The Powerful “I Can’t”

I say the words, “I can’t” far too often. Even if I don’t always voice them out loud I certainly think them plenty.

Whenever I watch TV shows or movies with a survivalist theme I am the first one to think/say, “I would die,” or, “I could never,” or just, “Nope.” It’s actually become a bit of a joke with my family and friends because they all know what I’m going to say when we get to that part in the show or movie.

It’s funny and I laugh.

But then I started thinking, why am I so weak? Do I not have what it takes to survive? Am I not resilient? These are just other versions of the “I can’t”, by the way. But it’s taken me a while to realize that.

I’m terrified of sharks. It’s a pretty rational fear that a lot of people have. Actually, I think you’re a bit insane if you don’t have a healthy fear of sharks. The other day we were watching a documentary about a shark attack and I remember thinking how brave the girl was to fight the shark, even after she’d been bit, and I figured if I were in a similar scenario, I probably would just freeze or have a heart attack. I didn’t think I would survive if I were in her shoes.

But, would I really freeze? Would I become so paralyzed with fear that I wouldn’t be able to fight for my survival? I don’t know.

Thinking that you can’t do something is very different than actually not being able to do it. The truth is, when I watch this kind of content, I really don’t know how I would react because I’m not in that situation. I’m not there. I’m just projecting how I think I would behave.

Believing I can’t do something isn’t the same thing as not being able to do it. What I’ve realized is this: It’s not a weakness problem or an inability to survive trauma. It’s a confidence problem.

Lack of confidence is a weakness, I suppose, but it’s not something that can’t be changed. Confidence is fluid and ever changing. We can work on it, we can grow. It’s hard, but we can. And, lack of confidence is very different from lack of resilience or the inability to survive. I would argue that, often, we develop these kinds of confidence issues because of trauma we have already survived.

The power of “I can’t” is what holds us back, not our actual ability.

It’s a hard habit to break. For me, it’s become a pretty easily accessible thought pattern, a train I can easily hop on that I can’t always derail right away. When things are hard, I automatically think, “I can’t.” It’s become a well traveled road within the map that is my brain. Neural networks are a thing, and the more we think the same thoughts and worry about the same things and grab onto the same ideas, even if they’re not true, the more ingrained and easily traveled those neural networks become.

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On the flip side, the more we stop those long held thoughts and beliefs, the more those “roadways” of neural networks begin to get foggy. Like a once well-worn path that isn’t traveled anymore, slowly, but surely, time passes and the leaves fall and the foliage begins to grow, covering the foot prints and suddenly it’s not so well-worn anymore. It’s not as easy to find as it once was. It’s a slow process, but it’s possible to “forget the way”.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy, but it’s possible.

When I was little, my mom used to read me, “The Little Engine That Could”. It’s a popular story that’s been retold over and over again and the premise is always the same. You probably know the story, but just in case you don’t, I’ll give you a quick summary.

A train, carrying toys, breaks down and can’t get up a hill. Three other trains pass the engine and the toys try to flag them down. The first two are big and impressive in different ways. The third one is old and rusty. They all say “they can’t” pull the train up the mountain for various reasons. Finally, a small blue train comes by. This train is much smaller than the others and not as experienced. She’s not sure she can pull the broken down engine over the mountain, but she’s willing to try and she says, “I think I can.” This becomes her “mantra” the entire way up the mountain. She huffs and puffs, but she keeps repeating the words over and over and eventually she is able to pull the engine up the mountain.

It’s a children’s story but it’s an important lesson for everyone about believing in our ability to do hard things, to persevere and never give up.

Somewhere along the line, I’d forgotten that story. For so long I’ve been saying, “I can’t,” to myself. It’s become a limiting belief, one that’s fairly automatic, one I need to work on changing.

Maybe I don’t fully believe in myself, but it’s a confidence issue, not a reflection of my actual ability.

The next time I’m tempted to think, “I can’t,” I am going to try to remember the little engine that could and, even if I don’t fully believe I can do it, I’m going to say, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”

Until it’s done.

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