Patrick B. McGrath Ph.D.

Don't Try Harder, Try Different!

Can't Versus Won't

Do you think you can't do things, or won't you?

Posted Mar 01, 2011

OK, hopefully you have stopped shoulding all over the place, and now it is time to start to work on another typical stress related word - CAN'T. People like to use the word can't a lot. It is just an easy word to use. We say "I can't talk on the phone," even though we have to actually talk to say that (think about that one for a while). We tell others that we can't do something so they just accept it, though they usually get mad about it later because they do not really believe you that you can't do it.

When we are talking about anxiety, it is not about what we can or can't do - it is all about what we will or we won't do. If you truly want to challenge your stress, you are going to have to stop using the word can't and start to use the word won't. Now this means that you have to take ownership for your decisions, which can be difficult, especially in our "It is their fault," society. You have to decide if you will or you won't do something that is anxiety provoking, not if you can or can't do it.

Can't implies that you lack the ability to do something. When it comes to being anxious about doing something, there is not an ability involved - there is a choice, and that is to be anxious or not to be. When someone tells me that they can't get on an elevator because they have an elevator phobia, then I assume that there is a force field that appears in front of the elevator that will prevent them from entering it. I make this assumption because I know that they can walk, since they walked into my office. I also know that they can walk through a door, because they walked through the door to my office. So, therefore, if they can't get on an elevator, there must be a force field that is preventing them from entering the elevator.

We walk to the elevator down the hall, I hit the button, and then when the door opens I ask to watch them bounce off of the force field. They start to laugh and then admit that there is a force field, but they do not want to get on the elevator. Now that we have established that this is a choice, we can now work on this with therapy, instead of seeing it as an ability problem.
Your job is to take a look at what you have said that you can't do and evaluate it - is it true that you can't do it, or is it that you won't do it. If you can't, then no one will ever be able to help you. If you won't, then that is a choice, and that can be addressed.