I’ve just started reading the book ‘Big Magic’ by Liz Gilbert. Because it takes me approximately three months to read one chapter of a book now – what, between baby-rearing, boob-weaning, working out, cooking, cleaning and general household duties (i.e watching Orange Is The New Black while eating too much food and googling ‘how to get more shit done‘) I’m not very far in, but the first couple of pages were enough to get me excited. In a discussion about courage, Liz included a quote by Richard Bach which goes
Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they’re yours.
And upon reading this little gem, I genuinely got a tingle up my spine. You know when you hear a quote and you think – Holy hell, I’ve just discovered the meaning of life…! ? Well, that was what happened. My brain immediately started ticking over, and I suddenly got this slideshow playing in my head of all the times I’ve made excuses for myself on behalf of my anxiety. All the times I’ve said ‘I can’t’.
‘I can’t go to the wedding’,
‘I can’t get to my therapy appointments’,
‘I can’t take my baby home from the hospital’,
‘I can’t go out for coffee/dinner/a movie’,
‘I can’t go outside’,
‘I can’t get better’
I think if you were running a tally on the phrases most commonly uttered from my mouth, ‘I can’t’ would be right up there – along with ‘why is there no food in this house?!‘ Yep, ‘I can’t’ seems to be the motto of my mid-twenties, which is frustrating to say the least, because I’d much rather have devoted that to my puberty years where it belonged (“No mum, I can’t make the bed/go to school/clean my room/eat proper meals/be nice to my sister”). And the problem with saying ‘I can’t’, is that once you start saying it, it becomes nearly impossible to stop. Just like the wise Mr Bach said, it becomes yours to keep. Hell, I argue for my limitations so frequently that they’ve almost become my religion. I’ve affirmed them so often and for so many years that I genuinely believe I cannot do the things I would like to do, simply because I’ve gotten in the bad, dirty habit of repeating day in, day out exactly why I can’t do them. And it’s a blind faith, I have no real logic or evidence that I can’t do those things, besides the fact that a couple of times a few years ago I experienced a whole lot of discomfort when trying to do other things.
So I’ve been doing some serious thinking about why I’ve become so steadfast in my belief of ‘I can’t’, and obviously the number one thing that comes up is fear. Ah yes, the enemy of the anxious. Fear is like the kryptonite of my life, the thing I run away from the most without realising that it’s actually the thing I’m always running towards. In Big Magic, Liz has some excellent points to make about fear, and she stresses the importance of learning to co-exist with your fear, because after all, we are always going to have an element of fear in our lives. She says
It isn’t always comfortable or easy…but it’s always worth it, because if you can’t learn to travel comfortably alongside your fear, then you’ll never be able to go anywhere interesting or do anything interesting.
And my life – case in point. Sure, in the last few years I’ve done some kick-ass things, like given birth to a beautiful baby girl, to name one…but then, when I try to think about what else I’ve done, besides general existing and living, I draw a blank. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve come a long way with my anxiety. And in terms of my agoraphobia, I’ve come along in leaps and bounds (albeit carefully measured ones). But the general everyday vibe over the last few years has been one akin to trying to fit into jeans that are way too tight – I’m always uncomfortable, always second-guessing (and third, and fourth, and fifth-guessing) and I never really want to give the OK without one hell of a fight. I insist on telling myself and everybody else that I can’t. I couldn’t. So I didn’t.
I don’t think I’m alone in this either. I think that it’s a nasty trait of human nature that anytime we get remotely excited or passionate about doing something, we immediately jump in with all the reasons why we can’t do it. Shut that shit down before somebody else can, right? You don’t just have to suffer with an anxiety disorder to be an ‘I can’t’ addict. You want to write a book? Jump out of an aeroplane? Quit your day-job to take up professional belly-dancing? Start working out? Start living a more authentic life? But, you can’t! Because……..well, because of all the reasons you can think of, really…but what it all boils down to for most is because we’re scared of what might happen. Scared of the unknown. Which is fair enough, in some respects. The unknown can be scary. (Alright, downright fucking terrifying, let’s not lie) But what we should perhaps be afraid of is the knowing. I mean, yeah, it’s familiar, it’s predictable, it’s ‘safe’, but there’s no room to grow in the knowing.
For example, I know where I’ve been everyday for the last three years. I know where I’ll most likely be tomorrow, and the day after. I’ve spent a long time creating a safe, predictable, familiar fence around myself, which has done nothing but keep me securely sectioned off in the very furthest corner of my life, far away from my goals and desires but as close as you can possibly get to my comfort zone. And while my comfort zone is…well, comfortable, it’s pretty lacking in fun. There’s nothing new here; no risk, no excitement, no need for courage or bravery or personal growth (and sometimes there’s not even a need for pants). Does this ring any bells to you? Welcome to the ‘I can’t’ club – where the drinks are overpriced, the music shitty, good times are banned and guilt trips are free.
How much good stuff are you denying yourself whenever you say ‘I can’t’? How many of your dreams are you shutting down? How many opportunities are you blocking? How much of your life are you giving away to the fear of uncertainty? Let me tell you something – all the reasons why you can’t do something are bullshit. Your limits are bullshit. Mean Girls had it right when Cady Heron said “The limit does not exist”. Put it this way, when you are talking to a kid, you never tell them repeatedly that they CANNOT do things. I’ve never once heard a parent say “You can’t walk. You can’t learn to feed yourself. You can’t do anything fun, you can’t have a good time, you can’t have dreams and goals and desires and you certainly can’t do anything that you might want to do.” You want to pump kids up, not bring them down! You want to tell them they can do anything they want to do! Be anything they want to be! Life is your oyster, baby! We tell kids this because we know it to be true, but we’ve let fear of failure tell us otherwise. We’ve become masters of can’t-do, instead of can-do. As soon as we have an exciting idea or goal…LOOK OUT, here come the ‘I can’t’ police, ‘cos god forbid we go after something without first telling ourselves ‘you’re going to fail anyway so you may as well give up now’.
Here is why you need to stop saying ‘I can’t’.
Life is about risk. Life is also about growth. We are all here to try and to fuck up and to learn a little bit each time and to try again. Holding yourself back from trying in the first place doesn’t get you where you want to be, and it also doesn’t stop you from getting hurt anyway. I can tell you this with absolute honesty because I’ve spent the last few years saying ‘I can’t’ so much that I eventually became housebound, and you know what I discovered? Not going outside was more painful than going outside ever was. ‘I can’t’ doesn’t help you, or stop you from feeling failure, because there is a whole lot more failure in not trying to begin with. And the more you tell yourself you can’t, the more you get in the habit of repeating ‘I can’t’, and then eventually, you genuinely believe that you can’t, and that’s when you’re screwed. You know the phrase “you are what you eat”? You are also what you think. Think you can’t, and you can’t, it’s that simple.
How to fix your ‘I can’t’ addiction
The key to stopping yourself from saying ‘I can’t’ is to first notice how many times you say it to yourself, whether out loud or in your head. You might say it a lot more than you realise. I’m so advanced in the art of ‘I can’t’ that I will shut down things that I hadn’t even really thought about yet, and I do it ALL THE TIME. I do it in the shower, watching TV, in bed at night, on the phone, while driving, in the middle of conversations with people, I probably even do it while I’m asleep. (Actually, I know I do, I often have dreams that I’m overseas somewhere and then I think HEY, HOW AM I GOING TO GET HOME? I’m agoraphobic, I can’t travel!!’) So, to stop this subconscious nay-saying, I intentionally spend time thinking about how I can do things. Simple things even, to start off with. I can go to the gym. I can make an exceptional lasagne. I can rock a set of cartoon pyjamas. I can write about anxiety. Seems like a silly thing to do, but it reminds me that I am actually capable. And then when I start to think about the all the things I want to do, instead of letting ‘I can’t’ come in and stomp everything to death, I make a compromise. I say, ‘I’ll try’. Not so difficult. Doesn’t shit all over my goals and dreams, and doesn’t really hurt to say, either. It’s not as heavy as ‘I can’, but it’s enough to get me over the line.
Why not make a commitment to yourself to change the way you approach things from ‘I can’t’ to ‘I can’ or ‘I’ll try’? I mean…it’s 2016, my friends; we’re getting rid of sugar, we’re learning the importance of mindfulness and meditation, why not vow to cut the bullshit and stop talking about why things aren’t possible for us, and give ourselves a much needed boost as well? The good thing about habits is that they can be changed. Stop telling yourself you can’t. SPOILER ALERT: You Can.