How to Overcome Excuses Without Beating Yourself Up

There is no shortage of motivational advice written about overcoming excuses, but in case you haven’t noticed, we haven’t solved the problem yet. And to be entirely honest with you, it’s because most of the advice out there sucks. So we all keep making excuses to ourselves and others, then beating ourselves up.

Many make excuses for not exercising or for poor work performance. Others ask why they make so many excuses not to go out with friends or avoid people and commitments. This funny little social mechanism, a thorn in many sides, leads most of us to wonder at one point or another: how do I overcome these excuses?

The problem with all the ineffective advice is that we haven’t been asking the right question yet. If we want to get things turning, we should ask: How do I overcome my excuses in a healthy way?

We’ve got most of it there already, but it’s the healthy part that we’ve been missing. 

We are going to answer that question today — the real question. But first, we need to understand why we haven’t “solved” excuses yet, and the problem with the question we’ve been asking.

Where We’re Getting it Wrong with Excuses

We generally don’t like excuses very much, right? They’re essentially a tool to dodge responsibility in an area where you failed, came up short, or created a problem.

This behavior leads to disappointment in oneself, as well as causing frustration in others. 

There are no winners here. 

Ergo, we have the general line of thinking that excuses are things we shouldn’t use. It is a shortcoming compounded on top of another (that is, having messed up in the first place), and we associate this with weakness.

Most of the times you see or hear the word “excuse,” it’s either 1) being used to scold someone (e.g., “I don’t want to hear your excuses!”), or 2) it’s in catchy motivational one-liners or self-help aphorisms like:

  • “Excuses don’t get results.”
  • “Find a way, not an excuse.”
  • “Excuses are for people who don’t want it bad enough.”
  • “Make moves or make excuses.”
  • And, of course, the all-powerful “NO EXCUSES.”

We look at someone making an excuse and chalk it up to being weak (a word we already struggle to use constructively), and just like that, the solution becomes “just be better.”

“Just Be Better”

Those phrases above can boost the confidence of try-hards and people who already feel good about their motivation and self-discipline. And, of course, they look great on posters and t-shirts that used to have sleeves but don’t have sleeves anymore. Presumably, the sleeves burst off by themselves in sheer awe of the absolute meat cannons of the aforementioned iron-willed superheroes.

As for us mere mortals, talk like this is not especially helpful.

It turns out that addressing a problem by telling someone (including yourself) not to have that problem anymore is about as helpful as a middle shoe.

Imagine telling a sick person to “push past that weakness” or telling an unhappy person to “just cheer up.” The latter of which, by the way, is called toxic positivity.

We create a toxic environment by treating excuses as a sign of weakness, a disappointing but intentional life choice. It makes everyone feel lousy yet doesn’t do anything to deal with excuses or their underlying causes. 

Not exactly helpful, is it?

Now that we see the solution not to use on the problem we’re not solving, let’s dive into what we are dealing with here.

Why Do We Make Excuses?

The basic anatomy of an excuse isn’t all that complicated when you get down to it.

It starts when you say, do, or (perhaps most often) don’t do something and don’t feel proud of it. Maybe you broke a rule or let someone down. Perhaps you let yourself down. In any case, it feels uncomfortable because it’s something the best version of you would not have done, and you know it.

But this is an uncomfortable truth to bear and an easy one to reject if only a more palatable narrative existed.

And here we have it. An excuse, typically, is a version of the story that excuses you from full responsibility for a particular outcome without significantly altering the facts. It aims to protect the speaker from vulnerability by easing the listener’s disappointment, anger, or frustration (when you make excuses to yourself, you are both the speaker and the listener). In other words, it is a tool to de-escalate a situation gone wrong.

The broader effect of an excuse (made in a healthy way and for a valid reason) is that it helps to preserve self-image and maintain relationships. No one (including you) needs to beat you up for every minor misstep, especially when extenuating circumstances exist.

When viewed like this, an excuse is a healthy psychological tool. The problem only comes (and it comes quickly) when we get too comfortable using this mechanism and start to make too many excuses.

Too Many Excuses

As an occasional occurrence, there’s nothing wrong with an excuse.

If you show up late to work for the first time in three years due to a major road closure, making that excuse is no harm to anyone. You know you are a punctual person, and that this was not your fault, and that any reasonable person will see that. So you ought to be excused from being judged as tardy or unreliable.

So long as you accept some responsibility in the matter and adjust your schedule (or route) in the future, there’s no need for anyone to chew you out or make you feel like garbage.

If you show up late to work for the third time in a week and mutter something about “traffic,” it becomes clear that you’re taking no responsibility for your situation. When you over-use excuses to dodge culpability routinely, the benefits of excuses can backfire. 

Working out is another example. If you miss a week at the gym while healing a legitimate injury, that’s a valid excuse. No harm done. It is not a reason to blame yourself. But if you try to excuse yourself from your leg workout for the ninth week in a row because of the vernal equinox, then you are creating a problematic pattern of excuses and giving them control.

So, where does this pattern lead? Why should you avoid making too many excuses? You probably already have some sense of it, or else you wouldn’t be here in the first place. But let’s take a moment to hammer out exactly what we’re trying to avoid here.

Consequences of Making Too Many Excuses

There is room for excuses. They can be a healthy mechanism when used constructively. But there’s a reason we talk about excuses the way we do, as something to “deal with.” And that reason is what happens when we get too comfortable making excuses.

When you default to looking for a new, preferable narrative any time you come up short in a task, you create a pattern that makes coming up short feel okay. But, unfortunately, constantly choosing the short-term comfort of not being at fault comes at a significant cost.

Relying too heavily on excuses can have a bevy of consequences, including:

  • Others losing their respect for you 
  • You losing respect for yourself
  • Breaking down others’ trust in you 
  • People not believing your excuses anymore (think “Boy Who Cried Wolf”)
  • Being seen (and treated) as unreliable
  • Internalizing the belief that nothing that goes wrong is your responsibility and reducing your motivation to fix the underlying problems

Excuses are like band-aids. They protect you while you address the underlying issue. But an excuse, like a band-aid, isn’t a solution to every problem and won’t fix everything on its own. 

To overcome excuses and the trap they can put us in, we need to finally see them for what they are: short-term tools that assist us while we make long-term changes.

With that in mind, we can now talk about how to deal with excuses directly without beating ourselves up about them.

How Do I Overcome My Excuses?

Okay, ready? How to overcome your excuses in just five steps. Here we go:

  1. Quit being a lazy punk.
  2. Buy a t-shirt that says, “No Fear, No Limits, No Excuses.” The exact wording here is crucial because if the shirt says anything different, you may end up with fear or limits, which we don’t want.
  3. You know what comes next: rip those sleeves off. Rip ’em right off! Toss those bad boys in the trash. They’re of no use where we’re going; they can only hold us back. Sleeves are like the excuses of upper torso attire. 
  4. Feel the excuses melt away from you as weakness hastily flees your body.
  5. Go forth and accomplish whatever you want, free of excuses (and limits). You’re cured.

Okay, these steps won’t quite work, at all, probably ever. But wow, wouldn’t that be something? 

Now that I’ve got that out of my system let’s lay out a few tips that can help you to overcome your excuses in a helpful and lasting way.

Start with Self-Love, not Self-Loathing

You may be unusually motivated to make an excuse for yourself because you’ve already started beating yourself up before anyone else even has a chance. If you over-inflate the consequences of your actions (or inaction) in your head, you’ll be driven by a primal need to protect yourself. An excuse becomes the shield of choice.

By practicing love and understanding for yourself, it becomes easier to see that not every mistake or shortcoming is the end of the world. If you can react to yourself with honesty and acceptance rather than anger and loathing, you will be more prepared for (and less fearful of) the reactions of others. That is the first step to making room for responsibility.

Make Room for Responsibility

Above, we discussed how excuses help us deflect responsibility under challenging circumstances. 

We do this because responsibility carries the weight of failure, which can cause pain. But at the same time, responsibility brings us the power and motivation to make changes, improve things, and reduce the risk of future failures and missteps. Pain feels bad, but that doesn’t mean we should never feel it.

Do your best to accept at least some responsibility for your outcomes, both internally and to others. Even when you have a good excuse, when there is a reason things didn’t work out the way you wanted them to, there is room for responsibility alongside it. Sometimes things are your fault. Sometimes they are not. But it doesn’t have to be your fault to be your responsibility. In either case, you have the power to decide what comes next, perhaps even the obligation.

Do not become so comfortable with your excuses that they make you complacent — even the good ones.

Be Honest and Humble

Things go wrong, and we mess stuff up. Everyone gets that.

Sometimes, something goes wrong in a way that is entirely beyond your control. There was nothing you could have done, and now we’re here. But you know as well as I do, sometimes it is truly our fault. And more often than not, the best thing you can do is own that outcome. 

“I messed up. I will do better next time.” It’s not as bad as our minds can build it up to be. 

Sure, someone else may be mad, or you may be disappointed in yourself. But those feelings will pass. What will not pass is that you chose honesty and responsibility over the passing comfort of dodging the truth. In so doing, you earn the respect of others and yourself. And, just like we covered in #2 above, choosing responsibility is a key motivator in not finding yourself in this situation again next time.

The Best Excuse Is not Needing an Excuse

The decision of whether or not to make an excuse in the moment is a tricky one. Sometimes it’s okay, and other times it’s better to own up to things fully. It usually depends on the context and your relationship with other involved parties. 

But if there’s one sure thing, it’s what to do after this moment has passed.

Our greatest pitfall in overcoming excuses is that we treat these moments like they exist in a vacuum. As if these are single moments of weakness, and it is up to the magnitude of our willpower whether we will overcome them.

But very few things exist in a vacuum, and when it comes to changing behavior, it is usually patterns that we should be looking out for.

If something comes up and gets in your way one time, and justifying yourself seems the way to go, then sure, do it. But when that moment has gone by, it is up to you to reflect and address whatever you need to, so that same thing doesn’t keep happening.

When you make the same excuse three days in a row, you have given in to comfort over necessary change and let the excuses win. But if you are ready to love and accept yourself, take responsibility, and make changes, then you will be the one to overcome your excuses every time.

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Hey, I’m Sam. I created Smarter and Harder to explore big ideas, both old and new, about building a better life. My mission is to evolve the conversation about personal growth and have fun doing it.

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