How we speak and the effect it has on our credibility has been making international headlines of late. From the ubiquitous “sorry” to the pervasive “actually,” the media has been flooded with evidence that apologetic and qualifying words undermine our authority and negatively influence our self-confidence.
Similarly, there is one seemingly innocent phrase that can sap your willpower, lower your morale, and shut down your creativity: “I can’t.”
On the surface, “I can’t” doesn’t seem to be the success-stopper that it is. Logic dictates that if you have limitations, then you cannot be, do, or have something; you’re simply being a realist. But the flaw can come when we use “I can’t” as an excuse not to try something that may, in fact, be possible. “I can’t” makes the action or ability seem beyond your control; “I can’t” gives away your power.
For instance, say you’re attempting to cut back on frivolous spending. A friend asks if you can join her for happy hour. Thinking “I can’t spend money on drinks” makes it seem like some powerful, outside force is keeping you from the $2 appetizers and cut-price well drinks. The reality is that you’re making a conscious choice to be fiscally responsible (a wonderful thing!). But in your own mind, it sounds like you’re being punished.
Whether you’re grappling with working out, attending an event, or avoiding a tempting dessert, use conviction when deciding. When you’re feeling like a victim of your circumstances, try one of these replacement phrases to take control of your life rather than diminish your capabilities.
01. ‘I Don’t’
In “A Scientific Guide to Saying ‘No’: How to Avoid Temptation and Distraction,” author James Clear cites a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research that demonstrates the power of “I don’t” vs. “I can’t.” In this study, participants were divided into two groups: one group was asked to say, “I can’t do X,” and the other was asked to say, “I don’t do X.”
When faced between selecting a chocolate bar or a granola bar, the participants who were asked to say “I can’t” chose the chocolate bar 61 percent of the time. Conversely, the participants who were asked to say “I don’t” chose the chocolate bar only 36 percent of the time.
“I don’t” turns refusing a specific temptation into an aspect of your character. It creates an empowering, positive feedback loop. “I can’t,” on the other hand, reminds you of your limitations, victimizes you, and makes you more likely to rebel—even if a scenario is one of your own making.
02. ‘I Choose’
Like “I don’t,” “I choose” characterizes refusing a temptation as your decision. You frame a circumstance as your choice from many available options rather than a set of constraints from which you’re unable to remove yourself.
Rather than saying, “I can’t have ice cream,” try saying, “I choose not to have ice cream.” Instead of “I can’t work out,” try, “I choose not to work out.” How does this affect our decisions?
Cognitive dissonance, a state of mental stress over holding contradictory ideas at the same time, is at the heart of this phrase replacement. In “Fighting Cognitive Dissonance & The Lies We Tell Ourselves,” Dr. John Grohol writes, “Dissonance theory suggests that if individuals act in ways that contradict their beliefs, then they typically will change their beliefs to align with their actions (or vice versa).”
According to dissonance theory, saying “I choose” will eventually change your beliefs about your power in a situation. You will begin to believe that you chose your circumstances—and having choice is empowering.
03. ‘How Can I?’
An oft-used favorite of personal development leaders, I first learned about “How can I . . .?” from author and personal finance educator Robert Kiyosaki.
On RichDad.com, Kiyosaki writes:
“Instead of saying, ‘I can’t afford that,’ [my rich friends’ parents] looked at the things they wanted to buy as motivation to help them put their money to work. . . . Rather than let their finances defeat them, they looked at their finances as a game that they would win.”
The finality of “I can’t” prevents you from thinking of ways around a situation. In contrast, “How can I . . .?” presents a problem for your mind to solve. As you seek an answer, cognitive bias kicks in, and your mind filters information that will help—not hinder—you to achieve success.
This effect is enhanced if you write down the question, “How can I X?” In an article published by the Indiana University School of Medicine, Dr. Patricia Wade explains that writing stimulates the reticular activating system, a cluster of cells at the base of the brain responsible for assigning importance to incoming information. Information that activates the RAS is passed on to the cerebral cortex, which then notices and retains details related to that information. All you need to activate it is a piece of paper, a pen, and a “How can I?” mentality.
Replacing “I can’t” with more empowering language gives you control and responsibility over your own life. You are no longer bound by external circumstances or by someone else’s expectations; you can deliberately create your life as you see fit, one small decision, contradictory belief, and simple brainteaser at a time.
Photo Credit: Brittni Willie