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The other side of “I can’t”

shutterstock_62564440The more time that I am away from the blog the harder it is to come back. Somehow having been away so long makes me feel more pressure to come back with something of great gravitas or to somehow come up with a really good explanation for my absence. Certainly, I do have good excuses for my extended absence from blogging: work, the book, speaking engagements, a new house, trips to Paris, London and NYC, and hired another intern. Yeah, I have excuses but they don’t feel like good ones. Maybe a doctor’s note might feel more legit. Something like, “To Whom it May Concern: Please excuse Tracey for not blogging. She’s had a lot on her plate and hasn’t been swanning around doing nothing. I can attest to the fact that she is so busy that she hasn’t yet seen an episode of this season’s Downton Abbey. However, she is getting better at managing it all and is even adding more to her plate and seems to be less overwhelmed. It is my professional opinion that Tracey can return to blogging with some limits and modifications. Best, Dr. Isayso.”

I guess what really got me thinking about coming back here is that I am coming up on my third-year anniversary of my move into being a singleton and I am, as I do, thinking a whole lot about what I have learned about myself in the last three years. If I was to put it in a nutshell in give it to you in a sentence it is a sentiment that I have shared before and it is: I was wrong about ‘I can’t’.” It is am amazing lesson to learn that your beliefs about your self and the limits you put on yourself simply aren’t true. I have over and over proved that my “I cant’s” are mostly a whole bunch of bologna. It is awesome to learn this lesson, however I wish I had learned it earlier.

Three years ago I believed:

  • I can’t take care of myself.
  • I can’t succeed on my own.
  • I can’t be self-employed.
  • I can’t be happy without a baby.
  • I can’t ever find love again.
  • I am an introvert so I can’t do_______.
  • I can’t write a proposal.
  • I can’t get an agent.
  • I can’t get a publisher.
  • I can’t do public speaking.
  • I can’t do live TV.
  • I can’t do x,y, and z because I am not smart enough, young enough, pretty enough or good enough.
  • I can’t be an employer.
  • I can’t get a speaking agent.
  • I can’t have a house like that.
  • I can’t stand up for myself here.
  • I can’t end this relationship.
  • I can’t write a book.
  • I can’t take this risk.
  • I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.

I was wrong.  I was wrong about all of it. Each prediction was totally and 100% WRONG. And this is the point that I really and truly want to make is that “I can’t” is mostly a self-protective lie we tell to ourselves to protect ourselves from hurt, failure, and rejection.  After three years of proving that “I can’t” is wrong I just don’t trust “I can’t” anymore. Yeah, sure, it still shows up and tells me that this time is different and this time I really can’t. But now I listen to it like I would a scared child and tell it, “Yeah, I know you are afraid but let’s try this and see what happens and see if we need some help, support or a a plan to make this happen.” And if I chose not to do something I am careful to never tell myself that I can’t….I can, but I chose not too. Yes, I still can’t ride a bike, drive a stick shift, ice skate, or ski. It’s true, I don’t have the ability. However, if I wanted to I could learn how to. It’s not something I chose to do. It feels better to say that, to own the “I don’t want to take the time or energy to make that happen” than to say “I can’t”.

I am NOT telling you all of this to toot my own horn.  Rather, since I really and truly got this lesson I feel a bit like a person who found religion, I want to take your “I can’t” away from you and help you get to the other side and to help you see how when you say “I can’t” and see how you are protecting yourself with it. That said, I know there are things that we can’t do because to do so would hurt us physically, emotionally, psychologically, or financially. There are some “I cant’s” that are true and valid and that is why I am writing my book…however, I just want you to look at your “I can’t” and see if it is REALLY and TRULY true. Check and see if there is some fear hanging out in your “I can’t” as there usually is. And if there is fear, knowing that fear is normal part of any new venture helps me to expect it and welcome it. As soon as I say yes to something I know fear is going to show up, “But you can’t,” it will immediately say in dramatic and emphatic tones.  “Oh, hi”, I say, “I was expecting you” and then I promptly ignore it and keep on doing the very thing that the “I can’t” told me I couldn’t do.

19 Responses to “The other side of “I can’t””

  • A truly powerful post, Tracey. It’s easier to say “I can’t.” It’s easier to give in to the fear of failure, and not try. I was just thinking in the last few days, that I should just give myself permission to reevaluate my goals and my dreams. Not because I’ve changed and don’t have those goals and dreams, but because of the fear of failure.

    • Thank you, Angie! Fear of failure is so sneaky because it tells us that we shouldn’t because the failure would be so awful and then it gets us to do just that by not trying. It seems that it might be better to ask, okay so what if I try and don’t accomplish x but I learn something or have the pleasure of trying? How do I know what the outcome is going to be? What happens if I don’t take the risk? How would it hurt me more to not try than to try? What is my fear that failing” would do to me? What’s my worst fear? If we answer all of those questions and discover that failing would hurt us, kill us, damage relationships or our security—then maybe we can’t and maybe it is time to reassess. Then we can say, “I could…but I am choosing not to do this because to do this would be destructive to me” and that would be better and stronger than to go with the “can’t”.

  • Tracey: I admire the optimistic spirit of this piece, and I agree with you that far too many people make no attempts whatsoever toward the accomplishment of their goals and dreams simply because they have a deep belief that they “can’t.” And in the cases where those negative beliefs are solely inner voices of doubt, but are not based on experience, your words of wisdom are exactly what they need to hear.

    However, there is another brand of “can’t” that comes from more than inner demons, and that’s from induction. We are creatures of induction, plain and simple. Ask anybody if the sun is going to come up tomorrow, and chances are they’ll say, “Of course.” Ask them how they know this, and they’ll say, “Well, because it came up yesterday.” This, for any of your readers who might not know, is a basic example of induction at work.

    My point is this: If a person’s experience in the pursuit of a dream or goal has been one of failure after failure after failure, pretty soon the person is going to develop the belief that he can’t accomplish the dream or goal. Why? Because of nasty induction again: Every time he has gone after the goal, he has failed before; therefore, the next time an opportunity comes along to go after the goal again, he will also fail.

    As humans we see these patterns as being absolute, so it’s very difficult to break their grip. For example, let’s say a writer has written some very good short stories and that she submits them to 30 or 40 of the best journals and magazines, and she does this for 3 solid years, for a total of about 300 submissions—all without a single acceptance. Induction (the over and over again pattern) is telling her, “Look, honey, don’t even BOTHER submitting another one, because every time you’ve done it, it’s just been rejected.” This is an “I can’t” that is very difficult to ignore because it’s based on evidence—real-life experience.

    Or, what about the young black man, a junior in high school, who shows tremendous ability and passion for science? He has a teacher who believes in him, but otherwise is surrounded by negative inductive evidence: a parent addicted to drugs, another parent gone, a friend in jail, another friend shot, and no money with which to further his education. Sadly, the young man is surrounded by negative evidence that says, “I don’t care *what* you think you can do, or where you want to go in life, all of these things are showing you why you can’t.”

    Returning to the example of the writer trying to get her stories published, here’s the thing: From a mathematical/odds standpoint, all of the previous “failures” to get a story published *have no impact* on the chances that THIS time a story WILL get published. But that’s all mathematical BS. Yes, logic dictates that the previous failures have nothing to do with potential future successes, but this is no consolation to the person who has been beaten down in pursuit of his goals. It might be illogical to give into the induction, but as humans it’s what we do: We see something happen a few times in a row, and we become convinced that it’s ALWAYS going to be like this.

    This deep, negative psychic place is very hard to escape from.

    Helping us to ignore and get past the naysaying, negative voices in our heads of “I can’t” is important work, but there is a deeper, more insidious problem here related to this notion of “I can’t,” and it’s this:

    How do we get around induction?

    If *experience* is showing us that X isn’t possible (i.e., we keep failing to attain X), then how do we ignore it? And how do we get past the brain’s tendencies to look for patterns, to gather information, to simplify problems?

    The question for all psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists, and anyone else who is in the business of helping us to make better decisions and encourage and empower us to meet our goals is this:

    Once a patient understands the concept of induction, how can we get him to *accept* it regarding the positive things in his life (e.g., “The sun will come up tomorrow!”; sorry, Annie, that’s an inductive statement), and ignore it regarding the *negative* things (e.g., “I am never going to get a job in this industry”)?

    • This is why I hope that those who feel inclined to share all of my cant’s here…as they felt entirely true. I was locked into them being true. Yes, there are many things we can’t achieve in the way we imagine…but there is something valuable in the trying and challenging it and not stopping ourselves when reality hasn’t. Yes, there are things I will never do( be a ballet dancer, publish in the NEw Yorker) but there are a myriad of cant’s that are simply insidious lies( mostly coming from my childhood).My book is ALL about letting go of a dream that can’t happen…I am A HUGE believer in facing that reality and not being overly optimistic in the face of those realities. That said, the “I can’t” I speak of here isn’t about that experience. It is how we stop ourselves with certainty when we have none. In my work with patients I get them to assess where the “I can’t” came from and who it belongs to and what the fear is if you actually can. It’s complicated…but it is worth unpacking. It can take time and I believe it can be done–I see it happen every day in my work. Again, that doesn’t mean that we get all that we want because of it.It just means that the automatic thought isn’t necessarily true.
      Thanks, dear Chris, for your thoughtful and engaged reading and comment.

  • What a fabulous post, Tracey! While there are always real and true limitations in life, so much of the time it’s our own beliefs that are holding us back. And the part about choosing NOT to do something…why do we sometimes feel that we HAVE to do everything, that we’re somehow selling ourselves short if we don’t? I think there’s a lot of cultural pressure to always keep achieving and “I can’t” is a way of letting ourselves off the hook. In reality, it’s very liberating to say “not interested” rather than “I can’t.”

    • Deja!! Really, it is so fun to be back and see my old friends here. Thanks so much for the kind comment. We don’t have to do it. But to tell ourselves that we can’t is to rob ourselves of choosing not to do something. To say “I can but I don’t want to” is really and truly okay. But we act like it isn’t and that it its better to chose a sense of helplessness is what Sartre would call bad-faith. You are so right, “Not interested” is much better!!

  • What a BRILLIANT comeback post, Tracey! Makes me feel empowered, but I love the fact that you don’t disregard the importance of the real “I can’t”, either. :-) Food for thought. THANK YOU!

    • Amel, Thank you!! It is so fun to see you again. It really has a been a long time!! Thanks so much. No, the real “I can’t” is important to address and too often we don’t see the reality fully in either way.

  • Love this, Tracey! So true and so inspiring. XO

  • Fabulous post Tracy. Very thought-provoking and empowering while acknowledging that there are limits in life, but more often we limit ourselves through fear. Its odd, but I had just mentioned “I can’t” in todays blog post, but I did not clarify what I meant. Perhaps I need to go back over there now that I’ve thought about this a little more.

    • Thanks, Mardel! So nice to see you here. It feels like home with you here. There are plenty of true and valid “I can’t”s. But so many are not. It is good to stop and see which kind they are and question the veracity of the claim.

  • Much of what you wrote in this post resonated with me. Especially, I can’t live in a house like that. I am actually living in a home that at first glance, I felt I could never afford. Actually having a mortgage was something I had a big “I can’t” about. It all seemed too unachievable for me. Sadly much of my life has been lived in insecurity and fear. Therapy has helped me achieve many goals that were previously “I can’t”‘s. Sadly looking at moving on to being childless without choice is looking very much an “I can” as a result of living in fear for far too long.

    Many on the egg donation forum I belong to, simply do not understand my desire to look at whether I can’t be a mother and what I might move on to and how I will heal in a way that leads me to being happy with my life afterwards. To them I simply don’t want motherhood enough and am not trying hard enough to be one. Luckily, there are women out there who admitted “I can’t” and have a new “I can” and I love all of you for being so inspiring for me.

    • Dear, Annette, thank you so much for your comment and your honest sharing. As you may know, there was a time that I could have never-ever-ever imagined that any kind of happiness was possible without a child. I was wrong. I am unspeakably happy with how my life is today and that in no way means I didn’t want it enough. I wanted it!! As you well know, walking away doesn’t mean that you didn’t want it—it just means that there is a limit to how much pain, suffering, hurt, expense and time that we can give to something before it becomes destructive. When I was moving on and letting go I didn’t know anyone who had done so who seemed happy even though they had REALLY wanted it. I wish I had. I am happy if I, and others, help you with that. Big hug.

  • I’m always so excited to see when you’ve published a post — and with such a great message, to boot. My excitement for your upcoming book will be that, times about 200 pages. Your words mean a lot to me!

  • Tracey, your journey the last couple years has been inspiring and fun to follow. I am so proud of you!

    For me, déjà pseu’s comment resonates the most, because it’s taken me a long time to realize that I actually don’t want to achieve more. Contentment is a beautiful thing too. That said, I don’t rule out the possibility of wanting more in the future :).

  • Great post, and particularly loving the comments too. I roll my eyes often at “you can do anything” posts – as we all know we can’t – but ignoring the “I can’t” or figuring out why we automatically respond “I can’t” or wanting instead to say “I don’t want to” is the key. I need to turn down the volume of a few of my own “I can’ts” right at the moment, decide what role fear is playing in all this, and figure out why I might want to or not want to. Thanks for the food for thought.

  • LBR –

    Good to see you back, and congratulations on the book and transforming so many barriers into successes!

    Provocative post and interesting comments.

    There’s something about the “I can’ts” that at least connects one to the person they want to be and the live they want to life. Because then there’s a chance to embrace the process of working through to “I can” or letting go of the dream/desire.

    Being oblivious about my fears feels worse to me…it seems to extend weird limbo phases where I can’t decide anything important.

    I admit I look at your list and envy your drive to move forward and see what results happen — inspiring.

  • Tracey … Loved! Loved! this post. and so happy to see you posting. Congrats on all the wonderful accomplishments You are an inspiration. I have been dragging my feet these past couple of years and just past where you were 3 years ago… at a bit of a cross roads. So, I’m glad to see you blogging – looking forward to your wise words and inspiration.. Hugs, C.

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About Me

My name is Tracey, aka La Belette Rouge. I am a psychotherapist and the author of Freudian Sip @ Psychology Today. I blog about psychology, my therapy, dreams, writing, meaning making, home, longing, loss, infertility and other things that delight or inspire me. I try to make deep and elusive psychodynamic concepts accessible and funny. For more information, click here .
These blog posts are informational only and not meant to replace individual psychotherapy, counseling or medical advice. If you are in need of help, reaching out to a professional may help you decide how to proceed or how to find the care you need. For a referral, contact

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