‘Why’ Is Not An Excuse

Understanding the source of a behavior explains the impulse. It does not excuse the actions.

A crucial part of learning, growing, and reshaping harmful behavior either at the personal or societal level is understanding where the behavior is coming from. It provides context for the behavior, helps us to mitigate our response, and also guides the building of new approaches, habits, and processes to prevent harmful behavior from happening again.

Unfortunately, trying to understand why we do the things we do, or why others do the things they do, can be both one of the most difficult and most important things we ever try to achieve. Sometimes the answer can be embarrassingly simple and in other cases it can be enormously complex, layered with painful truths and unresolvable contradictions.

The basest human motivations towards pleasure and away from pain are relatively simple and straight forward but sentient beings can have staggeringly different definitions for those two concepts which then become entangled in the intricacies of societal and interpersonal systems.

Any quest for self-mastery not only requires clear understanding of our own impulses and behaviors but also, more importantly, the capacity and drive to persistently clarify and expand that understanding. The only way to ensure our actions bring us the greatest degree of sustainable satisfaction and fulfilment is to understand the motivations behind them as clearly as possible. It is a lot easier to hit the target when we can clearly see what it actually is.

Some of the greatest internal pain and conflict we struggle with occurs when our unconscious or reflexive actions wind up contradicting the goals we are seeking to achieve. We want the promotion but seem to always say and do all the wrong things just as it is all starting to fall into place. We are trying to get healthy but just cannot seem to control our bursts of binge eating. We want to be loved but somehow always wind up pushing people away just as the relationship starts to develop serious potential.

Very often the largest obstacle standing in our way is ourselves and the only way to rein in the impulses and habits which undermine our goals is to not just identify them but to understand the motivations which drive them. Realizing and acknowledging our tendency to push people away is an important first step but the only chance to prevent the habit from flaring up again lies in understanding the spark which ignites it in the first place.

Criminal prosecutions seek to gather as much information as possible about context and motivation in order to ascertain the appropriate level of culpability. Professional therapeutic process will always explore past traumas and stressors in order to identify vulnerabilities, dangerous cycles, and psychological misalignments to form strategies for avoiding or reducing future pain. We want to know why our friend did something which upset us in order to gage how upset we should be as well as to gage how likely they are to do it again.

Knowing the motivations behind an action provides not only invaluable context but also a sense of predictive power. Whether we are affected positively or negatively we want to understand the ‘why’ behind it so we can know if that was the intended effect and if it is likely to happen again. We want to be able to avoid or prevent actions intended to be negative and likely to be repeated just as conversely we want to encourage those intended to be recurringly positive.

The answer to the question can be incredibly difficult to find. Sometimes things are exactly what they seem but when it comes to human behavior things are almost never simple as we would like them to be. Our interpretations of others’ behavior are extremely vulnerable to our own biases and assumptions. Our first impulse is to judge others according to what we feel we would do in their situation and our interpretations of our own behaviors are extremely vulnerable to the reflexive impulses of ego preservation. Our instinct is always to find an answer which matches with our existing image of ourselves.

The search for these answers can be challenging and incredibly empowering but as crucial as the search is it is just as vitally important to remember the results of our behaviors still occurred and still matter.

Intentions Matter But They Don’t Erase Results

Understanding the ‘why’ behind a behavior confirms whether the results were intended or accidental and whether or not they are likely to be repeated but it does not make those initial results go away. If our friend did something to upset us but did so unintentionally it may decrease how upset we get with them but it does not mean we are no longer allowed to be upset at all. They may not have known we were standing there when they suddenly turned and bumped into us but that doesn’t make our drink which is now all over the floor suddenly un-spilled.

Whether the results were intended or not they still occurred and need to be both acknowledged and dealt with, hence they are accounted for in criminal prosecutions to determine not only the severity of the charge but also of the sentencing.

One of the traps we can fall into is over empathizing with the intentions to the point of dismissing the results. Our understanding of, and empathizing with, someone’s motivations should mitigate our responses but it should not erase or invalidate those responses entirely.

Mitigation Is Not A Removal Of Consequences

Not every result deserves a blanket and universal response. Both context and motivation should be taken into account whether we are dealing with the friend who bumped into us or someone whose actions resulted in serious harm or even death.

Accidents and mistakes do happen and even the best of intentions can go horribly wrong at times. To be fair even the worst of intentions can sometimes result in unanticipatedly wonderful results. We cannot gage our reactions by taking outcomes flatly at face value but we cannot let explanations of intention completely absolve people of accountability. Some of the most difficult and complicated debates about this occur around issues of severe mental illness or actions taken while profoundly intoxicated.

Our intentions guide our choices, potentially warranting mitigation, but what if in the heat of the moment we are in such an altered state we have no conscious connection to our motivations or choices? Obviously there must still be some accountability but to what degree? Were the results of such an altered state reasonably foreseeable and thus could there have been possible choices in advance which could have prevented them?

Context and motivation must always be factored in to our responses but as important and valid as mitigation is it can all too easily get warped into an accountability-free form of exoneration.

Knowing The Source Can Reduce Its Power

Returning to the personal level one of the most important benefits we can gain from a deeper and clearer understanding of our own motivations is that it can reduce their power over us. Understanding them doesn’t eliminate them but the more clearly we can see them the sooner we can spot them when they try to flare up. Forewarned is forearmed and that is an empowerment we can extend to those in our lives as well.

Understanding that past abandonments have ingrained an instinct within us to push people away when we feel our attachment to them growing more intimate before they have a chance to abandon and hurt us again won’t make the impulse cease to exist. If it has become ingrained enough to become a reflexive impulse it will likely be with us for the rest of our lives.

But the more clearly we understand the impulse the better we can get at calling it on the carpet the moment it tries to flare up, the more effective the strategies we can come up with to try and circumvent the triggers, and the more we can help those around us understand what may happen so they can in turn help us navigate through those impulses more safely.

Whether our forewarned and forearmed understanding in fact makes the impulses weaker over time may be debatable but they certainly do become less powerful because we grow more and more powerful at countering them.

We May Not Like The Answer, And We Don’t Have To

It is important to note that digging and exploring into our own motivations and impulses can sometimes lead to answers we don’t like. In point of fact if we never find a motivation we don’t like it means we almost certainly aren’t looking hard enough.

We are all human beings. None of us are pure saints nor are we purely evil. We all have selfish as well as altruistic impulses. Those rare individuals in history we might point to as being examples of pure evil somehow became warped to the point of losing all capacity for empathy. Sometimes, such as psychopathy, it can be an actual neural pathology. Other times it can be a result of horrendous trauma. It doesn’t excuse the atrocities they commit it simply explains how in their case the selfish capacity we all possess became so egregiously exacerbated.

Those incredibly giving and selfless souls we might paint as saintly, either through neurological alignment or environmental conditioning, have managed to find selfish fulfilment in altruistic action. Not just someone who does good seeking status or a good grade on the personal report card but those who genuinely enjoy giving. You know them when you see them their genuine lack of scorekeeping, or desire for credit of any kind, are good clear indicators.

We don’t have to like absolutely everything about ourselves to like or love ourselves. Truly understanding ourselves means understanding we will have positive and negative traits, strong ones and weak ones, traits we want to grow and encourage and ones we want to reduce and avoid. Understanding ourselves doesn’t make us perfect it gives us an honest view of ourselves as we truly are. Not easy to achieve but incredibly empowering.

Knowing ‘Why’ Increases Our Power To Choose

Our greatest power is our power to choose. We can choose to take an action or not, to pursue a goal or not, we can shape the person we are and the impact we have on the world around us. We cannot choose or control that world but we can have power over our contributions to it.

The more we understand ourselves the more information we have to inform our choices and the better choices we can make. We all have those friends who careen through their lives without a seeming care in the world, never giving ‘why’ a second thought and we justifiably envy their apparent freedom from stress and care but we also tend to have a hard time feeling completely safe of comfortable with them.

If they don’t know, or don’t care, about why they do things or what they will be doing in the next five minutes or days or months or years then they are leaving their place in the world and their impacts upon it up to chance. It takes a certain kind of person to be able to function in that kind of rootless and instable existence and it can be somewhat difficult to invest any serious trustable connection with them.

It is also certainly possible to overdo the behavioral diagnostic habit, either on ourselves or others. A seemingly noble desire to understand can result in ‘paralysis by analysis’ if we allow the answers to mean more than the guided actions they are meant to inform.

The key to avoiding the paralysis or the toxic accountability-free sand-trap is to remember the greatest power of understanding ‘why’ lies not in the past but in the future. Understanding why something happened gives us greater and clearer understanding of the event but that knowledge is simply academic unless we then use it to guide our future choices towards better results or away from worse ones. ‘Why’ does not excuse our past. In point of fact understanding the ‘why’ of the past acts as a justifiably deeper indictment of the present and future if that understanding doesn’t do anything to alter, grow, or improve our actions.

Mitigation only applies the first time. After that we know better and are thus either choosing to repeat it or try to do better.

A professional dancer, choreographer, theatre creator, and featured TEDx speaker with an honours degree in psychology, two black belts, and a lap-top.

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