I Can’t or I Can?

Probably you have said more than once in your lifetime, “I CAN’T”. I know I have. As a child when something seemed too hard for me or I felt the task was too big, or I was afraid of failing, or afraid I would look silly in front of my friends, I would say “I can’t”. My parents and teachers would look me in the eye and say, “There is no such thing as ‘can’t’, there is only ‘I don’t want to!'”

I am sure you have heard others say “I CAN’T” as well.  Do you think this person is attempting to sell you an excuse that they hope you will buy because they don’t want to do something or is it true that they really can’t?

Why do we use those two words, when in reality we possibly can accomplish what we are avoiding? What EXACTLY do those two words really mean? There are two possible meanings.

The first possible meaning of “I CAN’T” is “I am unable” and is usually followed by the word “because” which gives justification.

I can’t come to the party because… I can’t go shopping with you because … I can’t speak Russian because… I can’ exercise because… I can’t afford it because… I can’t pay the bills because… or I can’t go to Africa with you because…

We all want to look good so we feel the need to justify our reason. What we hope you will accept is that “I am unable”. This can be a permanent or temporary physical reason that makes it not possible or perhaps you have not learned how to do it. This meaning of “I CAN’T” is simply a statement of fact. Right now I haven’t got the time to go shopping because I have to work, or I haven’t had the need to learn Russian, but I could if I had to. It may mean I am not well enough at this point in my life to exercise, or I don’t have the equipment to exercise, or I don’t have the money available to spend on travel. Whatever the reason we give for our “because”, is really only a limitation that if we wanted to badly enough, we could get around.

The other possible meaning is “I am unwilling”. Here are a few examples:

I can’t come to your party… I can’t ask for a raise… I can’t speak in public… I can’t agree with this government… I can’t be on your committee…

This “I CAN’T” has the meaning of “I am unwilling”. My reason is I have other priorities at this time. It may be that I have other value systems and your request is against my ethics or principles. Or it may be the activity is outside my comfort zone and I am unwilling to handle the pressure. I may have fears around doing that activity. This meaning of “I CAN’T” is a statement of personal values.  I am physically able but I choose not to.

When it means “I am unable”, it is a statement of fact referring to physical impossibility or lack of education.

When it means “I am unwilling”, it is a statement of personal policy referring to that which is emotionally or ethically challenging.

Next time you are about to say “I can’t”, perhaps you could say “I could give it a go”. When you break the”I can’t” cycle and conquer the fear behind the”I can’t” it is a liberating feeling. You may just be surprised at how fun some things can be that you may never have attempted.

When you change your own “I can’t” you are now in a position to help another. The next time someone says “I can’t” do something, just reply with a smile: “unwilling or unable?”

This soft answer isn’t to make them look or feel bad, but to give them a better understanding of how they think about what they can’t do. Sometimes asking the person why they feel they can’t can give them insights into the limitations they place on themselves. I have found in my coaching that the “I can’t” can be a heavy load of inferiority that this person has carried from a life time of being put down.

Just an encouraging word could change this person’s destiny by building up their self confidence.  You could be the catalyst to helping a person break the cycle and enter a world of “I can” living. 

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