I’ve realized that I put a lot of energy into trying to explain my decisions. Sometimes those explanations are an honest attempt to connect with another person or to step a little further out of hiding. Often, they are a result of my own self-doubt and desire for people to like me.
For example, I feel an obligation to say yes to any invitation or request I receive. Sometimes I’m glad to agree, other times I’d prefer to do something else. It gets tricky when the thing I’d prefer to do seems unimportant.
Wanting a quiet night at home doesn’t seem like a valid reason to decline an invitation to go out. So I come up with all the reasons I can’t go—I’m exhausted and maybe feeling a little sick and I have a lot I need to get done the next day and… and… and…
For some reason, “because someone asked” is a sufficient reason to say yes, but in order to say no I feel I have to prove that I have an abundance of important and inescapable circumstances getting in the way.
Recently I had a conversation that prompted me to think more deeply about when, how, and why I choose to explain myself to others. I was explaining my choice, but for very different reasons.
I had decided to step down from a leading a discussion group and agreed to meet with the woman who would have to find my replacement. I didn’t have to explain why I was leaving. I could have given a generic reason or declined to give any reason at all.
Instead, I chose to offer a fuller explanation. I was quitting because I felt like I had to hide part of myself in order to meet the expectations of the role. I didn’t want to keep hiding who I was and, for me, an important piece of being more visible was offering an honest explanation of why I was leaving.
In this instance, explaining wasn’t about caretaking her feelings or making sure she would still like me. It was about saying what I really thought and felt instead of letting her continue to think I was who she imagined me to be. Even if she didn’t understand or was disappointed in me, I wanted to be seen.
We offer (or don’t) an explanation of our choices for a variety of reasons. We can be motivated by fear, guilt, or self-doubt. We can also be honoring ourselves and others.
There isn’t a straightforward answer to the question of how much to explain and when. While there may be some truth to the idea that we don’t owe anyone an explanation, there are still plenty of situations when explaining is the right choice for us.
Becoming more aware of the reasons behind my urge to explain myself helps me make better choices about how much to share. Here are some motivations I’ve noticed. What would you add?
We’re trying to control the other person’s response
It’s uncomfortable to be around someone who is angry or hurt or disappointed. If we’re giving someone information we fear they won’t like, it’s tempting to pile on explanations. We believe if we can give a compelling enough reason for our choice, we can ensure the other person will see things our way.
If we have a good enough excuse for declining their invitation, then maybe they won’t take it personally and be hurt. If we have enough solid reasons for our choice, maybe they won’t be mad that we didn’t follow their advice.
Maybe if we can make them understand, then they will still like us.
We’re trying to ease our own feeling of guilt
Choosing something another person might not like can prompt feelings of guilt in us. When we feel guilty about our decision, we often turn to explanations and excuses to convince the other person and ourselves that we have a very good reason for choosing the way we did.
Many of us believe, whether we realize it or not, that other people’s wants, needs, and feelings are more important than our own. We believe saying no or declining an invitation is selfish or rude. We think that in order to be kind, generous, and likable we have to be unfailingly agreeable and accommodating.
We’re insecure about our own choices and want the other person to validate our decision
No matter what we decide, there will likely be someone who doesn’t agree with our decision. It doesn’t matter if the choice is around career, education, parenting, wardrobe, reading material, cleaning supplies, diet, or paint color. While it doesn’t feel great to have people disagree with us, we’re less impacted by their opinion if we are confident about our own choices.
On the other hand, if we are unsure about our decision, we often look to others for reassurance. We over-explain in the hope that the other person will understand and come around to our point of view. Often, it’s not really about the other person changing their mind as much as it is about needing external approval for our own choices.
We want to foster a closer, more open connection with the other person
Sometimes we choose to honestly share what’s going on for us with the people we care about most. We take the time to be clear about our reasons and intentions in order to increase depth and authenticity in our relationship.
In this instance, we are not as concerned about making someone see things our way. We’re trusting them to support us whether they agree with our decision or not. Our explanation is not a form of persuasion or manipulation but a sign of respect and a chance for the other person to get to know us better.
We have been hiding
Some of us have a habit of staying silent in order to not disrupt others’ good opinion of us. If we stay quiet, others will often fill in the blanks about who we are with their idea of who they think we should be. It can feel safer to let them think they know us—they might not like us if we share more of who we really are.
But there are times when the divide between who we are and how others see us becomes too great and we’re no longer content to stay hidden. We may be tired of feeling disconnected and unseen or want to practice more visibility and integrity.
As we take steps toward greater visibility, people may pushback against the change. We might try to explain for one of the reasons above—to try to ensure they’ll understand and still like us. We might, instead, decide to be open and honest about who we are and where we are, whether or not anyone else understands.
So how do we know when and how much to explain? Every situation is different and there’s not an answer that’s always right. Taking a closer look at the reasons behind my urge to explain is key but identifying our real intentions can be a challenge. The following questions can help us explore our motivations from a few different angles.
How will I respond if they don’t like my explanation?
How we are impacted by the possibility of an unfavorable response can give us a clue about our motivations for explaining. Imagine the other person disagreeing with your explanation. What will you do?
Will you rush to explain again, more thoroughly and clearly? Will you feel guilty and change your mind? Will you be proud of yourself for being honest whether or not you would be understood?
As a note, the emotions you experience about their response don’t necessarily indicate that what you chose is right or wrong. You can feel sad, frustrated, or hurt by the other person’s response while also feeling proud of your decision and the way you handled yourself.
What does it mean about me if they don’t agree with my decision?
This is where we can gain insight into some of our biggest fears. If we believe their disagreement means something bad about us, we might feel compelled to explain why they should see things our way—even if it means exaggerating or only telling part of the truth.
If, on the other hand, we can see that their disagreement doesn’t necessarily indicate whether our decision was right or wrong, then we can be more confident that any explanations we choose to give are motivated by connection or respect.
What do I hope my explanation will accomplish?
Whether you’re hoping for deeper connection and understanding, to avoid something you don’t want to do, or to win approval, getting clear about your goal will help you understand your reason for explaining.
Are you looking for reassurance about your decision? Do you need to step into greater visibility? Are you trying to decline an invitation without hurting anyone’s feelings?
Try to look below the surface answer. For example, if you hope your explanation will change someone’s mind, asking yourself why that’s important to you may reveal another motivation.
What if the situation were reversed?
How would you feel if the person you invited assumed they needed to make up lots of excuses to keep you from getting upset with them for declining? What if someone was hiding their opinions and preferences and needs in deference to yours? What if they depended on you to validate their ideas when they couldn’t trust themselves?
We tend to hold ourselves to a different standard. Switching roles can help shake up our assumptions and give us an opportunity to treat others as we would like to be treated.
So what do we do?
Explaining doesn’t come with a set of rules, but here are a few thoughts that are helping me make choices about when and how to explain.
Get clear about your intention. Why do you really want to explain? Who do you want to be in this situation? Remember, you don’t have to agree to be kind.
Keep it simple. Longer explanations don’t necessarily bring greater understanding. What is the most important thing you want the other person to know?
“Thanks so much for thinking of me! I won’t be joining you this time, but I hope you have lots of fun.” Isn’t that way simpler (and kinder) than a string of excuses or agreeing with resentment?
This takes practice. Our explanation habits won’t change overnight. Take the time you need to get clear on your intentions and think through how you really want to respond. It’s ok to let the other person know you’ll need to get back to them later.
You likely won’t get your explanation just right every time—I don’t think any of us do. Be gentle with yourself. See what you can learn for next time and keep practicing. Remember, you don’t have to be perfect.
Author: Johanna Schram