Are Excuses in the Way of the Practice (and Life!) You Really Want?

by Certified Coach Alissa Gauger, MBA


Ask yourself this question: “If I didn’t allow myself to make any excuses today, what would happen?”What is your reaction?

Now try this…Florence Nightingale, the woman credited with establishing the foundation for professional nursing, said, “I attribute my success to this—I never gave or took any excuse.” So, take a tip from this successful woman, and now imagine that you no longer make or accept excuses. Now what becomes possible?

Excuses are really just a simple way to prevent yourself from making a change or taking action. It’s the quickest and easiest way out of facing your fears, being courageous, setting a healthy boundary, making progress or trying something new. Now why would you do that?

Without excuses, you might take a risk. The risk could cost you security, reputation, pride, your ego, money, time and any number of uncomfortable outcomes. The “Reptilian” part of your brain responsible for keeping you safe and sound (your “Lizard”) is on the lookout for threats all the time—real or imagined.

For example, making another excuse for why you can’t phone today is “safer” according to your lizard. Your lizard is trying to prevent you from getting on the phone, having someone “reject you” and causing you to be cast out by the other humans. After all, staying close with your tribe is safer than being by yourself. This might sound ridiculous when it’s all spelled out, but your lizard brain is primitive and isn’t taking any chances.

Here’s what is “dangerous” to your Lizard (outside of attackers, near car accidents, bears, war, famine, tornados, and all kinds of genuine threats to your safety which are, of course, truly dangerous):

Here are the types of fake-out “danger” that your lizard also responds to even though you are not in harms way:

“Lack” A short phone list Not enough money in the bank (according to you) Not eating or drinking water for hours at a time because you’re busy No Qualified Suspects A light calendar A client not responding

“Attack” Client emails asking for policy cancellations Your spouse criticizing you A vaguely worded text message that sounds like your friend is blaming you An employee resigning and saying they can’t work for you Being turned down for a line of credit A warning that you are not meeting minimums A fear that you are being surpassed by your peers

To some degree every day, your reptilian brain will become activated. Hilariously it doesn’t matter if you are in the most rural area in the world using your survival instincts to stay alive or if you are sitting in a nice suit in a comfortable air-conditioned office—the reaction is the same. Our bodies have not adapted to react to psychological (or perceived psychological) threats any differently than real, physical threats (which cause use to flee, fight or freeze for our best chance of survival facing a genuine threat!).

So, in most cases, excuses play a valuable role in keeping you small and safe. You will not challenge yourself to take risks. Thankfully, we are more than our lizard brains! We have the choice to work with our instinct or let it work us over. Humans have a highly advanced pre-frontal cortex responsible for complex brain function. We are verbal, rational, analytical and creative beings capable of out-thinking the lizard brain.

Step one: acknowledge your own excuses. Hear them for what they are and offer yourself compassion. You are trying to stay safe (which sometimes does serve you).

Step two: does this excuse serve you? Yes or no?

Step three: if no, call it what it is! Excuses hold no power over you.

Step four: Ground your body to come out of "fight or flight" to "rest and digest." Here are some ideas: Do a Power Pose to reduce your stress and increase your confidence Take three 7/11 breaths (inhale for 7 seconds/exhale for 11 seconds) Try a “belly breath” (place your hand on your belly button and inhale until it expands fully, hold your breath for 4 seconds and exhale) Feel gratitude Fill your body with the feeling of loving someone Learn Tension Releasing Exercises

Step five: revisit the action for which you made the excuse. Take the smallest step possible in a positive direction.

Step six: Once you have mastered your own excuse-making, now you can begin asking the same of others, but not before then!

Ask yourself again: “If I didn’t allow myself to make or take any excuses today, what would happen?” Feel your body’s reaction. You know what to do.

Coaching Tip Write down a list of your most common excuses. Pick one excuse you'd like to work on first. Pick the easiest one so that you can experience an early win and then build on it. Notice why the excuse exists and the form that it takes. Does it blame someone else, cast doubt on your abilities, make you feel "lazy" or keep you safe? Gently examine why you have the excuse. Next, take back your power by claiming ownership over the excuse. For example, "I can't phone because it's too noisy in the office" might be serving multiple functions. Notice that it blames others, casts doubt on your abilities and likely prevents you from experiencing discomfort. Offer yourself compassion for wanting to feel comfortable and safe. Now take the smallest step in the desired direction: organize a phone list and make 10 dials, for example. Other excuses may pop up to get you off the hook. Name them and gently put them aside as you continue to challenge yourself to work through each one.