Complaining, judging, and making excuses. At a glance, these seem unrelated. Apart from the fact that we all do it sometimes, is there something else they have in common?
Yes, their incredibly destructive potential.
In this article, we’re going to tackle all three of these behaviors, analyze them, explain, and see what can be done to break up with them once and for all.
Excuses: What Are They and Why We Make Them
Are some of these words familiar to you:
- Comfort zone;
If at least three of these terms apply to you, you’re most likely struggling with constantly finding excuses.
"I failed the test because the teacher hates me."
"I’m too old to start dancing."
"I’ll start working out on Monday. It’s bad mojo to begin in the middle of the week..."
We all make excuses from time to time. The common view is that excuses are a facade for laziness, while science shows that they can be seen as coping mechanisms.
The first psychologist to discuss the role of excuses in our psychic life was Alfred Adler. He suggested that people blame external factors or minimize the importance of the situation whenever they feel unable to take responsibility or face the truth. All that with the goal of maintaining a positive self-image.
In a study conducted in 1989, researchers Higgins and Snyder split the participants into two random groups. They were given the same learning task, but one group received positive, while the other one received negative feedback.
Those who received negative feedback rated the task as difficult more often, while the group that received positive feedback rated it easy. Participants in the second group needed to come up with an excuse for their supposed failure. Almost none of them took personal responsibility for the “failure”, thus maintaining a positive self-image.
The underlying mechanism that generates excuses is the unpleasant state of cognitive dissonance. A feeling of discomfort when our thoughts, beliefs, and/or attitudes are inconsistent.
If you believe that you’re a good student, failing a test brings you into a state of cognitive dissonance.
As human beings, we strive for internal consistency: we want our thoughts, beliefs, actions, and the outside world to be aligned. Once we experience inconsistency, we search for ways to resolve it. We try to justify our behavior by adding new aspects to the story, or we try to avoid contradictory information that causes the inconsistency.
Here are some of the mechanisms we use.
- “Sour grape” type of rationalization: “I failed the exam because the teacher hates me.”
- Trivialization: changing our beliefs to reduce the importance of the situation and the level of dissonance. “The exam wasn’t that important anyway.”
- “Sweet lemon” type of rationalization: “That person is boring, I didn’t want to date them anyway. They’re much better off with X.” “I didn’t want to get into university, I wanted to get a year off and travel.”
- Distraction: instead of doing what we’re supposed to do, we procrastinate, while convincing ourselves that we’re doing something good like resting, researching, reading, cleaning, talking to friends, etc.
The underlying mechanism for making excuses may be cognitive dissonance, but what is the reason?
- Fear of failure;
- Fear of responsibility;
- Fear of uncertainty;
- Fear of embarrassment;
- Fear of change;
- Even fear of success (procrastination—as success itself comes with certain responsibilities);
- Lack of confidence that induces fear.
If making excuses becomes a life-long strategy, things could easily go way off track. Refusing to take responsibility, losing other people’s trust, procrastinating, and not reaching full potentials are only some of the consequences.
Luckily, you can put a stop to that. And it’s not a matter of talent, environment, or even intelligence: it’s only a matter of will and choice.
How to Stop Making Excuses
1. STOP COMPARING YOURSELF TO OTHERS
While comparing ourselves to other people is inherent to human nature, it also makes us vulnerable to the fear of underachievement and failure.
The only comparison worth our attention is with ourselves. How do you picture the best version of yourself? How close are you to that image? What do you need to achieve that?
2. NURTURE A POSITIVE MINDSET: PRACTICE GRATITUDE AND AFFIRMATIONS
Excuses are made from an unflattering position of fear and dissatisfaction. Negative emotions and attitudes generate negative behaviors. The best way to put an end to this is to focus on the positive. There are two excellent practices for boosting your morale and instilling a positive mindset: keeping a gratitude journal; and practicing affirmations.
Instilling a positive mindset is a process, not a one-time trick. Take time and be consistent with your daily positivity practice.
3. REDEFINE THE MEANING OF “FAILURE” AND “MISTAKES”
Fearing failure is at the core of making excuses. This fear can be so restraining that we start avoiding risks at all costs and fall victim to our own fixed mindset: the belief that our abilities, talents, or personal limitations are predetermined and carved in stone.
If this becomes our only reality, what else is there but to make excuses, delay finishing projects, procrastinate, or blame external factors for our lack of success?
Luckily, no one's abilities are carved in stone. Hard work and redefining the meaning of success, mistakes, and failures are the way towards achieving a growth mindset and a more productive life.
Failure and mistakes are an inevitable part of any success. Reaching a goal means surviving a long sequence of failures and learning from the many mistakes you make along the way.
Instead of fearing failure, start seeing valuable lessons in it. Instead of believing that you’re not smart enough for something, believe that you’re on a long journey of learning a new skill.
4. REALIZE IMPERFECTIONS ARE OKAY
Imperfections are not something to cry about, they’re what makes us unique human beings. Dwelling on your imperfections can only slow you down and throw you deeper down the well.
Take time to accept your mistakes, process them, analyze lessons you can learn from that experience, and move on.
Spent an unplanned amount of money? Failed an exam? Fell out of your weekly schedule? Over promised and under delivered?
That’s fine. No reason to ruminate over the guilt or crown yourself as unable to continue striving towards your goal. Accept what you did and move on. Life can be much simpler than you think.
Complaining: What Is It and Why We Do It
Complaining means expressing dissatisfaction, opposition, concern, or annoyance about something or someone.
While there’s nothing wrong with occasional complaining (it can even feel liberating), turning it into a habit can have some negative effects.
Apart from the fact that it’s annoying for the people around us, this kind of pessimistic attitude can be harmful for our health too.
A 2004 study revealed that people with an optimistic attitude have better heart health than those with pessimistic worldview and a lower death risk from all causes.
An 11-year long longitudinal study discovered that pessimistic people are at a 2.2 times higher risk of dying from Coronary heart disease, regardless of gender, smoking habits, or history of diabetes.
Complaining has a lot to do with our mental health too. When combined with factors like lower activity levels, sadness, emptiness, loss of interest, or sleep problems, constant complaining can also be a symptom of depression.
TOP 5 REASONS WHY PEOPLE COMPLAIN
1. Frustration: the inability to achieve a certain goal or satisfy a need can result in frustration and complaining.
2. Pessimism and depression: when something’s not right on the inside we tend to project it on the outside. The final result is often a negative attitude and complaining.
3. Family culture: if you grow up in an environment where people constantly complain about everything, this becomes your modus operandi.
4. Attention: for some people, complaining is the way of getting others’ attention. There’s no shame in noticing this as a personal pattern and trying to correct it.
5. The negativity bias: humans are wired to notice and experience the bad things with greater intensity than the good things. This can nurture a complaining mentality.
How to Stop Complaining—A Few Simple Tips
Overcoming negative episodes takes time and patience.
1. TALK ABOUT EMOTIONS INSTEAD OF FRUSTRATIONS
Instead of complaining, you can take a more constructive approach and talk about your real feelings. Complaints are signals that something is wrong, but they’re debilitating because there’s nothing to grab on to and perhaps fix. Feelings, on the other hand, help you understand why you’re feeling this way. They bring you closer to other people and opening up can help you overcome adversities.
2. VENT ELSEWHERE
Physical activity, arts and crafts, taking up hobbies, or keeping a journal are excellent bad mood vents.
Instead of further dampening your mood through complaining, focus on an activity that brings you joy. Whatever you choose as your vent make sure that:
- You like it;
- You find the activity rewarding;
- You feel relieved afterward.
3. PRACTICE GRATITUDE
The opposite of a complaining and pessimistic attitude is an attitude of gratitude. Be grateful for your amazing team members instead of complaining about your boss or workload.
This positive mindset strategy won’t make the bad things go away, but, if you shift your focus, they will become less important, and vice versa.
4. ACCEPT RESPONSIBILITY
Complaining about something that’s bothering you directly or indirectly is a form of passive, reactive behavior that leads nowhere. If you’d like to see a change, take full ownership of what’s happening in your life. Take a more proactive, responsible role, and either resolve the situation or accept it, let it go, and move on.
5. CATCH YOURSELF DOING IT
The most difficult part in changing a behavior is recognizing it in the moment.
Search for clues in other people’s reactions, monitor your own behavior, or ask someone you’re close with to tell you when they notice you’re complaining too much.
Judging: What Is It and Why We Do It
Judging a person doesn’t define them. It defines you. - Unknown
THE FIRST IMPRESSION
According to science, it takes only 0.1 seconds for us to form an impression of another person’s character. While the accuracy of these impressions may vary, one thing is constant: they are very consistent.
An experiment conducted at the beginning and at the end of the semester at Stanford University showed that students’ first impressions about teachers, which were based on 15-second-long silent video clips of them, barely changed by the end of the semester.
As humans, we strongly value first impressions and find it extremely hard to part with them.
There are so many proverbs about first impressions, emphasizing their major role in our socialization: “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”, or “The first impression is the last impression.” Although valuable, first impressions are not necessarily very accurate. That’s why we also say “don’t judge a book by its cover”.
The consequence of passing judgements based on the first impression is a cognitive bias called the halo effect or halo error, which refers to the way we draw conclusions about someone’s character based on a glance.
Simply put, some people may think that a beautiful or well-dressed person is also a good person, or that someone wearing ripped clothes is bad or dangerous. This is how prejudice is formed.
In reality, it’s impossible to stay completely free from judgement. That’s how our brains work: we connect information based on cultural norms, experience, and parental messages, mash them up and draw conclusions.
However, we can catch ourselves at it and consciously let it go.
“YOU’RE TO BLAME”
Another common cognitive error that follows up on the halo error is the fundamental attribution error, or the tendency to overestimate the importance of a person’s character (over external factors) in certain situations.
We also judge other people because we want to feel better about ourselves.
“That idea is so stupid.”—implies that my idea is better.
“This presentation is boring.”—implies that I would have made a better one.
“This is the worst movie ever.”—implies that I would have made a better choice.
“What kind of outfit is THAT?”—implies that I have a more sophisticated dressing style.
The way we judge other people often reflects our fear of others’ thoughts about us. We try to align our judgments to our assumptions about other people’s opinions.
How to Stop Being Judgmental?
Here are some simple tips that should help you become less judgemental.
1. ACCEPT YOURSELF
Passing judgment can be a social-survival strategy. We organize our world in categories and connect pieces that don’t necessarily fit together: every fluffy dog wants to cuddle, and every muscular one will bite. This strategy helps us survive in difficult conditions, but produces hurtful prejudice as a side effect.
Take a look inside your and try to understand your needs. What is the source of your negative judgment? The sooner you understand and accept yourself, the sooner you’ll be able to recognize and let go of toxic behaviors.
2. PRACTICE LOVE AND UNDERSTANDING
Love is the absence of judgment. - Dalai Lama
Although judgment is a natural instinct, you can put it under control by changing your mindset. Replace scarcity mindset and do everything from a place of love. Treat others with empathy, love and respect, and that’s what you’ll get in return. Judge them, and they will probably judge you back.
It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
3. AVOID TAKING EVERYTHING PERSONAL
If someone behaves badly around you for no clear reason, it’s probably not about you. Still, don’t judge. Judging will make you bitter and unpleasant while letting go of things can help you rise above the situation and understand it better.
Do you ever wake up thinking, Oh, what a day! Today I’m going to ruin someone’s day!
No? Well, we assure you that no one does. Try not to get hooked. It’s not about you. Judging won’t bring you any good.
4. CHANGE THE WAY YOU LOOK AT THE WORLD
One of the best antidotes to judging is observing.
The more you observe the world around you, the less personally you take it.
That’s how psychiatrists, psychologists, and psychotherapists stay judgment-free in unpleasant situations: they observe. No one was born judgment-free, it’s all about practice. You can develop observational skills through mindfulness, meditation, and gratitude practice. They make you more self-aware, conscious of other people’s emotions and open you to multiple perspectives.
Wrapping It Up
Let’s briefly sum up some of the main points:
- Complaining, judging, and making excuses is normal—we all do it sometimes.
- It can be harmful if we do it excessively due to the enhanced overall negativity that follows these behaviors.
- Luckily, there are things you can do to shift your mindset, improve your habits, and change your attitude and mindset that will further help you overcome these toxic behaviors.
Keep in mind that change is not easily achievable. It takes time and practice because change is a process, not a step.