Justification vs. Explanation

Many years ago, when I was a young lawyer in a large law firm, there was a senior associate who treated younger associates very badly. He was sarcastic, unkind and insulting and left more than one young lawyer or staff person in tears. On any number of occasion I heard someone say, “Oh, well, that is just the way he is,” said in a tone that suggested “just the way he is” was a sufficient excuse for his behavior.

I’ve seen variants of this in many situations. People will exhibit some unloving, non-compassionate or other questionable behavior and say, “Well, you know, I’m an 6 [or whatever] on the Enneagram” or “Well, I react that way because of this or that experience in my past.”

Understanding the causes/sources of our behaviors is essential to our growth. Changing our “bad” habits requires understanding what produces them. Tools like the Enneagram can be very useful in this process.

However, it is easy for explanations to become justifications in our mind. “Oh well, that is just the way I am,” becomes an excuse for not changing behavior that may be harmful to others or the self.

That I am a 1 on the Enneagram explains why I have certain tendencies, it doesn’t justify unhealthy behavior that is the product of those tendencies. The same is true with experiences from my past – they may explain why I exhibit certain behavior but they don’t justify them. We need to be very clear about the difference between explanation and justification.