This post was inspired by a recent post on Mindless Overthinking about the psychology behind excuses. I left a comment about distinguishing between reasons and excuses, and I thought the idea was worth some further expansion.
The Oxford English Dictionary includes many definitions for “reason”, but these are the most relevant for this purpose:
A cause, ground, or motive
- Of a fact, event, or thing not dependent on human agency
It defines an excuse as:
That which is offered a reason for being excused; sometimes in a bad sense, a (mere) pretext, a subterfuge
- A plea for release from a duty, obligation, etc.
The differences may be subtle, but I think they’re actually really important. The word excuse carries with it a lot of negative overtones. It sounds like an attempt to get out of something that you really should be doing but just don’t want to. I find the sub-definition of reason very interesting, i.e. that reasons aren’t dependent on human agency. Agency refers to the capacity to freely make choices and enact them, so if a reason is not dependent on agency then it is outside the realm of our control. Mental illness in many ways falls into that category; yes, we have some ability to bring about change to a certain extent and in a way that varies over time, but we can’t control the fact that we have an illness.
It seems like people with limited knowledge about mental illness or other invisible disabilities often have a hard time grasping why we can’t do something because of our illness. As a result, they may think we’re being lazy or making excuses if we call in sick or are unable to work due to our illnesses. This is a very different kettle of fish from what I would consider a reason – recognizing that our illness is causing problems for us, and proactively making decisions about what choices will be best for our mental health.
Mental illness can also twist our own thinking so that we start limiting ourselves with excuses but justifying those limits as being bona fide reasons. Depression might make showering really, really hard, and once a week is about all that’s manageable. But maybe depression starts to become an excuse if it’s used as justification to quit trying altogether. Sure, maybe I’ll reconsider next month, depending on how things are going, you know… It can be a tricky balance to find. For me it comes down to making an effort. Maybe I’ll try and then give up today, tomorrow, and the next day, but if I try and get it done the day after that, that’s not about excuses.
The way I see it, excuses are about running away. Reasons are about acceptance of what is, and figuring out how to do the best we can given realistic constraints. Excuses look for ways not to try, and reasons are the opposite. Relying on excuses is disempowering, while acknowledging reasons can be very empowering. Excuses show a lack of insight, while reasons demonstrate that we do have insight into our illness.
What do you think? Is there a difference between reasons and excuses when it comes to how we handle mental illness?
The COVID-19/Mental Health Coping Toolkit page has a wide range of resources to support better mental health and wellbeing.