Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Amy Przeworski Ph.D.
Amy Przeworski Ph.D.

“I Can’t” and Other Lies We Tell Ourselves

The Olympic effort to be kind to ourselves

Like many people, I’ve been watching the Olympic Games recently. The games always seem to imbue a sense of hope and community. We watch these young adults achieve things that we could have never imagined—setting world records, winning medal after medal, and winning over the hearts of the nation. We see athletes who have overcome adversity—a sprinter with prosthetic legs who now competes with able-bodied athletes, gymnasts whose families struggled to pay the bills but who found a way to get their children to the London games. We see young adults who have given up all of their free time to train for this moment and for a short period of time, we all feel a sense of optimism. If these young athletes can achieve this much and fly this high, perhaps anything is possible.

But what may be different in the athletes than most people—besides their physical strength, perfect physique, and unbelievable athletic skill—is their psychological strength. These athletes grew up on a diet of “I can” when so many of us gave up with the first “I can’t.” Throughout their childhood and adolescence, they believed in their own abilities so much that competition fueled them to work harder and become better rather than leading them to quit.

So perhaps their greatest strength is their self-talk—the internal dialogue that we all have that can impact our mood so greatly. Our self-talk is what we say to ourselves in our heads and the soundtrack of our lives. Our self-talk can be plagued by negativity and self-doubt; as such it is one of the many ways that we can be our own worst enemies. We can tell ourselves “I can’t” time and time again and prevent ourselves form even trying. We can tell ourselves that we aren’t good enough, that we are failures, and that we are unlovable and in time, we lose the ability to see anything to the contrary. Our self-talk can become a self-fulfilling prophecy—we fail because we believe that we will and therefore give up.

But our self-talk can also be filled with encouragement and hope, as is likely the case with Olympic athletes. We can believe in our abilities and in our resilience in the face of adversity. We can see the possibilities in challenges—the opportunity for us to rise to the occasion and come out triumphant. Our positive self-talk can also be a self-fulfilling prophecy—we achieve because of our belief in our own abilities and this serves as a motivator to work harder.

Our self-talk is likely influenced by what we hear from others. If others doubt us or say negative things about us, we often internalize it. If others are consistently supportive and encouraging, we are more likely to have positive self-talk. For example, the sprinter with prosthetic legs, Oscar Pistorius, stated in an interview that his mother told him during childhood that he put on his legs each morning just like his brother put on his shoes. This approach stressed the possibilities for the young Pistorius rather than focusing on the disability. Growing up in this environment most likely set the tone of Pistorius’ self-talk and laid the foundation for his resilient approach to life. He sees the glass as half full and the world as full of possibilities, such as competing in the Olympics. Whereas many would have given up on the idea of participating in sports, Pistorius ran full speed ahead…right into the Olympics.

The good thing about self-talk is that it is changeable. Like the Olympics, it takes a lot of training and practice. First you must notice your self-talk and truly listen to what you tell yourself. To do this, it is often necessary to write your thoughts down on paper because as much as we are often poor listeners to others, we are even worse at listening to our own self-talk. The next step is to determine the accuracy of your thoughts. If you believe that you are stupid, what supports this and what refutes this? This is often the most difficult part of the process because it requires us to look for information that is not consistent with our beliefs. Through practice and hard work, though, you may start to see some evidence in contrast to your negative beliefs slipping in. Through practice, you will notice the inaccuracy of your negative thoughts and start to see the possibilities.

As a parent, the most important thing is to instill in your child a belief in his/her own capabilities. This means supporting your child when your child makes mistakes. It requires continuing to believe in your child even when things go wrong and telling your child that anything is possible. It requires finding a silver lining in struggles and framing struggles to your child as opportunities for your child to show strength. It may be difficult for a parent to do—to stalwartly believe in your child and instill this belief in your child, but if you can do it, it may be the best gift that you can give your child and set your child up for greatness.

Copyright Amy Przeworski

Follow me on Twitter @AmyPrzeworski

About the Author
Amy Przeworski Ph.D.

Amy Przeworski, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University and specializes in anxiety disorders in children, adolescents, and adults.

More from Psychology Today

More from Amy Przeworski Ph.D.

More from Psychology Today