When You Say I Can’t, This Is What You Really Mean.

‘I can’t do it mummy.’ were the first words out of her mouth after opening up her homework diary. Yes, it was that time again, the weekly Maths assignment. I could see that a tantrum was coming so I moved in to cut it off early. ‘Why can’t you?’ I asked. ‘It’s too hard’ was the response. Now mind you this conclusion came after just glancing at the page not actually attempting any of the problems, so I knew a little patience would be required.

With a little coaxing I found out that the problems seemed unfamiliar and she thought she did not know how to go about solving them. We decided to give it a try anyways and when she took out her pencil and actually started working, amazingly she was able to figure out what to do. Her ‘I can’t do it’ was really a combination of trepidation at venturing into what seemed like new territory, an assumption that it was too difficult and an unwillingness to invest the time in trying to figure it out.

To cut a long story short I figured out that what she was really saying was:

‘Mummy I won’t do it because _______’ fill in the blank.

Her I can’t was really an excuse for I won’t.

This got me thinking about my own life and how often I say I can’t do something when perhaps what I really mean is I won’t. I can’t make the time to call a friend back or pursue that really important goal. I can’t work out or stop eating too many chocolates. We find reasons for why we can’t do something but what if  ‘I can’t’ is really masking an unwillingness to do what we need to. What if the I can’t is really I won’t?

When you really want something

When I look back at my life, the truth is when I’ve really wanted something, nothing’s stopped me going for it. If I didn’t know how, I figured it out. So it cost money I didn’t have? I found creative ways to acquire the money. I may have been afraid but the benefits of the potential outcome far outweighed any negatives and the fear of failure didn’t keep me from doing it. 

So many examples in my life have proven time and again that when I really want something I find a way to make it happen and it’s probably the same for you too.

So what does ‘I can’t’ really mean most of the time?

1. You’re afraid to try

You may use I can’t as a mask for your fear. Whether that’s the fear of failure, the fear that others will ridicule you, the fear of the unknown, you don’t even make an attempt and shy away from opportunities because you let your fear paralyse you.  I can’t really means I’m afraid to.

2. You’re too lazy

We all go through challenging times, times when we need that extra boost of motivation but really and truly if you’re honest, a lot of what you don’t do and don’t achieve is down to pure and simple laziness. You’re just not willing to put in the work required.

So you use excuses like ‘I don’t have the time’ yet spend hours every evening watching TV or trawling through Facebook. You’ll say ‘I can’t get to the training session, it’s too far’ but find your way to every party at the weekend. Your I can’t is really an excuse, what you’re really saying is: ‘If this requires me to expend some energy or make some sacrifice then I can’t be bothered’.

3. You don’t think you have the necessary skills

There’s a goal you really want to achieve but you look at the desired outcome and it feels impossible. You forget that everything takes time and that you only need to identify what the next step is and acquire the skills and knowledge needed to execute.

4. You really don’t want to

You can also use I can’t to hide your lack of desire. Sometimes you say you want something because you think you’re supposed to or because you’re trying to please others. That could be about the direction you want to take in your career or even your personal relationships. Deep down, however, it isn’t really what you want.

Here’s the problem with saying ‘I can’t’

1. You take on the role of victim

When you tell yourself I can’t, you immediately put yourself into the role of the powerless. It’s a point of view that says : I can’t control it, I have no say in it, I can’t do anything about it, all of this is happening to me. These thoughts become ingrained limiting beliefs that pervade all areas of your life and can have a negative effect on your behaviours

Your locus of control immediately shifts to the external and you are like a puppet waiting for others to pull the strings. An ‘I can’t’ mindset can stunt your growth and limit your progress so much that what you believe you can achieve diminishes. An ‘I can’t’ mindset can keep you trapped in a circumstance that with a different point of view you could step out of.

2. You block off any chance of achieving it

When you tell yourself ‘I can’t’ you are in effect sending a message directly to your brain that says ‘I don’t want to’. Even when your conscious mind thinks something can’t happen,  your subconscious actually knows that it is possible. When you say ‘I can’t’ you are instructing your subconscious that you don’t want to.

So what should you do instead? 

1. Take responsibility and be honest

Avoid falling into the victim trap and remember you are responsible for your life. It’s true that there are many things outside of your control but you are in control of how you react. Make I can’t mean what it actually means by substituting it with I won’t. You’ll realise that you are actually making the decision not to, it isn’t circumstance dictating your actions.

When you change your language you get to see the unvarnished truth. You decide what’s really important to you and what isn’t. 

2. Don’t get comfortable with ‘I can’t’ 

I remember working with a guy who didn’t know how to write Excel macros. Month after month and year after year, whenever that skill was required his response was ‘I can’t do it, you’ll have to find someone else.‘ He often spoke about improving his Excel skills and there was nothing really stopping him learning how to do it and yet he never felt compelled to. Instead he whined about it and repeated the ‘I can’t’ chorus which strictly speaking was true but he did nothing to change it.

Don’t make a lack of knowledge your excuse, you can take action to improve.  or skill stop you moving forward with what you want. If you know what you need to do but don’t take the steps you’re hiding behind your I can’ts

3. Change ‘I can’t’ to ‘I can’t right now’

Sometimes you really want something but just can’t see how you’re going to make it happen. By saying ‘I can’t right now’ you open up to the possibility of reaching your goal. Sure, you’re not able to right now but by learning, improving and taking action, successful is possible.


The bottom line? Words matter

Now you may be thinking, what’s the big deal, it’s only two little words but remember words have power. What you tell yourself influences your emotions, beliefs and ultimately your actions. Do you have big goals? Achieving them requires that you believe you can and negative self-talk is a guaranteed way to hinder progress and hold you back. So stop telling yourself you can’t or expect it to become a reality in your life. Because in the words of Henry Ford:

‘Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t … you’re right.’


Now over to you.

Are there areas in your life where you say I can’t but really mean I won’t?

Is it holding you back from achieving your goals and dreams?

What is one ‘I can’t’ you can change to ‘I can’t right now’ and start working towards?

Let me know in the comments.


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