“I Can’t” – A short rant

“I can’t”
“I don’t want to”
“I won’t”
“I shouldn’t have to”

I’m sure you have seen or heard me say this before, words have power. Many people use the above statements interchangeably and I believe it is to their own detriment. The statement, “I can’t” is particularly problematic. When I call people out on this they often dismiss their use of I can’t as trivial. Your brain stores this and over time it becomes true just by repetition. More accurate labeling of your emotion leads to better solutions and avoids the repetitive mislabeling.

Consider this, “I can’t take it any more.” What does that actually mean? Is there something that is implied but not stated? I often hear people using that statement when they are really meaning that they think they shouldn’t really have to do something or when they don’t want to experience something.

Not everyone will agree with me, but I think using I can’t instead of the other terms is a subconscious way, in many instances, to reject taking responsibility for whatever happens next. If I can’t do, tolerate, or handle something then I have more license to get mad, melt down, or avoid.

This isn’t always the case. There are times when I can’t is accurate. I really can’t bend my knee all the way. Multiple injuries and surgeries have rendered that an impossibility. I can’t handle scary movies is less true. More accurate for me would be I don’t want to watch scary movies because they make me uncomfortable and ruin my sleep.

The repeated use of I can’t can reinforce a victim mentality and disempower the user. What you practice will grow stronger. If you repeat something often enough, that belief will grow stronger. Perhaps it would be better to remember the Little Engine That Could. I think I can, I think I can, I think I can. Or in some cases, I choose not to….I choose not to….I choose not to.

Global vs Local

If you search the internet using the terms local and global you will find articles on almost every topic imaginable. Within the realm of psychology, the terms are commonly used in perception and information processing. I have found benefit in using these terms to understand problems and solutions as well as pairing solutions with the problems people report in therapy. It might be helpful to think of local problems as things that are fairly limited in time and frequency. Local problems aren’t always small or minor. They can be quite intense. Global problems are best thought of as patterns or trends. Again, severity isn’t the real issue.

Mary, usually a great student, gets a low score on a math test. Is this a local problem or a global problem? Based on the available information this is a local problem. There is no evidence that this problem involves any factors outside of the specific incident. Jared has received low grades in his math classes for the past several years. The existence of the difficulty over time suggests that this is more likely global. Judy is having trouble getting along with her coworkers, family, and friends. She has been generally irritable for several months. Global vs Local? This is another example that is more global than local because the problem exists in more than one situation.

Mary, having a local problem, will likely be able to resolve the issue with a fairly local solution. Local solutions might include things like reviewing the test material, talking with the teacher, or doing some extra work with the specific concepts that were covered by the test. Global solutions such as dropping the math class, enrolling in a tutoring program, or changing her major would likely be excessive or overreactions to the problem. For Jared the opposite is really true. His problems are not likely to resolve by focusing on only the current topic in mathematics. The solution will need to be much more global. Since Judy’s problems occur within several relationships and settings, resolution focusing on broader concepts such as mood, intimacy, communication, or boundaries will probably be necessary.

When an individual has a local problem there is not likely going to be a serious consequence when a global solution is launched; however, the problem resolution could actually take a much longer time and will use more resources than in necessary. Conversely, if an individual has a global problem, as noted previously there is very little chance of resolution with a local solution.

Misperception is an important factor to consider. Susan’s son spilled soda on the living room carpet. Ellen recognized this as a local problem and had him clean up his mess. This was a logical consequence of his spilling. This scene could have played out a different way if Susan had perceived this as a global problem. Instead of focusing on how to resolve the mess, she could have focused on the event as an act of disrespect, disobedience, or incompetence. Then she would have searched for solutions that would correct those larger issues. The event would likely not have ended with just a towel or a mop.

Here are some questions to ask when considering whether a problem or solution is truly local or global.

  • How often does this problem occur (time)?
  • Does this happen in more than one situation (scope)?
  • Does this happen with more than one person?
  • Does this solution address the facts or the feelings?
  • Does this solution have an immediate impact or will it take time?
  • Does this solution change what is happening in one situation or many?

Remember, the goal is to use local solutions for local problems and global solutions for global problems.  The more accurate your perception, the easier it will be.