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“I can’t”

One day I was challenging an OC client to notice anytime she says “I can’t” in her day-to-day life and I started to accidentally notice my own habit as a result (whoops OC therapist learning from her OC client). So as I was chatting with a colleague about a work issue I said, “I can’t not say something to her.” She nodded along and validated my feelings and as I walked away I realized (with my newfound “I can’t” mindfulness), “Well that was a lie. I have great self control and could totally stop myself from saying something. I just want to say something and don’t want to be told not to.”

Have you ever noticed how many times a day you tell yourself or others “I can’t”? As I started to pay attention to this for myself, it was kind of surprising. 

Here are some other “I can’ts” I noticed in my exploration:

  • I can’t understand why they would do that. 
  • I can’t talk about this anymore. 
  • I can’t think of anything to cook.
  • I can’t read that writing. 
  • I can’t get out of bed. 
  • I can’t handle the dogs barking. 
  • I can’t make it tonight. 

So just for fun, which ones do you think I’m truly incapable of if I paused and thought about it for a second? There are some for sure that I really couldn’t do, and yet the majority are ones that I really could do the behavior and just didn’t want to. Though doing the behaviors would have been uncomfortable, them being painful for me and my not being capable of them were actually separate issues. 

So why might people use “I can’ts” when they really can? Well, first of all, they may not even be noticing that they are, and it may just be a habit. But the thing about these “I cant’s” is that they give us plausible deniability. It’s hard to challenge the other person if they are claiming to be incapable of change. So when I really stopped to consider my use of “I can’ts” I realized that sometimes they were kind of a little push back to others in a way that let me off the hook to do anything differently or block the person from giving me feedback. What a very effective cop out. 🙂 And if I were to guess the other person kind of knew too. 

Now, of course we get to make choices in life, so the idea here is not to force ourselves to do or not do things instead of saying, “I can’t.” But it has a different feel to say, “I don’t want to resist saying something” instead of “I can’t resist saying something.” The first is a much more genuine representation of myself and the choice I’m making. So I guess it’s something about owning or taking responsibility for our choices in life with the ability to reflect on if it fits with our values. 

So if you want to join in on the fun, notice any moments that you may say “I can’t”, “I couldn’t”, or “I’m not capable” and with some genuinely open curiosity ask yourselves, “Is that really true, or do I just not want to?”


About the Author: Jamie Martin, M.Ed. Ed.S. LPC

Jamie is a therapist that specializes in working with personality disorders in Greenville, South Carolina. She implements the evidenced based therapies of standard DBT and RO DBT to help those with too little or too much self control. She is passionate about learning to appreciate the benefits and challenges of each personality style.