Everyone experiences “I can’t” thoughts — as in: I can’t go back to school. I can’t get a promotion. I can’t be successful. I can’t get that job. I can’t ace that test. I can’t write a long research paper. I can’t run that race. I can’t give a presentation in front of everyone at work. I can’t find love.
We think we can’t do all sorts of things. As psychotherapist Chris Boyd, MA, said, “There’s truly no limit when it comes to ‘I can’t’ thoughts.” In fact, he once heard a quote that “80 to 90 percent of our thoughts are repetitive, useless and negative.”
Limiting thoughts aren’t inherently problematic, per se. They become an issue when they stop us from pursuing what we want and leading fulfilling lives. They become an issue when they “define who we are or dictate our capabilities,” Boyd said.
“I can’t” thoughts may be protective. That is, if we say we can’t do something, then we don’t try and, thereby, we don’t fail, said Shaun Wehle, Psy.D, a psychologist and coach. We might worry that we won’t get the job anyway. Or we worry that we’ll get hurt, so we don’t look for love in the first place. As Wehle said, “If you don’t risk, you don’t fail.” In short, our limiting thoughts may be a way to keep us safe.
These thoughts may become a pervasive theme in our lives, Wehle said. They might stem from previous experiences or traumas, he said. That’s why it’s helpful to work with a therapist to unpack and dismantle your “I can’t” thoughts. But the tips below can get you started.
Observe your thoughts.
Simply notice the thoughts you’re having in a non-judgmental and non-reactive way, said Boyd, who practices in Vancouver, Canada. For instance, you might imagine your thoughts as a cloud floating in the sky. “Watch the thoughts come in and out of your mind without fixating on them or getting caught up in them.”
Explore the origin and effects of your thoughts.
Wehle suggested exploring these questions: Where are your “I can’t” thoughts coming from? Why are you allowing them to shape you? Sometimes, these thoughts may be appropriate, he said. For instance, “I can’t leave my job” might be you choosing to stay at your current position to pay off your mortgage.
Wehle also suggested exploring how these thoughts are helping or hurting you. Why are you holding onto them so tightly? If a thought is serving you, what need is it serving? Are there other ways to meet this need?
As you’re digging into these questions, be compassionate with yourself, Wehle said. You might automatically think: “What’s wrong with me?! I can’t believe I’m holding onto something that’s hurting me.” But try to pause. This is about taking a gentle, understanding and patient look into what’s going on and seeing how you might move forward (if you’re ready).
Investigate your thoughts.
Boyd suggested asking these questions about your “I can’t” thought:
- “Is there evidence to support the thought?
- Is there evidence to not support it?
- Have I confused the thought with a fact?
- Why is this task important to me and what positive outcome may come from this?
- Will I be disappointed if I don’t try?
- Can I start off small or break the task down into smaller parts?”
He shared this example: Let’s say you have the thought “I can’t go back to school.” Are there tangible reasons why this might be accurate? Maybe your days are too busy and the idea of attending college seems daunting. However, you realize that you’ll have great opportunities after finishing school. So you focus on completing the first few courses (versus the years required); and making space for your classes.
Write it down.
Pick a thought that is bothering you the most. Write for 20 minutes about this thought and your feeling about it, Boyd said. “It’s cathartic and can help you to process your beliefs.”
Get an outside perspective.
An outside perspective can provide us with clarity and motivation, Boyd said. Because when we’re dealing with our own thoughts, we typically lose objectivity. “Having someone to chat with can help us realize how irrational the thoughts really are.” This person might be anyone from a friend to a therapist.
Use it as an opportunity.
If you’d like to pursue something (but believe you can’t do it), reframe that belief into an opportunity. Wehl cited Carol Dweck’s research on growth mindset. According to Dweck:
“In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work — brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.”
Because it isn’t that you can’t do something. It might be that you simply can’t do it yet. In other words, try to embrace your “I can’t” thought as a challenge.
Use inspiration to fuel your actions.
To inspire you to take action, Boyd suggested finding someone you respect who’s accomplished something extraordinary. Use their experiences and words as guidance. For instance, write down inspiring quotes or mantras and carry them with you, he said.
(One of Boyd’s favorites comes from Victor Frankl: “Between a stimulus and a response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.”)
When we have the thought “I can’t do that,” we believe it wholeheartedly. But remember that your thoughts aren’t facts. So if you’d like to pursue something, give it a shot. Every challenge holds a lesson, an opportunity to explore ourselves and to build meaning.
“I can’t” note photo available from Shutterstock