary court. Our worst defensive behaviour, whether silent or full of excuses, tends to arise under extreme pressure.


We also talk to ourselves. It begins with feeling guilty or under pressure. Once we experience it, our body chooses its reaction. Roughly speaking, we have three tactics available:

  1. Silence. We can simply ignore explanations. Our inner dialogue is silent in court. The problem here is that we may find it difficult to learn or change. We may also bury difficult feelings, and never resolve nagging feelings of guilt or anxiety. This may condemn us to repeat what we cannot understand.
  2. Defensive self-talk. We can mutter that if it wasn’t for those mean fools around us, our lives would be so much better. Again, the problem is that we may not learn or change, because our ‘internal lawyer’ always lets us off the hook. We avoid guilt, and sublimate anxiety into complaint against the world. This may condemn us to spend half our lives talking incessantly about why we are not in the wrong. Others will experience us as selfish and self-obsessed.
  3. Understanding. When we feel guilty or under pressure, we can ask ourselves why, without a sense of accusation. We can then listen to the answer. This puts us in touch with our inner guidance system, much like a captain of a ship asking their crew what they honestly think. We maximise our chance of understanding.


In counselling and therapy, we aim for the third option. Often clients arrive in therapy either silent, or highly defensive in their self-talk.

For example, Ellie came to counselling saying: ‘I’ve told my partner so many times about his abusive behaviour, but he completely fails to change.’ She was full of defensive self-talk, and took a long time to settle into careful understanding.

In another example, Tim arrived in therapy very slow and hesitant to speak. It was as though he feared a bomb going off. He was so silenced and bottled up that he didn’t know where to start with himself.

In both of the above cases, time, and an understanding therapist, helps to loosen the behavioural control exercised by either inner silence, or defensive self-talk. Slowly but surely, the client feels safe enough to find a moderate way of negotiating, a happy medium between complete silence and verbal diarrhoea.

The key vehicle for loosening the control of either silence or over-defensiveness, is empathy. Just as an empathic parent can encourage a child to speak their truth, and to negotiate with moderation, so an empathic adult can encourage another human being to get back in touch with their authentic inner self. Once a person feels in safe, empathic company, they can begin to learn without hiding.


It’s human nature to explain our actions. Because we are self-biased, we tend to give ourselves and our friends good explanations for our own behaviour, while dropping others in the mire with negative explanations. When we morally disapprove of someone else’s explanation, we call it an excuse.

Our childhood experience trains us. If we had parents and carers who lacked empathy, we can emerge silent and bottled up, or else verbose and self-defensive. It can take time, and sometimes counselling, to feel safe enough to understand, and communicate, our authentic selves, without fear or judgement.