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Can versus Can’t versus Don’t

2 Reasons Why "Can’t" Just Doesn’t Cut It

In my opinion there are two words that are the driving force behind you achieving your ultimate outcome and your WHY in life. These two words are the most powerful words that you will ever speak to yourself about any situation: "can" and "can’t." "Can" is a word of power; whereas "can’t" is a word of retreat.

You have the power to decide if you wish to achieve or retreat; because when you speak victory words such as "I can" you will attain whatever you set out to do regardless of what others say to you. There are many famous entrepreneurs such as Ray Kroc, Fred Astaire, Walt Disney, and Dick Clark who would attest that years ago in the beginning of their journey the majority of people told them "You can’t do that!" Fortunately, they disregarded these statements and listened to their inner voice which said "Oh yes, I can!"

The key in life is to realize that the most important person who speaks to you every day is you. Other people are very important – but you are the only one who lives with you every day of your life. You need to review your WHY in life and see if you are on track toward achieving it, or if are detoured because someone told you (or is telling you) "You can’t do that!"

Each morning I visualize myself taking another productive stride toward my goals…and telling myself that "I can" is a huge part of what propels me.

An interesting corollary to this concept of "I can" versus "I can’t" is addressed by Heidi Grant Halvorson in her recent article entitled "The Amazing Power of ‘I Don’t’ vs. ‘I Can’t’." In it she states that it’s hard to motivate yourself to adopt new habits to help you achieve your goals, but it’s even harder to rid yourself of old habits. More often than not, she writes, it’s the old habits that keep us from becoming the person we really want to be.

One particular strategy that she recommends to overcome this is supported by recent research studies at Boston College and the University of Houston. That strategy is using "I don’t" instead of "I can’t." Imagine, she writes, that you are on a diet, and you are enjoying a meal at a nice restaurant. After clearing the plates, your server says, "You know, we have an incredible chocolate cake on our dessert menu. We’re famous for it. Would you care to try it?"

Would you think to yourself:

"I can’t eat chocolate cake."

Or

"I don’t eat chocolate cake."

Halvorson says that if you think there is no real difference, you couldn’t be more wrong. Don’t and can’t may seem somewhat interchangeable, but they are very different psychologically. And if there is one thing that social psychologists have learned over the years, it’s that even seemingly subtle differences in language can have very powerful effects on our thoughts, feelings and behavior.

"I don’t" is experienced as a choice, so it feels empowering. It’s an affirmation of your determination and willpower. "I can’t" isn’t a choice – it’s a restriction; it’s being imposed upon you. So thinking "I can’t" undermines your sense of power and personal agency.

The difference between thinking "I don’t" and "I can’t" can be quite dramatic. In one study, students with a healthy eating goal were instructed that when faced with a temptation, they should say to themselves either "I don’t do X" or "I can’t do X" (e.g., I don’t eat candy versus I can’t eat candy.) On their way out of the lab, they were told that they could choose a token of appreciation for their participation in the study: a chocolate bar or a granola bar. Who chose the healthier option? Sixty-four percent of those who said "I don’t," compared to only thirty-nine percent of those who said "I can’t."

Halvorson writes that in another study, twenty adult women who were working toward a health and fitness goal were encouraged to use either "I don’t" or "I can’t" language when they were tempted to lapse (e.g., skip the gym, grab a donut, etc.). On each of the next ten days, these women checked in via email to report on whether or not the strategy was working for them – if not, they were told they could stop using the strategy. By the study’s end, 8 out of the 10 women using the "I don’t" strategy were still using it successfully, while only 1 of the 10 who used "I can’t" lasted that long.

The beautiful thing about using this strategy is that it could not be easier – every time you catch yourself thinking I can’t have this, or I can’t do that, simply say "No, I don’t do this" instead.

The bottom line in comparing "can" versus "can’t" and "I don’t" versus "I can’t" is to try and take the word "can’t" out of your vocabulary entirely. Empower yourself and have the mindset that you can do whatever it is that you set out to do. It’s a matter of choice…and a choice that is critically important for you to make wisely.