Making Excuses Vs. Offering an Explanation

It seems like I spend 90% of my life struggling with one nuance or another.

The latest has been trying to differentiate between what constitutes “making excuses” vs. “offering an explanation.”

I set this question out to some of my friends. They overwhelmingly stressed that timing was a key factor (people need a while to cool down and get out of the hotly negative feeling place), and that a big difference was that excuses were made to avoid personal responsibility and explanations were  made to further mutual understanding (after all, you don’t get to tell someone whether you hurt them or not, regardless of your intent). It’s still rather ambiguous to me how one can differentiate between these two – I tend to assume benevolence unless a clear pattern has been established to the contrary. One friend very involved with social justice issues also stressed that with matters of offensive sexist and racist remarks explanations trend too quickly towards apologism to be acceptable, a point with which I agree. What follows is my take, the tentative understanding of excuse vs. explanation that I’ve cultivated as a byproduct of those discussions:

I find that when I’m in heated conflict with most folks, and I try to let them know where I was coming from, after apologizing and while still accepting responsibility for whatever hurt or fallout my actions caused, that their instinct is to say it’s “making excuses.” Time seems to be a crucial component — they seem to need some time to calm down and detach a bit from the situation. And I know it’s important to apologize and acknowledge the consequences of your actions. But honestly? When a stressful conflict occurs, I’m usually interested in what we were both thinking (I want their explanations, too) so that we can not get there in the future.

I might be biased here because I think “blame” is an unproductive way of framing things. I tend to find myself less likely to say “it’s your fault!” when I feel like someone has acted in a less than ideal way and just sort of get surprised and confused at the behavior and try to figure out a way I can let them know that I didn’t like it without hurting their feelings and/or making an icky situation worse.

So when I’m like “I’m so sorry that I did X. That was not good of me. Here’s where I was coming from…” and I’m told “I don’t want to hear your excuses,” it’s difficult for me, and I’m quite not sure what to do.

And it’s, like, so FUCKING hard if you WANT to do better, and you do something wrong, if you can’t have those very important conversations (to my thinking) about what EXACTLY WENT WRONG.

I guess it’s extra fascinating for me because the way people tend to behave is so opposite what I’ve been taught re: good professional mistake etiquette when working with your boss (and what I practice with my boss and supervisees), especially if your position involves making really ambiguous decisions: After you fess up to a mistake/misstep/undesirable outcome and assume responsibility for it, you then tell your boss where you think things went wrong and then you offer potential ideas to help prevent it from happening again in the future.

So I’m wondering if it’s that I’m always looking to the future of the relationship (be it work, friendship, romantic, or otherwise), beyond the current incident. Part of what has helped is intentionally inserting more time so that the other person understands I’m going big picture on things, but yeah. It can’t be helped. I’m always concerned about making the next conflict or mistake/misstep more productive.

This might be from going through a divorce, something I never thought I’d do. The ex was very much from the “drop it” school of conflict resolution, and we never really got over anything.

This also might be a blindspot I have with the dependent personality disorder because I don’t think I’ve ever been in the situation where I told someone I’m close to and care about what they did hurt my feelings and they apologized and said what went through their head and I even THOUGHT “stop making excuses” or got annoyed or anything.

I generally like knowing why people do what they do (or at least why they THINK they do what they do), even if it doesn’t mitigate what they’ve done.

So the “stop making excuses” thing is completely foreign to me.

It’s happened that I’ve shared heated discussions with a third party or something trying to coax some sense out of the conflict, and THEY’VE pointed out “yeesh, that person’s just making excuses” and I’m like “huh, really?”

People with DPD have a strong bias to assume that the person they’re talking with at least has some kind of valid point that they’re not necessarily seeing.

I also kind of pulled it apart and realized that when someone hurts me and apologizes, I *DO* want to know as soon as possible that they meant me no harm. And that’s kind of weird. Because when someone hurts me, sometimes I worry in the moment that they’ve been tricking me all along, and they secretly hate me, and I want to be assured that they love and care for me, even if they did something that was hurtful or kind of mean.

So, like.. the first thing I want to know when someone hurts my feelings is that they’re not doing it on purpose.

And I find that curious.

It may very well be because I was caught in double binds for most of my childhood, very capricious parental emotional modeling and strict authoritarian upbringing.

I suspect it has to do with the fact that I’d get punished for practically nothing, an angry expression that I overlook or a missed opportunity to grovel and apologize for something I didn’t even know I had done could explode into mom breaking my stuff. I relate well to this quote:

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And this is kind of why the golden rule (“treat others as you’d like to be treated”) sounds good in theory but can often be garbage in practice – the exact treatment that I like is completely annoying to other people.

What I want more than anything when someone messes up is to know they still love me and to figure out exactly went wrong, on both sides, and take any possible steps to help assure that this happens less frequently in the future. I don’t need anyone to grovel or bleed for me.

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