What do you really mean when you say “I can’t”? “I can’t”, or “I cannot,” truly means “I am unable to.” If someone were to ask me to do a basketball lay-up, I would legitimately be able to say, “I can’t”. I am unable to coordinate myself and the ball to do an official “lay-up.” Were someone to ask me to learn to do a lay-up, if the words “I can’t,” should happen to come out of my mouth what I would really mean would be “I won’t”. I am perfectly capable of learning to do a lay-up, though I honestly have little interest in doing so.
A good deal of the time when we utter “I can’t,” we really mean: I won’t, I don’t want to, it is too hard, or it’s to scary. One of the worst things we do is convince ourselves of the “I can’t.” This often comes into play when change is needed. One of my personal “I can’t” moment came about 8 years and 70 pounds ago. As I struggled with my weight I was referred to Gary Avignon, LPC. After an interview and assessments he dropped the news. I already knew I was over weight, but I didn’t know that my adrenal system had essentially shut down leading to depression, anxiety and type two diabetes. Now for the good news. In order to combat all of these problems I would need to completely change my lifestyle. I would need to remove all non-complex carbohydrates from my diet. This included most wheat products (bread, noodles, cereal), rice, sugar and potatoes. No french fries, no bread, no spaghetti, no ice cream…Could you do it? Veggies and fruits were a necessary part of this lifestyle, but even things like Special K cereal for breakfast was out. As I was being told this my first thought was, “I can’t.” And as I thought these words I was informed that this lifestyle change would not just be until I lose the weight, but permanent, if I wish to keep the weight off forever.
In this “I can’t” moment I had to decide what was more important. French Fries, or my health? Bread, or my health? But making this sacrifice was overwhelming. Food as comfort,food is an important part of our life. In that moment, though, I made a decision then and there that I could. Many times in the next year or two after making the decision I didn’t want to, but “I can’t” changed to “Oh my goodness this is HARD, but I CAN!”
When working with addicts and offenders (violent, sexual, what have you) one of the most frequent thinking errors is “I can’t,” (next to “it isn’t fair”). When working with clients facing a large change, the most frequent thinking error is “I can’t.” “I can’t leave my partner,” “I can’t leave my job,” “I can’t leave my home,” “I can’t exercise,” even though I am miserable. The justifications for all of these are many, and at times surprisingly few. Often there are reasonable justifications for the “I can’t:” “I can’t leave my job because I can’t afford my apartment without it.” “I can’t exercise because I have (various physical problems).” Okay, then let’s figure out what you CAN do.
The moment we become honest with ourselves and use “I won’t” or “I don’t want to,” or “I’m scared,” or “that’s really hard,” we take a step forward. You can leave your job. It will make life very difficult in some cases, and will be very scary, but you can make that change. You can’t do certain exercise, but you can find exercises you CAN do. Anneli Rufus wrote a book called Stuck, Why We Can’t, or Won’t Move On. While I disagree with some of her extremes, generalizations, and some of her “all or nothing” thinking, her concepts are sound. She covers the concept of “I can’t” very well. People come to me when they hit a point of stuckness they don’t want to tolerate anymore, but are often not ready enough to do the things they need to do, or admit the things they need to admit to themselves, in order to become unstuck and move past “I can’t”.
Next time you use the words “I can’t,” be honest with yourself. Are you truly unable to, or is it too hard, scary, or difficult? This admission is incredibly difficult to make, because the next step is to admit that you CAN. You may not have the resources (emotional, financial, physical) but often you are able to obtain these things, if you look.
Are you ready?