Many times over my life, I’ve had some pretty crazy ideas for things I wanted to do. Like when I was in my early 20s and a friend tried to convince me that it would be awesome to move to Japan and become a “hostess” (I actually had no idea what that meant; my friend told me we’d just have to make a lot of small talk and get paid handsomely for it. Luckily, I soon realized that there might be more to it than that and declined).
Later, I ended up moving to London, England without having a home or job lined up, and a few of my fellow crazy friends joined me. I’m really glad I did that because for the most part it was really fun, even though my mother tried to talk me out of it.
I also decided to do things like give up a steady career and go to grad school in middle-age. That was a lot harder and more traumatic (if you want more of the story, I tell it in the Intuitive Insight Jumpstart Guide, which you can get by clicking here).
But these adventures didn’t come easily to me.
I’ve had to do battle all my life with one phrase: I can’t.
Because I’m pretty cautious, preferring to observe and analyze before jumping into anything, this phrase immediately comes to mind whenever I’m challenged to do something that will push me out of my comfort zone.
I have a false impression that saying “I can’t” will save me lots of time and heartache, especially if I only say “I can” to those things that are sure bets for my benefit or enjoyment.
Somewhere along the line, I was taught that saying “I can’t” will keep me safe.
So I got used to saying it to myself all the time. Until I got excited about something and then I’d have to force myself to change that “I can’t” into “I can.” Even then, the excitement often clashed with something else: I started wondering if it was really a good idea; or someone else told me that it was silly or unrealistic (or in the case of Japan — potentially dangerous, and they may have been right on that one; I’ll never know).
Over the years I learned that if I give the “I can’t” too much power and control over what I do, I will remain pretty sheltered and closed off. If I said “I can’t” to everything that seemed difficult or uncomfortable, I would never grow or learn new things.
I can’t travel by myself or move to a new country.
I can’t be self-employed.
I can’t make my dreams come true.
I can’t have what I want.
I can’t call myself a writer until I have permission and validation from someone else.
Even if you’re not like me, and you like to charge head-on into every challenge, you’ve probably come up against the “I can’t” from within yourself at some point, or you’ve heard it from other people in the form of “You can’t.”
When we repeatedly tell ourselves (or we’ve been told) that we can’t do something or have something, we begin to believe it. And when we believe it deeply, we become convinced of it.
“I can’t” becomes a limiting belief that holds us back.
On the other hand, it’s not really feasible to say “I can” to absolutely everything either. Humans crave some sense of certainty and stability, so we don’t want to be spending all our time out of the comfort zone. We need a bit of a balance. When we have different options in front of us, which ones are important to focus on?
This is when it is really important to investigate the “I can’t” belief to see if it’s trying to keep you small and constrained, or whether it is just something that isn’t right for you.
Get honest about what you really want
There are some good reasons to say “I can’t” and those arise when we’re asked to do something we don’t really want to do. Sometimes it’s easy to bow out; and sometimes we can feel pressured to do things we don’t want to do because we think we will be judged, or because we don’t want to disappoint someone else, or because it just fits in with expectations of us.
There are times though (and I’ve seen this in my own life as well as with almost everyone I’ve ever met) when we really desire something but it feels scary and so we tell ourselves that we can’t do it. And then the “can’t” convinces us that we don’t really desire it after all. We tell ourselves it’s just a pipe dream, that it can’t happen.
Or we convince ourselves that because it isn’t likely to happen in the exact way or timing we expect it will happen, it won’t happen at all.
Plus, there are too many obstacles in the way — and we call these our “responsibilities” (which we forget are self-created and chosen).
There are so many people out there who have dreams and desires that they believe are out of reach. Yet the desires remain, day after day, casually poking them on the shoulder saying, “I’m still here you know. You can’t avoid me.”
I’ve always wanted to write a book. When I was younger, I told myself that I would do it by the time I was 40. And then I got distracted by a number of things, including a career I didn’t really like. It didn’t happen. So I convinced myself that I could only start writing when I was retired because I’d have the time. Then, I would finally be free. And then I convinced myself that if I did write a book, it would have to be a certain kind of book, because I wasn’t sure I was very talented or literary. And then I convinced myself that the publishing industry is so different now, the chances of me being able to publish or sell a book would be really small.
These were excuses of course; ways of telling myself “I can’t”… at least not right now. By the way, I’m not telling this story from the point of view of someone who actually wrote that book, made it a bestseller, and now I’m here to convince you that it’s just a matter of changing your beliefs and getting down to it. No, I’m still working on these “can’t” beliefs I’ve had since, well, forever. I know it isn’t easy to change them drastically. I still haven’t finished writing that book, even though I have good intentions.
It’s important to know what beliefs we hold, and why; we also need to know how they affect us and our choices. In order to get to the “I can,” we have to understand the “I can’t.”
All of these are realities of life: time, distractions, systems, and all the mixed messages of advice from “experts.” We form beliefs about what we can and can’t do based on all of these outside influences, and we forget about what is really driving us: our intense desire to create something new — whether it is an experience, or a relationship, or a career, or an actual product.
It’s time to start remembering these desires and investigating what is holding us back from attaining them.
Feel for the resistance
When a limiting belief arises, it’s usually because it’s accompanied by an emotion that doesn’t feel good: shame, fear, guilt, disappointment, or anger, for example.
There is usually a “because” attached to it that explains why you feel you can’t do something.
The explanation or excuse will say something about who you are that you don’t want seen (you’re unworthy, not good enough, undeserving, a fraud, a bad person), or you’re afraid of what might happen in the future (you’ll fail, you’ll be rejected, you’ll be physically or emotionally uncomfortable, you’ll hurt someone else).
When we have difficulty facing our own shadows, we can point the blame to someone else: I can’t do this because _____ won’t let me/won’t support me/doesn’t think I can do it.Is your 'I can't' coming from shame or fear? Whose voice is sending you that message?Click To Tweet
When we feel these emotions, and couple them with thoughts and beliefs that disempower us, we feel heavy and contracted. When I am in my “I can’t” limiting belief, it shows up as a tightness in my chest, my shoulders slump, and I feel really sad and ashamed. My body knows when I am selling myself short.
On the other hand, when I respond “I can’t” to something and it doesn’t come from shame or fear, and it feels empowering to me, my body remains confident and strong. My discerning “I can’t” feels like I’m making a decision out of love for myself. In this case, I don’t feel the resistance at all.
Your emotions will tell you where the resistance is and what that resistance is trying to tell you.
This may seem silly, but ask your emotions questions. Answer them from the feeling you get in your body, not from the mind (which will probably try to argue with that feeling).
Is this something I really want to do?
What am I afraid of?
Why would this make me a bad person?
What is it about me that feels undeserving of having my desires met?
If I were successful in achieving this desire, how would that feel? How would it affect my life?
If I were unsuccessful in achieving this desire, how would that feel? How would it affect my life?
Your emotions will tell you the honest truth.
Then it’s time to empathize with those feelings. Allow them to be present and hold them gently. It’s totally okay to feel whatever you feel. You don’t have to launch into trying to deny them or change them into positivity, or being strong. Your feelings need to be heard, even if (and especially if) they hurt. You don’t need to act on them right away, just let them be for now.
Figure out where the “I can’t” belief started
I think we all have a first emotional memory of someone telling us we can’t do something that we really want to do. It might not be a photographic memory, in which we remember all of the details, but the emotion remained somehow lodged in our psyches.
We are told “you can’t” from our parents or caretakers all the time when we’re young. As adults looking back, we know that’s because it’s their jobs to keep us safe and protected; to pass on their wisdom to us. But sometimes our caretakers were just as limited by their beliefs, and they end up passing them down to us without even being conscious of it. This leads us to feeling unworthy and unloved.
Our parents should know us the best and they’re telling us that we can’t, so as children we assume that they must be right. And when we also hear these messages mirrored in our peer groups and within society at large, they are reinforced within us.
Think of all the artists who were told they can’t draw or paint for a living; they have to take up a standard profession in order to make money.
Think of all the women in the past who might have yearned to pursue careers but were expected to stay at home and raise the kids.
Think of all the people who are oppressed and taught that they can’t be who they want to be, or have what they want, because who they are is somehow “bad/wrong,” even though that belief has nothing to do with their actual character.
How were the “I can’t” or “you can’t” beliefs taught to you — what memories do you have of that time? Were they created by your family, your peers, or did they arise out of fear within you? How did it feel when you first took on these beliefs?
Nowadays, we have all sorts of examples of people from different backgrounds who succeed heroically in making their passions come alive. They’re all over the media — the titans, the authors, the celebrities, the tech wizards. We all love a great success story. But what about all those stories of people who said, “I can” and still failed?
We can get all stopped up from the front and back ends. The front end belief says it’s not even worth trying, and the back end belief says that if you try and fail, then you won’t measure up or matter as much as the people who succeed.
If you don’t try, you’ll stay safe but stay small and average. If you fail, you’ll be a disappointment to someone, especially yourself. But if you try and succeed, you’ll become wealthy and famous, and who wouldn’t want that, right? (Ask some of the celebrities who are still struggling despite, or maybe because of, their riches and fame — success isn’t always a panacea).
No wonder we’re so discouraged from taking actions towards our greatest desires. Even if we’re encouraged and inspired, it can still feel really vulnerable.
How to begin moving forward
However, no matter our beliefs, we’re still left with the desire.
We can’t not want what we want — if it’s a real desire, it doesn’t go away.
What happens then? We can’t convince ourselves that we don’t want it; and we can have difficulty convincing ourselves that we can have it. It leaves us in a very stuck position.
How can we move out of that stuck place?
Allow that desire to arise within you, without shutting it down. You don’t have to do anything with it right now — you will probably only act when you feel inspired to, or when the pain of not pursuing your desire is so great that you feel like you have no choice but to move forward. Until then, let it percolate. If the desire feels particularly risky or vulnerable, acknowledge that it’s going to take a lot of courage to make it happen. What will you need in order to build your courage?
Look at the the thoughts that arise when you sit with that desire. Do they reinforce the “I can’t” belief or another limiting belief? Are they focused on the fear of what might happen or what might not happen? Do they try to convince you that perfection is necessary? Which thoughts make you feel limited or contracted?
Experiment with different thoughts that reinforce the “I can” belief. You don’t have to go all the way to extremely positive affirmations that don’t feel true to you right now (e.g. “I’m going to be a billionaire!”) but you can start a gradual progression from “I’m totally broke and will always be that way” to “My bank account is low, right now” to “My bank account is low, but that is just temporary” to “My bank account is beginning to get fuller.” Start with what feels true, but also feels a little brighter than your current train of thought.
Strategize backwards. Start with the end in mind, and work your way backwards to where you are now and you’ll know where to start. If I want to traditionally publish a book, I’d have to find a publisher (the end goal), and before that find an agent, and before that get my book edited, and before that finish several drafts, and before that finish one draft, and before that write the chapters, and before that write a sentence, and before that come up with an outline, and before that come up with an idea. So if I have an idea, I’m already on my way and I know what I need to do next — put together an outline.
You just need to take one step at a time. If the whole process seems overwhelming, just focus on the next task that you can complete instead of focusing on all the tasks that your brain is telling you that you can’t complete.
Stay open. I can’t reinforce this enough — even with a fantastic strategy and a willingness to act, there are going to be all sorts of things arising that you can’t predict. The steps might get stuck, you might experience more resistance in the form of other limiting beliefs arising, or your focus gets fuzzy, or other people in your life don’t like what you’re doing. When these things happen, take a pause and address them, but don’t let them stop you entirely. You might even have to pivot at some point — the how and the when of your desire being met might not meet the expectations you have. Try to let go of the control aspect; you can only manage your inner experience and your own actions. Everything else is out of your hands.
Check in with your desires and see if you still want them. When we’ve acted on our desires and seen the results and outcomes (whether positive or negative) we can learn surprising things about ourselves. Sometimes we learn that what we desired in the first place didn’t really fulfil us the way we thought it would. It’s important to check in with yourself to see if you’re still pursuing these desires out of joy, or whether you’re acting on a past idea you had for yourself that no longer fits.Check in with yourself about what you want: is it coming from a should or from true expression?Click To Tweet
What wants and desires have been sitting dormant in you? What is telling you “I can’t” or “I can” when it comes to achieving them? How do you know when something is worth pursuing?
If you like this post, please share it with others who may be struggling with the “I can’t” belief. If you’re feeling this way, chances are someone else is too.
And if you’re interested in learning more about releasing your limiting beliefs, don’t forget to sign up to get the Intuitive Insight Jumpstart Guide, which will give you lots more information.
Keep shining the insight light,