One of the most potentially self-defeating phrases in the English language is “I can’t…”  This term may be used to stifle constructive action and sustain destructive emotions, as well as promote regrettable actions and emotions. Clearly, there are rational uses of this term as when it is used to express physical incapacity (“I can’t walk”), or physical impossibility (you can’t jump over the moon or stop a speeding bullet with your teeth); or logical impossibility (you can’t walk and not walk at the same time). The term can also be used meaningfully to express prohibitions prescribed by human laws (you can’t legally drive without a valid driver’s license), as well as by other rules such as linguistic ones (you can’t have a sentence without a subject and verb).  However, where the term is not being used in any of these or related senses, it is not being used in any literal sense.  In the case of non-literal senses, its use can sometime conceal the reality of the situation behind the literal meaning (I tell you that I can’t face someone whom I have wronged when I really mean that it would be difficult and I don’t want to face this person).  Beyond its use in a literal sense, the term can often do considerable harm.

In this blog, I want to talk about three such harmful uses based on the philosophically oriented, cognitive-behavioral modality of Logic-Based Therapy (LBT), which I invented in cooperation with the late, great Albert Ellis, grandfather of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). I refer, collectively, to these problematic uses of “can’t” as can’tstipation (see, for example, the New Rational Therapy).  They are “can’tstipating” because they involve holding onto a “can’t,” and refusing to “excrete” (get rid of) it.  The result can be quite hurtful until you relieve yourself of the can’tstipating “can’t.”   Here are definitions of each of these three problematic uses:

Three Types of Can'tstipation

  • Behavioral Can’tstipation = Using “I can’t” as an excuse for not doing something, within your means, that you have reason to believe would be worthwhile.
  • Emotional Can’tstipation = Using “I can’t” as an excuse for not attempting to give up a self-defeating emotion.
  • Volitional Can’tstipation = Using “I can’t” as an excuse for not tolerating something you find difficult to tolerate, in the short term, for the sake of long term happiness.

Behavioral Can’tstipation

The behaviorally can’tstipating “can’t” provides an excuse or rationalization by which you can avoid actions that are challenging or difficult.  Almost invariably, this can’t is deduced from an unrealistic demand (or “must”) such as the demand not to fail, or to be certain that you won’t fail.  So, if you think that you must never fail at things, then if something is difficult or challenging for you (and therefore something you might well fail at), you tell yourself that you can’t do it, rather than to risk failure.  Similarly, such behaviorally can’tstipating "can’ts" are, not infrequently, deduced from a demand that things always go your way, or that you not be put out or inconvenienced by anything difficult or time-consuming.  In all, or almost all, cases of behavioral can’tstipation, you refuse to do something that could be beneficial based on an unrealistic, perfectionistic demand. Clearly, failure is part of the human condition, and the risk of failure is the price one pays for making progress. In refusing to fail or to take risks until you are certain that you won’t fail, you disqualify yourself from succeeding. Likewise, in demanding that things always go your way, or that you not be inconvenienced, you prevent yourself from achieving worthwhile things, for such things tend not to come easily. Indeed, behaviorally can’tstipated people are prone toward procrastinating; they tend to put off opportunities for future advantages, and end up later having regrets.

Emotional Can’tstipation

The emotionally can’tstipating “can’t” provides an excuse or rationalization for keeping yourself in a sustained, intense, emotional state such as that of anxiety, guilt, anger or depression.  In telling yourself that you can’t help feeling in such ways, you underestimate your power to control how you feel.  Consequently, you avoid accepting responsibility for your role in disturbing yourself, and feel powerless in emotionally managing the challenges of living, including responding to disapproval or perceived mistreatment by others. So, your boss criticizes you when you expect praise, and consequently become inconsolably distraught; you think that you might not do well on an exam and feel helplessly anxious about the prospects of not getting a passing grade in the class; or your friend lies to you and you fly into an “uncontrollable” rage.  Accordingly, this sort of can’tstipation is often expressed in responsibility-denying excuses like “You upset me,” “It make me nervous,” “He pissed me off,” “That depressed me,” and “You are laying a guilt trip on me.”  Such language makes it seem like you are a passive recipient of your emotions, which supposedly come upon you entirely as a result of external events acting upon you.  Speaking to yourself in this passive voice, you relinquish any power or control whatsoever over your emotions. So, you conclude that you can’t help feeling the way you do.  As such, you set yourself up as a victim of circumstances, of others’ mistreatment, or of further unwanted, external conditions, which you perceive as causing your perturbation.  Thereby, you disclaim any free will in controlling your emotions, and keep yourself in self-defeating, emotional limbo.

Volitional Can’tstipation

Volitional can’tstipation involves weakness of the will (“volition”).  In this use of “can’t,” you defeat your own wellbeing or future happiness by telling yourself that you can’t stand, tolerate, or put up with things in the short term, even when they hold the prospect of yielding highly desirable long term benefits.  So, for example, you tell yourself that you couldn’t stand to go back to school for a degree; consequently, you remain in your present dead end job.  Albert Ellis stressed the problematic nature of this use of “can’t,” calling it “low frustration tolerance” (and “I-can’t-stand-it-it is”). As is also true in some cases of behavioral can’tstipation, such “low frustration tolerance” is often deduced from an unrealistic demand to avoid things that are difficult or challenging.  Thus, while it can be challenging to go back to school later in life, many people do so, and end up profiting in the long run.  However, by telling yourself that you couldn’t stand it, you destroy your prospects for long-term happiness for the sake of avoiding expending the effort in the short term.  Such can’tstipating “can’ts” are also often deduced from catastrophic thinking, that is, from absolutistic, negative language that exaggerates the badness of ordinary life events. “Losing all that money in the stock market is the worst thing in the world that could have happened to me. It’s so horrible that I just can’t stand it!” Consequently, you torment yourself, pointlessly, perhaps even to the extent of making yourself physically ill!

The Guiding Virtues for Can’tstipation

Fortunately, each of the three self-destructive uses of “can’t” discussed above can be countered by a corresponding guiding virtue that sets a rational goal or end toward which to aspire. Like a beacon guiding a ship to port, these virtues can help guide you out of the deep, dark, self-stultifying abyss of can’tstipation toward a future of increased self-control. Here are the corresponding guiding virtues for each type of can’tstipation:

Type of Can’tstipation / Guiding Virtue

Behavioral                      Self-Confidence

Emotional                       Temperance

Volitional                        Tolerance, Patience   

Each of these virtues involves a rational habit of self-control. So, you can work on developing it through practice.  Here are snapshots of each virtue:

The Guiding Virtue for Behavioral Can’tstipation:  Self-Confidence

Self-confidence involves a realistic trust in your ability to accomplish goals you set for yourself.  The self-confident person avoids the extremes of being over-confident (“I can get straight A’s without ever studying”) and under-confident (“I will never amount to anything”).    Rather, such a person tends to be realistic in assessing her capacity to perform a task, and tends to be hopeful about things she believes she has a reasonable shot at.  So, a self-confident person would be willing to apply for a job for which she is qualified, but would not be shattered if she were not to be hired, for she understands that she may not be the only qualified applicant, and that, in any event, she could always apply for another job.  A self-confident person is therefore courageous in confronting the uncertainty of the universe and does not take failure as an indication that she is unworthy. Rather, she is prepared to take reasonable risks; understands that progress is not attained without action; and sees failure, not as the loss of one’s self-worth, but instead as an opportunity to learn and to do better in the future. Self-confident people do not shy away from taking on new and challenging projects even if this means being inconvenienced, and they welcome the challenge as an exciting opportunity for personal growth and as an opportunity to make worthy contributions to the world.  However, self-confident individuals also know their limitations and are therefore realistic in the commitments they make and the number of projects they pursue. As such, they are not afraid to turn down opportunities when, in their estimation, committing to them is likely to detract from higher priorities on their to-do lists, or to otherwise require unrealistic time commitments.  

 The Guiding Virtue for Emotional Can’tstipation:  Temperance

The temperate person takes responsibility for his emotions and does not make excuses for his feelings.  He avoids the extremes of over- and under-reacting emotionally to situations, and realizes that his subjectivity, including his interpretation of external events, is largely within his control.  Thus, he knows that commonplace negative events, like the loss of money, not getting a desired job, or being betrayed by a friend, can be reframed as “unfortunate but not the end of the world,” so that they need not be occasions for seriously disturbing himself. He also realizes that many things such as whether others approve of him, or act as he wishes, are largely not in his power to control, so he is not prone to upsetting himself when these things happen. To this end, he avoids the use of language that denies his free will in dealing with emotional issues, such as “you made me upset” or “you pissed me off.”  As such, he will not generally spend his time blaming others, the world, or unfortunate circumstances for his feelings. Moreover, not only does he not generally allow irrational passions to get the better of him; he does not usually experience intense irrational emotions in the first place; for he has become habituated to respond rationally to emotionally-laden situations.  For example, if someone tailgates him on the highway, he does not become enraged only to calm himself down.  Rather, he does not become enraged in the first place, but instead senses the danger and springs into action, taking reasonable steps to secure his own safety as well as other passengers—for example, moving into a different lane.  This does not mean that temperate people are not passionate.  However, their passions are appropriate to the circumstances in both kind and intensity.  Thus, the temperate person possesses deep powers empathy for others in distress, feels sadness at the unfortunate plights of others, experiences joy at the success of others such as friends and family members, and enjoys the company of others.  On the other hand, the temperate person does not generally experience self-defeating anger, guilt, anxiety, and depression.  These emotions are extremes that this individual has, through practice, been able to avoid.

The Guiding Virtues for Volitional Can’tstipation: Tolerance and Patience

The tolerant or patient person avoids the extremes of weakness of will and dogmatic perseverance. In the one extreme a person may cave unnecessarily to things when they do not go her way.  In the other extreme, a person may persist with grim determination regardless of the merits of the case.  The tolerant person avoids these extremes, and is rationally tolerant; that is, she has the strength of will to persist when it is rational to persist, and to call it quits when the bounds of rational toleration have been exceeded.  For example, she is disposed against giving up on a difficult work-related task and tends to persist tenaciously to get the job done; however, when it becomes evident that succeeding at the task is futile, or that time is best directed elsewhere, she generally knows when it is reasonable to desist.  The tolerant person tends to be a patient individual who avoids impetuous judgments, prejudgments, stereotypes, and other forms of premature or poorly thought-through judgments or decisions. Accordingly, she is open-minded, willing to listen to contrary views of others, and to be persuaded by rational argument. As such, the tolerant person patiently gathers sufficient evidence before making significant decisions. She also recognizes that reasonable people can agree to disagree, and does not attempt to force her views on others; so she is willing to tolerate differences in perspective. However, being tolerant does not mean going to the extreme of standing by and allowing great iniquity to happen (for example, not reporting sexual abuse of a child); so she also recognizes moral limits to her tolerance and patience regarding others.  A tolerant individual also avoids catastrophic thinking, and, therefore, avoids using catastrophic language such “awful, “horrible,” “the worst thing that could happen,” and “terrible” in reacting to everyday problems—work-related challenges, getting along with others, familial conflicts, etc. Instead, she tends to use less emotively charged, evaluative language—“too bad,” “unfortunate,” and “tough break.” In addition, a tolerant person tends to be empathetic to the plights of others. This means that she avoids the extremes of getting too close or two far from the subjective worlds of others. Thus, she avoids losing herself emotionally in the plights of others (for example, breaking the law to help another; or giving money to another for a questionable cause); on the other hand, she is not detached, aloof, or otherwise emotionally disengaged (for example, understands, on an intellectual level, what a depressed person may be going through, but not on an emotional level). In contrast, a tolerant person allows herself to get close enough to the subjective worlds of others to emotionally experience what they are going through (for example, resonating with the plight of a parent who has lost a child, feeling the sense of despair, viscerally—at the “gut” level as well as intellectually).

Aspiring Toward the Guiding Virtues

Are you can’tstipated in one or more of the three ways discussed in this blog? Then make it your goal to aspire to the guiding virtue for your particular type/s of can’tstipation. The descriptions of each of these virtues provide essential aspects of these virtues, and can therefore set you on the path to doing and feeling better.  Are you behaviorally can’tstipated?  Then take self-confidence (as described here) to be your objective.  Are you emotionally can’tstipated?  Then make temperance your guiding virtue.  Are you volitionally can’tstipated?  Then make it tolerance. 

Identification and description of virtues in order to increase human happiness is an ancient undertaking well entrenched in the philosophical thinking of such notables as Plato, Aristotle, and Buddha. These philosophers sought to give us a general but action-guiding idea of what it takes to aspire to live excellent, not just mediocre, lives.  Logic-Based Therapy enlists this venerable tradition to guide people out of the quagmire of self-destructive, irrational thinking, toward such human excellence.  This is where the guiding virtues come in.

As standards of excellence, the three guiding virtues for can’tstipation set ideals toward which to aspire.  As such, it is unrealistic to think that you will ever fully attain them. They represent aspirational goals for those bogged down in their respective forms of can’tstipation.  The virtues can point you in the right direction, but it is up to you to make the cognitive, behavioral, and emotional changes to move toward them.  And this takes persistent effort over time.  “One swallow does not make a summer,” said Aristotle, “nor does one day; and so too one day, or a short time, does not make a man blessed and happy.”  This is a life pursuit, so you might as well get started now!

So, suppose you are inclined to rest on your laurels and shy away from doing things that require special effort.  Suppose that, not infrequently, you tell yourself that you can’t do things when you find them challenging or work-intensive.  If so, then you are probably behaviorally can’tstipated.  You may be demanding that life be easy, uncomplicated, relatively risk-free, and that anything that challenges this demand of yours is something you can’t do. You may demand that you never fail, and think that if you try anything new and fail at it, then that will make you a failure.  As such, you may be concealing (from yourself), behind the veneer of “I can’t,” the fact that you have chosen not to try new and challenging things; for this is much easier than facing the fact that you have chosen to avoid anything new and challenging because of an unrealistic set of demands you are making; much easier, because you don’t have to do anything about your situation. In this case, you first need to come clean and realize that this is what you are doing.  Second, you can commit yourself to becoming more self-confident. This means reposing greater trust in yourself to meet reasonable life goals without being chilled off by an unrealistic demand not to fail or to avoid challenging or difficult opportunities.  You can, instead, look forward with excitement to growing personally, and doing good works.  This also means pushing yourself—expending your willpower muscle—to make constructive changes, that is, by actually taking behavioral steps toward reasonable goals you have set for yourself.  Let me emphasize that becoming virtuous—becoming self-confident, temperate, or tolerant—requires practice.  You cannot merely day dream about aspiring to excellence.  You must act on it!  Incrementally, little by little, you can move forward.  Indeed, aspiring to virtue is self-proliferating.  The more you push yourself toward virtue, the easier such effort becomes and the more virtuous changes you can make. This is because, as Aristotle advised, acquiring virtue is a matter of building good habits, and the more you practice the strong will become your habits.  Without pushing yourself toward making changes—cognitively, behaviorally, and emotionally, you are choosing to remain in a vicious cycle of self-defeating and regrettable decisions masked under the false face of “I can’t.” 

You say you can’t?  Really??

About the Author

Elliot D. Cohen Ph.D.

Elliot D. Cohen, Ph.D., is the president of the Institute of Critical Thinking and one of the principal founders of philosophical counseling in the United States.

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