Did you ever give an excuse for a mistake you made? Of course, you did – we all do it.

Your spouse asks, “Why are you late?” You say, “The traffic was insane.” (What you should have said: “I lost track of time and was late leaving to get you. Sorry. I blew it. Next time I’ll leave earlier.”) Your boss says, “You’re the project team leader and I have to say the proposal you presented leaves a lot to be desired.” You say, “Some of the team members just dropped the ball and didn’t tell me.” (What you should have said: “I didn’t monitor the team on a daily basis to make sure we were on schedule. At the last minute I had to throw stuff together to get the report in on time. I’m to blame. If you’ll give me an extension, I will personally correct the flaws.”)

In the examples above, the “you say” excuses are a poor way to cope. They are pure avoidance of accountability, plain and simple. Sure, you may temporarily escape some direct criticism from others, but in the long run you have made yourself vulnerable to doubts from others: “Is he reliable? Can I really depend on him to be on time?” “Does she really have the leadership skills to run a team? Should I replace her?”

On the other hand, the “what you should say” responses show excellent coping. First, you take responsibility and admit fault; second, you say you know why you’re at fault; third, you ask for a chance to demonstrate how you will correct your mistake. These steps are the essence of good coping: acceptance of your actions; accountability for the outcome; a correction plan for the future.

Obviously, when things go wrong it is not always your fault. But if you get in a chronic, habitual pattern of making excuses when you fail, you are practicing the ego-defense of Rationalization. Your default mode does not include taking blame for failure or apologizing for failure. “I am responsible for this mess and I apologize for it.” Such a combination of words is simply not in your vocabulary.

What does Rationalization signify? Insecurity about your ability to handle challenges; fear of failure; low self-esteem; feelings of helplessness and incompetence when faced with an obstacle. Rationalization shows weak ego strength that must be hidden from both others and yourself, especially the latter.

Faced with failure, without excuses your fragile ego will crumble and you will be plunged into anxiety. You must, therefore, avoid facing the possibility that you are responsible for the failure by making excuses to deflect the blame elsewhere.

The coping lesson is simple: When you fail, do an honest examination of what happened. What parts of the situation were under your control and what parts were not? You need to revise your concern about the latter because there’s not much you can do about things you can’t control. As for the former, if you were at fault, you need to take responsibility and examine how you can change your behavior to make failure less likely in the future. That’s called being accountable and taking steps to correct your mistakes!

Acceptance, Accountability, Correction Plan – make these character-driven traits a part of your everyday approach to life and you will reap unexpected benefits.

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