Laura Sinclair of This Mother Means Business and I were talking on her podcast about what “I can’t” means. She said she often hears clients say “I can’t.”
- I can’t do more.
- I can’t take a step back.
- I can’t take time for myself.
Have you ever thought, “I can’t” and felt ashamed, frustrated or sad?
First of all, as I say in almost everything I write, if that’s the case, there’s nothing wrong with you.
As with everything in human experience, while it may note appear to make logical sense, there is usually a good reason for what’s happening.
So I invite you to take a moment, and say to yourself, “There’s nothing wrong with me. There are good reasons for thinking that I can’t.”
And if you have a hard time believing there are good reasons, I invite you to engage your curiosity, and read on.
I can’t: Overwhelm (and freeze or flop)
Often people think “I can’t” because right now, in this moment, they are stuck. When we are overwhelmed, we can have trouble mobilizing enough resources to think creatively. Our emotional experience takes the fore and we find ourselves in either a frozen or collapsed state.
These are the responses we would expect people to have when they’re overwhelmed. So if you’re having them, there’s nothing wrong with you. It’s just that something needs to happen first before you can take some sort of action.
In situations like these, I recommend what I call emotional first aid, so you can free up energy and get mobilized.
The very first step is to place your awareness on your breath for a moment or two, maybe placing a gentle hand on your heart area, then acknowledge what’s happening. You could say something to yourself like, “Oh. I’m noticing I’m overwhelmed. No wonder I’m thinking I can’t.”
Emotional first aid means caring for your emotional state in the moment, so after you’ve taken a moment to acknowledge what’s happening, next steps might include: Having a good cry, calling a friend and rant, telling your therapist, going for a run… all of these are ways you can make room for the emotions in the moment.
Of course in the long run, there are probably many factors contributing to the sense of overwhelm and taking formal time with professional support to unpack them will address this particular situation of overwhelm so that you won’t face it again–or if you do, it won’t have the power to block you like it once did.
I can’t: Blocks or resistance
Traditional approaches would encourage us to push through or overcome what gets labelled as blocks or resistance. These attitudes imply that we are somehow at fault and need merely our will to move forward. But if will were all there was to it, no-one would ever be stuck.
Just like the collapse and freeze responses, we can assume that what gets called a block or resistance is here for a good reason. Our organisms have their own intelligence about what is needed for our life-forward energy to be able to express itself in life-serving ways.
When we assume blocks or resistance are here for a good reason, we can get unstuck. We can move from “I can’t” to a sense of possibility: “Huh. Maybe there might be possibility here.”
In my experience, blocks or resistance come because they hold information that would be helpful to know. Sometimes it’s also about what’s needed to keep us safe.
A first step is to acknowledge what’s happening. “Oh, I’m noticing something in me is feeling stuck. It seems like something is blocking me.” or “I’m noticing a part of me is saying I can’t.”
Then you can engage curiosity. “It’s clear that I can’t. There’s a good reason for this to be here. Something needs to happen in order for me to move forward. I wonder what that might be.”
You might like to think or write about what it, the block or resistance, wants or needs you to know.
Another way to think of blocks or resistance is as safety guardians, especially when the “I can’t” comes from a part that’s feeling afraid.
With fear-related “blocks, you could think of the safety guardians as coming in to say, “I want to make sure that nothing bad is going to happen so we need to stop here and do something first before we do the thing that I can’t do, because I am afraid.” Then, using the same process as I’ve outlined above, you can engage curiosity about what needs to happen first.
I can’t: Brutal truth
In my work with women clients who are in heterosexual relationships with children, there is sometimes what I call a brutal truth that must be faced.
Change will upset the apple cart. Change can threaten the delicate balance that many women–and especially women business owners–have to manage. Their responsibilities as determined by their roles in their relationships are many: mother, wife, adult daughter, sibling and business owner. Attempting to fulfill them all requires a lot of finesse and if any one thing changes, it threatens this balance.
Many women are not willing–and with good reason–to make changes because their highest value is keeping peace in their relationship with their husband. “The consequences of what I’m considering doing would have such an impact on my family or the family balance or balance with my spouse that I’m unwilling because the cost is too high.
That will take precedence, but they often won’t say that. Instead, they say, “I can’t.”
This is why I call it the brutal truth.It can be very hard to acknowledge the dark or downside in a heterosexual intimate relationship.
It’s hard to name how power and gender plays out in your marriage mean that the man’s needs (or privilege), or the need to keep peace in the relationship, take precedence over your own personal needs and the needs of your business.
A way forward with this is to acknowledge this brutal truth.
Many powerful women feel shame about it. They think, “I’m a strong woman. Admitting that I’m putting his needs before mine, or putting my needs for peace in my relationship before my business means I’m not the strong woman I’d like to be.”
Strength lies in acknowledging the hard things, because afterwards, with all the cards on the table, a way forward that actually works can reveal itself.
I can’t: Actually can’t
Sometimes it’s not a mindset issue.
Sometimes “I can’t” is a material fact.
There might be an unsupportive spouse or family that creates obstacles. Sometimes there are child care needs. Sometimes there isn’t access to funding or the skills needed. Sometimes chronic illnesses must be taken into account. Sometimes systems of oppression play a role.
Many times, systemic issues are at the root of the “I can’t.” Having child care responsibilities or a chronic illness, for example, aren’t, in and of themselves, a problem. But when we live in a society of systems that favour childless men (or men with wives) or able bodied folks, or White folks, or neurotypical people, just to name a few examples, then those of us who don’t conform encounter sometimes insurmountable obstacles.
In this case again, curiosity and compassion are our friends.
Compassion looks like not blaming yourself for the “I can’t” that has its roots in systemic issues. The fact is, you very well could if conditions were different. It’s not a case of individual ability, but of external conditions.
Curiosity here is also a compassionate move.
Getting curious about what it is outside you that’s affecting you can help at the very least depersonalize the block. But also, it might help you identify some systemic supports that are available, or some alternative ways to accomplish what it is that’s blocked.
I can’t: Habit
One of the very powerful manifestations of “I can’t” is habit.
We are conditioned to say “I can’t.” It’s a way of being inoffensive. We are taught to say things like “I can’t make it to your party.” because saying, “I’m choosing to stay home to prioritize rest.” which is more honest and direct, is perceived as rude and hurtful.
Marshall Rosenberg,the originator of Nonviolent Communication says, “We are dangerous when we are not conscious of our responsibility for how we behave, think and feel.” (I’m a certified trainer in Nonviolent Communication and NVC consciousness informs my work.)
I would say that when we are not conscious of our responsibility or our capacity to choose, we cause harm–mostly to ourselves. We can never know if something is possible or not when we don’t take responsibility.
We can replace language that implies lack of choice (IOW, I can’t) with language that acknowledges choice.
To do this, experiment with replacing “I have to” with “I choose to [do X] because I want [insert need here].
For example, instead of “I have to be home early because my husband won’t like it if I’m late,” you can say, “I choose to come home early because I value keeping the peace.”
The language we use shapes our perception of reality, so changing it can have a powerful impact.
Saying “I can’t” leaves you stuck and disempowered. “I can’t” functions as a kind of semantic stop sign. Amanda Montell, in her book Cultish (affiliate link) calls these kinds of phrases verbal sedatives because they effectively slow or suspend critical thinking.
Literally, the words we use determine how we think and as a result, how we view ourselves and the world. “I can’t.” stops you in your tracks. It eliminates possibilities and hides the fact that there may indeed be something you can do.
In order to see the possibilities that exist, I invite you to experiment with replacing “I can’t” with “I’m choosing not to.”
For example, “I can’t afford that.” becomes, “I’m choosing not to pay that amount because it will upset the sustainability in my business.”
Doing this with your everyday language over time can build a sense of empowerment, choice and capacity (I can) while at the same time saying no to things. It also helps you see, own and prioritize your needs.
I can’t: Past experience or trauma
You may have a lifetime of experience that has taught you that you can’t.
People who encounter barriers and get stuck because this world isn’t inclusive of folks with physical or mental challenges or who don’t conform to the dominant culture may have been told all their lives that they can’t. Or they may have tried, very very hard, but without the appropriate accommodations, they encounter barriers that prevent them.
Because others don’t see these barriers, the individual is blamed for their stuckness. From a place of privilege, they assume that moving forward is easy (because it was for them) and you just have to pull your socks up and do it.
If only it were that easy. Many of us neurodivergent and chronically ill folks have plenty of desire, willingness, intelligence and aptitude. If that were all it took, we wouldn’t struggle. The same goes for anyone who has less privilege by virtue of the systems of oppression in place.
But it’s hard, when you’ve heard all your life that you can’t, and you’re blamed for being unable, or you literally couldn’t because the world is structured in favour of able-bodied and neurotypical folks and other privileged folks, to imagine a world in which you can. It’s hard to make contact with a sense of possibility.
Self-kindness and self-compassion are good ways forward here. It can also help to work with a therapist who can help you understand and care for the circumstances you experienced, and attend to the harm that has caused to your perception of yourself as capable, and able to say, “I can.”
I can: Discernment
Sometimes “I can’t” is a thought or belief we have that are left over from another time.
Sometimes “I can’t” is a thought that comes from a place of dysregulation and overwhelm.
Sometimes we can’t because something needs to happen first.
Sometimes we can’t because of the limits of available time, space, energy and resources.
Sometimes we “can’t” because we aren’t willing to, but we are habituated to say we can’t rather than take responsibility and say we don’t want to.
We can be curious about all of this.
Here are a series of journaling prompts that might help you be curious:
- Is it true that I can’t [[fill in the blank]]?
- Is it really, actually true that I can’t [[fill in the blank]]?
- What if I could [fill in the blank]?
- How does the idea that “I could” feel?
- What needs to happen first in order for me to be able to [[fill in the blank]]?
I Can: Building a sense of possibility
We can rewire our brains, and come to see ourselves differently. Using the “I’m choosing not to…” practice described above is one way.
Another way is to take repeated, teeny tiny doable actions in the direction you want to go. This also rewires the brain, one step at a time, moving from an “I can’t” to an “I can” brain.
It’s a process, because when we’ve had past experiences or traumas around our ability to do something, the brain has been deeply trained to freeze or collapse whenever a situation comes up that is the same or similar to the one with which we had bad experiences.
For example, I have dyscalculia, but I only became aware of that about 5 years ago. It’s one of the several systemic barriers I encountered that prevented me from having a PhD in psychology.
I never made it past Grade 10 math. I got a D in Statistics as an undergrad, twice. I had tutors, did lots of homework, there was lots of literal in-your-face screaming at home over holiday periods when I was supposed to be working through remedial educational units to catch up. To this day, I can’t do math in my head and I don’t know my times tables–but not for lack of trying!
As a result, until about 5 years ago, I thought I was bad with math and numbers (and with money. I also thought I was forgetful, distracted and unable to apply myself.)
Even though I wanted to apply to an honours BA in psychology as the first step to a PhD, my lack of math skills, my belief that “I can’t do math,” and the attitudes of the academic advisors about women and STEM at the time were such that I believed I was incapable of the science and math-related requirements. So I never even tried to get the high school math credits I’d need to apply to the program I wanted.
But when I went back to school as an adult, I was determined to succeed. I registered for a statistics class, and that was the only class I did that semester. I had a tutor, I attended office hours with the TA, and did an hour of drills every day. A fellow class member and I did drills together at lunch times. And in one of my proudest moments, I got an A in undergraduate statistics I! (I got a B in Stats II.)
Somehow I had understood that succeeding the class meant being not smart enough but fast enough to complete the exams in the allotted time.
Even though at the time I didn’t understand that I had a learning disability, I was able to succeed. I think this is the story for many undiagnosed folks. We find a way to manage. We develop strategies, as a neurodivergent friend once said to me.
From time to time, I revisit this success and the feelings it evokes in me–like now, for example, I feel the flush of pride and “I can do it” energy. (And, if I’m candid, a bit of fuck you energy to all the people who shamed me for being bad at math.)
Taking small steps changes your brain’s neural pathways. Each time you engage in a teeny, tiny step in the direction you want to go builds the new sense of “I can.”
Most importantly, in order for rewiring to take place, these small actions need to be taken in the context of awareness and purpose.
For rewiring, each time the action is taken, your attention should be on it. And you should be saying something to yourself like, “I’m building my capacity. “I’m developing the sense that I can.” or whatever other purpose statement that works for you. And finally, the feeling of taking action must be savoured, so that it is retained, or it will get lost in the swamp of the stored negative experiences.
The key is to engage in these actions mindfully, and celebrate each one. Because of the brain’s negativity bias and the parts of you that retain only negative past experiences, you have to actively retrain your mind to hold on to these new experiences. This way, you prove to yourself that “I can.”
I can: Evoking the challenge response
Facing something you think you can’t do can invoke fear or shame. In a situation like this, you might like to invoke the challenge response.
The challenge response mobilizes the sympathetic nervous system, just like the fight-flight response does. But a different ratio of stress hormones are released. The challenge response to stress facilitates decision-making, supports clear, effective and sustained thinking processes, and enables you to handle negative emotions well.
You might recognize your challenge response in the experience of being in the zone. The nervous system is aroused, you are mobilized and engaged, your mind is focussed on the task at hand and things are going well.
It’s a paradigm shift to think of the thought “I can’t” as a challenge, and it’s a practice. It’s not enough to say, “I can.” In fact that might get you right back into a shame spiral… and no wonder!
A start is to first, as always, acknowledge what’s happening. “A part of me says I can’t do this. I’m noticing it feels shame. And no wonder, after all I’ve been through around this.”
Then you can evoke the challenge response in a number of ways. One way is to bring a sense of wonder to the situation. “Hmmm… I wonder if I could do this.” “Hmmmm… I wonder what would be needed in order for me to be able to do this.” or to connect with another person who can validate your emotional experience and support you as you explore the idea that “Maybe I could do this.”
Transforming “I can’t” into “I can” is obviously so much easier said than done but I hope reading about the possibilities has sparked your imagination. Maybe you can try one of these approaches and see what happens, as an experiment.
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