The One Phrase That Will Age You Prematurely
How saying these words can cause you to feel older than you are.
Afternoons have been notoriously hectic for me with the kids coming home from school, driving car pools and getting dinner ready … I can't hang out at that time. A friend texted to invite me to come over around 4 p.m. for a happy hour she was hosting. I immediately texted back, “Sorry, I can’t.”
But just minutes after I hit send, I realized I was on autopilot. My youngest child had gone off to college a few months earlier. After 28 years as a work-from-home mom, my once-chaotic afternoons were much quieter.
So why did I instinctively think “I can’t” without asking myself, “Can I?”
What does ‘I can’t’ really mean?
Ellie Borden, clinical director of Mind By Design, explains: “The phrase ‘I can't’ is a phrase we use when we believe we can't do something, regardless of whether that is true.”
Sometimes, “I can't”means “I am afraid”
“Many times, people don't want to leave their comfort zone, especially as they get older,” says Karen Laos, a leadership and communication coach. “They put up these barriers so that in their minds, it is impossible to take the leap.”
“Our fear and stress can often get in the way of trying something new or making a change because the idea of ‘I can’ seems unfathomable,” Borden explains. We may find ourselves responding, ‘I can’t’ to making big changes, such as embarking on a new career, or small, silly things like ‘I can't wear a bikini.’ “
But if you think about it, you actually can do these things. A career change, while difficult, may not be impossible. And if you want to wear a bikini, even if you are in your 60s and not at your ideal weight, you can. Laos says, “Saying ‘I can’t’ is a choice we make because we are embarrassed or fear judgment or failure. We think, Who am I to do this at this age? when really, anything is possible if the desire is there.”
‘I can’t’ limits us
When we are children, the adults in our lives place limits on us. A friend will ask, “Can you come over to play?” The child will respond, “I can't. My mom says I have to finish my homework.” But as adults, we set the limits on ourselves and that can be scary and, at times, overwhelming. "We have so many daily decisions, from trivial to monumental ones, we get decision fatigue,” says Cheryl Frasier, a clinical psychologist and sex therapist. “As adults, we have obligations (work, family) but, to an extent, we get to choose what we can and can’t do. So we say, ‘I can’t’ without stopping to think if we can. It's a lazy speech pattern. And, ultimately, it limits us.”
By saying ‘I can’t,’ we become isolated from others, the world and ourselves. Frasier explains, “We say it so much that we start to believe we can’t.”
The ‘I can’t’ habit
There were probably many afternoons where I could have attended an afternoon happy hour with girlfriends, even when my kids lived at home. My work is freelance, so I set my schedule and could have found a ride for the kids or ordered pizza for dinner. But instead of saying, “Let me see if I can rearrange some things,” I immediately said, “I can’t.” I chose this response partly out of guilt. Laos says, “Women tend to take on the role of caretaker with their kids, partners and parents. But to be the best caretaker, you must also care for yourself. That means prioritizing your needs too.”
The other reason for my automatic “I can’t” was because it was easier than saying, "I don't want to do that." I was being lazy. I also didn’t want to hurt her feelings or for her to be upset with me. “By saying ‘I can’t,’ we are pretending that we don't have another option,” explains Laos. “If we were to say, ‘I don’t want to,’ we would be setting a powerful personal boundary, and that can be scary for many women who have been conditioned to be people pleasers.”
Breaking the ‘I can’t’ cycle
So how do we break the “I can’t” habit? First, the next time you feel inclined to say, “I can’t,” stop and ask yourself, Why not? Take the time to ask yourself exploratory questions. If possible, delay your response to the invitation, so you have time to reflect. If, after evaluating your feelings, you think that not doing something is best for your well-being, it’s OKto say just that. Frasier explains: “You don't want to be rude, but you can be honest. Reply, ‘I appreciate the offer, but I need something else today.’ It’s healthy to set boundaries and practice self-care without feeling guilty.”
On the other hand, by taking a pause and honestly questioning yourself, you can actually do things you didn’t initially think were possible. “Choosing to say, ‘I can’ is usually the most challenging part,” says Borden. “We often find that once we decide to do something, it is never as bad as it seems and often turns out better than we expected.”
Saying “I can’t” less frequently opens you up to opportunities. It's a chance to accomplish something, challenge your limits and grow as a person rather than remain stagnant. “The phrase can also offer a helpful lesson even if it turns out we truly couldn’t do something,” says Borden. "Saying 'I can' more often will lead to fewer regrets, a happier life and a better relationship with the self,” she explains.
What do you think? Do you agree with the idea of saying "I can't" less? Let us know in the comments below.