Excuse me…for these are my excuses
“Excuse me” is such common phrase that when was the last time anyone stopped to think about what it really means when we say it? These days, it is not too different from, “No offense, but…” or any of those other mindless sayings that don’t mean what they mean. We simply churn them out as language fillers or sound bites meant to divert attention from one topic or person to another. The weird thing is, these sayings mean nothing now. When someone says, “Excuse me,” they rarely mean it in a respectful, is it okay for me to contribute now way; it has become a way of declaring it is my turn to talk. Originally, it was meant as a polite way to either get someone’s attention or ask to be invited to interject during a conversation. Perhaps blame Steve Martin (circa 1977) and his incredible catchphrase outlandishly exclaimed, “Well, excuuuuuse me!” Common vernacular aside, my wonder is more about the “excuse” part than the polite part.
It wouldn’t be the English language if we didn’t have multiple ways to define or spell a word and so the other way we think about “excuse me” is sans the request; simply as an excuse. Giving excuses has also become rather common, enough so that it has become part and parcel of many communications when failure, or even the threat of failure, is a result. Everyone’s got one, or two, or a thousand, and they all stink. We all know that person that is full of excuses, has one for everything, and always side-steps accountability because of the deeply entrenched habit of always blaming an excuse. And it is habit. And it sucks.
Recently, I saw the power of excuses on a different and deeper level than ever before. I was working with a high-level sport team at a conference championship event. An event I had been at before, not only as a sport psychologist, but as a coach, and originally as an athlete. This magic combination of perspectives is probably what gave me access to this latest and deepest layer, and for that I am grateful. Working with a sport you once played has the advantage of a type of cellular knowledge and understanding you just can’t access in a sport you didn’t compete. I have worked with just about every kind of sport and while sport is sport, your sport is home. There exists a silent if not secret language to every sport that is only spoken between veterans. When I talk to a swimmer, I understand things without having to ask about them. I remember them without having to think. I feel them without realizing it. When I work with a different sport, I suspect I am constantly comparing my experience in swimming to theirs in their sport, looking for that common competitive ground. It must be like this for everyone, yet I had never considered that.
Why don’t we perform to our capacity or even just to our goals is a question for something much greater than this brief collection of words. It is our natural ability to immediately design an excuse that has my attention these days. See, I had excuses, lots of them, still do. Ask me about why I didn’t accomplish xyz in my swimming career and I can produce a list, an exhaustive list for you. Sounds like a button, “Ask me for my excuses!” What I had not seen before this mixture of experiences came together was the automaticity of it…as well as the cost.
One of the unfortunate things that had to happen for my awareness to increase was to see one of the athletes fail to qualify for the end of the year national championship event. Let me tell you, this is devastating, especially because they had qualified in years before. It is going backwards, not improving, and is such a blow to the ego that excuses might be the only savior. Excuses are built over time, I want to say like a wall but to avoid controversy, let’s just say like plaque in an artery (not much better image, I’m afraid). Anyway, they act as insulation, seemingly protecting us from something, yet closing off full access. They are a buffer between us and what happened, between what we said we were going to do and what we did, and between what we could have done and didn’t. Full on ego conservation. Freud might have been a lot of things but wrong about defense mechanisms wasn’t one of them. “Protect the psyche at all costs,” says the mind. “Okay, here’s how,” says the excuses.
The excuses seem to have some sort of magnetic attraction to each other, or at the least, can multiply like a simple cell dividing and increasing in number before your eyes. She didn’t do the work she needed to do physically, mentally, or emotionally to get back to the national championship meet and that is a fact. It sort of confirms Bo Schembechler’s famous quote, “Every day you either get better or get worse, you never stay the same.” Perhaps she thought it would just happen since it had in the past. Not a bad supposition in all actuality had she kept up the level of training, however, it failed. So devious our ability to convince ourselves that it will just be okay as we choose a path of least resistance for a symphony of reasons. I watched over the course of the short week as her performance declined and the determined look in her eye was replaced with fear. The disbelief was strong, right down until the final moment, a moment I witnessed and one that may never leave me because of its power. I saw the actual moment she realized she was not going to make it. All of the energy and life drained from her face as if she had witnessed a death, for this is death to this athlete. Tears rushed to her eyes without any ability to stave them off or even create a diversion from them. Her head moved lightly from side to side with the universal body language of denial and “no” seeping out from her busy and rattled mind. Her normally rosy-cheeked face was pale, and my heart actually hurt for her and her overwhelming disappointment. “What have I done?” blasted loudly from her silent lips.
Those profound moments of disappointment are common if you are alive. They form a crack, a seam, a crevice that never fully goes away. However, if reflected upon powerfully, they can become the strongest part of the healing in the way that scar tissue is much stronger than regular connective tissue. Wandering around the deck afterwards, I couldn’t help but think about all the excuses I made when I was swimming. And all the excuses I made last week. And all the excuses I made today. Think about how easy it is to produce an excuse, it barely takes any effort. It deflects and protects…in the moment, sure, but it leaves us stranded for the long term. I especially hate it when I hear them falling out of my mouth because I know the moment I am making an excuse, I sound pathetic. And yes, we all sound pathetic when we make excuses. I really want to sugarcoat this so you will like me and continue reading, but the truth is, there is no power for the excuse-giver in an excuse.
So, what do we do instead when we fail? Because we will fail, and we will need to talk about it with the people impacted, we need a strategy or at least, a salvation. The major force acting on us when we resort to excuses is ego. Let us pay homage to Dr. Freud by using this term incorrectly here. To Freud, the ego was a go-between in the psyche, attempting to balance our subconscious desires and what society has imposed upon us. To us now, ego is a manifestation of self in slightly negative terms like importance, arrogance, boastfulness, and if you look deeply enough, self-protection. With this in consideration, excuses are the psyche’s attempt to diffuse the pain or ding we might experience emotionally from not doing what we said we would, a defense mechanism of sorts. Mentally, we can look for data or mistakes or even bad decisions. But emotionally, emotionally there is no escape. No matter how much we try to embrace it, failure rattles us to the core, so we try to protect ourselves and get off the hook by making excuses. You would think the regularity of them would soften the impact, but no.
Imagine you are standing on a 10-meter diving board, the top platform of an Olympic diving tower, three stories up. You slowly approach the edge for a peak over as your heart leaps into your throat. What you see is the water below, covering another chunk of distance before the bottom of the pool, making your fall look even longer. You allow your toes to curl over the edge, first one foot, then the other. Intellectually, you know this cannot kill you, but your Sympathetic Nervous System is telling you otherwise. The fear is palpable, and your mind is looking for any way out of this terrible predicament. The humiliation of climbing back down the stairs is looking better and better the longer you stand there. Deep breathing to control the heart rate, a flurry of self-talk statements trying to talk you out of your emotional state and into a mental one, and a mustering of courage…and you jump. The beginning of the fall is terrifying but as you anticipate hitting the water, your focus shifts to keeping your body straight and your arms at your sides so you slip into the water instead of smack onto it. The pool catches you and the exhilaration and relief are more of a flood than the water ever could be. A ton of energy has been expended but the feeling now is powerful and reaffirming, with recovery on the way as your body and mind bathe in this wonderful feeling. Excuses are climbing back down the tower…and dealing with failure is like jumping off the platform. Fear on both sides but relief on only one. Take a deep breath and jump, you will thank yourself for it.