Have you ever used a reason as an excuse for not doing something? If so, you’re definitely not alone!
It’s often very easy to confuse reasons and excuses. Lately I’ve discovered that I sometimes try to explain my excuses away as reasons—particularly when it’s about something I either don’t want to do or am fearful of following through on.
As usual, the more I notice this tendency in myself, the more I see that pretty much all of us do this on a fairly frequent basis—whether we realize it or not. Sometimes there are genuine reasons for why we can’t or shouldn’t do certain things. When that’s the case, we need to honour that in ourselves—but does that mean we can’t challenge ourselves to do more, to try something new, or to hold ourselves to a higher standard?
Although it can be confusing to distinguish between a real reason and the way we may be manipulating by using those reasons as excuses, it’s important to be able to tell the difference. When we use reasons as excuses, we often unwittingly keep our lives small and stale—even while we ask ourselves questions like “Is this all there is?” or “Why am I so bored or unhappy in my life?” Sometimes this tendency also creates crippling anxiety and indecisiveness, or an inability to let go of a past trauma or event so that we can move on.
But the fact is that the more we allow ourselves to use excuses, the more stuck we’ll remain.
As many of you know from reading about me, I have Crohn’s Disease. This can be a very difficult illness to navigate—it’s often quite painful and debilitating, and there is no known cause or cure for it. When I was first diagnosed in 1973, I was one of the earliest cases known at that time. I’ve now had this condition for over 40 years. I’ve been very sick with it at times, and found myself quite addicted—both physically and psychologically—to many of the medications that the doctors prescribed for me for a lot of years.
But it wasn’t until 1987 that I realized I wasn’t getting any better and that my life was basically going nowhere. I found myself at a devastating personal bottom and, as a result, finally made the choice to put an end to my addiction. That decision put me on the road to recovery—slowly but surely, one day and one positive choice at a time.
It’s hard to believe that I will be celebrating 28 years clean and sober next month—looking back, it seems like it’s gone by so fast, even though it often didn’t feel like that in the moment! I’m a lot more holistically healthy now because I’ve learned how to take much better care of myself, which I continue to do on a daily basis. I still deal with the various symptoms of Crohn’s on a daily basis—it’s just not nearly as debilitating to my daily life as it used to be.
And I’m so grateful for that!
But even though I’m much better than I was and can live a fuller, richer life, I can still feel scared of becoming ill again. I’m now careful to deal with my stress in healthier ways and I keep myself on a strict food plan that I know my body can best handle. Even with such precautions, because of the unpredictability of the symptoms, my life still sometimes feels ruled by this condition.
I know that all of you out there who struggle with any form of chronic illness—whether physical or mental—can understand what I’m talking about.
Here’s an example from my life of how reasons and excuses can become jumbled up, creating heightened anxiety and causing me to feel lost and confused. I’ve been wanting to visit Asia for many years, specifically South Korea. Three years ago, I was planning to go with my amazing friends—I was excited, had my flight and accommodation booked and had even purchased the travel insurance for my pre-existing condition. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as healthy then as I am now—and deep down I actually felt extremely scared about making that long trip with its many uncertainties. One night, I found I couldn’t sleep a wink—and by the time the sun came up I knew, without a doubt, that I couldn’t make the trip. I got out of bed and started writing my apology emails….
I was totally devastated.
But to this day, I still believe I did the right thing. I just wasn’t ready—for many very good reasons. The last thing I wanted to do was go there and be sick—that was not at all the point of the exercise!
Fast forward three years: I still have the same chronic, unpredictable medical condition and I still feel like I’m somewhat ruled by it on a daily basis. But because I’ve continued to practice my all-important self-care, and because I have more tools with which to handle stress—and definitely because I have assembled a dream team of healers who assist me—I am stronger and healthier than I’ve been since my diagnosis 40+ years ago.
My friends will be travelling to Korea again in a few months, and they really want me to join them. What decision will I make?
What I understand today is that I have a choice about how to see this opportunity. Three years ago, in 2012, I’d decided not to go due to a variety of very true and appropriate reasons. And even though some of the uncertain challenges I faced then remain the same now, if I don’t go this time, I fear I’ll be dealing with excuses that actually can be mitigated and handled.
I’m not sure I could live with myself if I did that—and that has become the gauge I use in every area of my life. Sometimes I jokingly refer to this as my vitally important Self-Respect-O-Meter, and I’m very aware today that I need to listen carefully to that inner voice. Can I plan this trip in such way that I can stay as healthy as possible? How will I feel about myself if I don’t even try?
Now I know this is a huge example—at least it feels that way to me. I could easily give you smaller ones too—can’t we all? I can be a great procrastinator, from doing laundry to writing my next blog piece. Although I can be disciplined, I am also a true fan of Bruno Mars’ The Lazy Song—I definitely have my days when “I don’t feel like doing anything, nothing at all.” As grateful as I am to be healthy enough to have quite a busy life today, I also give myself the gift of ‘jammie days’ on a regular basis—and I love every minute of them.
Trust me, I’m just like everyone else who sometimes wants to stop the world and get off for just a little while.
But when I feel like this, I make sure I’m honouring that as a choice—rather than telling myself lies about why I’m doing it. To rationalize and tell myself I’m not doing something because I can’t, is very different than choosing not to do it because I don’t want to. It’s really important for me to be completely accountable and honest with myself today—this is a huge part of what keeps me clean and sober. If I really can’t do something—and there is an appropriate reason for that—I will practice what renowned author Tara Brach aptly calls radical acceptance: “It is what it is. So be it. How will I choose to handle that restriction and move forward?” But if I’m making excuses from a place of fear or discomfort and trying to lie to myself, I know I won’t be able to get away with that for very long. It’s just easier now—and much more self-respectful—to ask myself “Is this a reason, or is this an excuse?”
So how does this play out in your life?
Perhaps you have a large, somewhat daunting goal like finally becoming free from your addictive behaviours. Maybe you know you need to learn how to set (and maintain) better boundaries with the addict in your life. Or it could be that a series of smaller issues are yours to address. What might you be avoiding by using excuses and telling yourself rational lies in an effort to get away with that? Will you be able to maintain your self-respect if you lie to yourself and others about these kinds of choices?
You can start by asking yourself this simple—but not always easy—question:
“What do I really need to do—or not do—in order to respect myself?”
Can you get past the excuses and accomplish what is necessary? As well, can you make friends with your true reasons and have your own sense of radical acceptance, if something really isn’t possible for you?
Instead of feeling any lingering shame about using excuses in place of reasons, let’s remind ourselves that we all do this from time to time—and that it’s something we can change. Let’s start by talking about what we’d really like to accomplish in order to feel our heightened self-respect.
Rather than allowing media commercials or other people’s opinions to sway us and stop us from doing things we actually can do—and want to do—let’s stop hiding from ourselves and become willing to live our own best lives.
Are you ready?