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How to Recant Your Can’t

“Please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’”

Notice how so many people are “re-ing” these days? They’re rewiring, rebooting, reorganizing, renewing, refreshing, reaffirming, reassessing, and readjusting. I suggest it’s time to recant. Yes, recant your can’t.

“Why can’t things ever go right, just once in my life?” “I’m such a ________.” “I’ll never be as good as ___________.” “Why do things never go my way?” “Why can’t I ever succeed, just once?” “What’s the point of trying? I’ll fail again. I’m cursed!”

Sound familiar? Perhaps you’ve tried behavior and habit change methods to help you overcome these types of thoughts. Diets, exercise programs, the newest habit change systems, meditation that’s guided or not, gratitude journals, medication, the latest therapy techniques, yoga, vacations and even drugs and/or alcohol. Nothing really helps for any period of time in any meaingful way.

You’ve got a case of  what Martin Seligman, Ph.D. and Steven F. Maier discovered, accidentally, called “learned helplessness.” According to the American Psychological Association, learned helplessness “occurs when someone repeatedly faces uncontrollable, stressful situations, then does not exercise control when it becomes available.”

You have “learned” that you are helpless and frozen so long in your tracks of believing you’re a loser, that you no longer try to prove otherwise. Low self-esteem, frustration, passivity, lack of effort, and giving up are symptoms of this mindset. Why? Because you are feeding your “can’t.” It’s time to recant your can’t.

Let me explain. Down deep, way down deep, inside of your thinking, there is a set of core thoughts that govern much of your behaviors, that filter much of what you see, and that color many of your thoughts.

I get this very well. I performed so poorly in math throughout elementary school that I began to think that nothing I could do would ever really improve my math abilities. I gave up. I learned all right, but what I learned was math helplessness. I needed to recant my can’t and learn math optimism. The way we see ourselves has a powerfully impact on our destiny. I’ve seen in my 45 years of providing therapy and coaching to people from every walk of life, that nobody rises above the image they hold of themselves in their minds.

I recently saw a young girl, maybe six or seven, sitting on the lap of her physically challenged father, her backpack tucked safely in the back of his electric wheelchair. They were crossing the street, apparently on the way to school. She’d arrive on her dad’s lap in his wheelchair, while most of the other kids would be dropped off at school by their parents from cars and vans. I wondered what lens that little girl saw life through. Others have it better than me? Why can’t I have a father who drives? How embarrassing it is to arrive at school with the other kids, with dad in a wheelchair? What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I have it better in life?

Then again, maybe not. Maybe she wasn’t feeding her negative. Maybe she was fortunate to be able to see life through the lens of what was happening for her, not to her. Let’s hope. Let’s hope she sees she’s not competing with anyone, and doesn’t see limits but rather opportunities. Otherwise, she’ll grow up with a “can’t” hidden deep within her.

For those who experience anxiety or depression, or who have lived with obesity or an addiction for some time, some may give up believing incorrectly that these feelings and behaviors are completely unavoidable and un-reversible. Couple this with what I discussed in last week’s column on “explanatory style,” and with a pessimistic belief system, there’s a greater likelihood of “learned helplessness” taking a firm hold. 

Want to rid yourself of your hidden and not-so-hidden “can’t”? Want to stop thinking you can’t be perfect and “must” be? Want to stop seeing what you can’t do and avoid seeing life as nothing but one disappointment after another? Want to delete the can’t and stop feeding the negative labels you put on yourself, feeling flawed, and like a failure? Want to turn the page on your can’t, always seeing the worst possible outcomes in life? Isn’t it time to stop believing the odds are against you?

If you search, you’ll see that your “can’t” is at the core of every frustration, disappointment, sadness, procrastination, avoidance, and “failure” in your life. It explains why you recede, not succeed. You see, closed doors don’t stop you, but your thinking does. It is the single deadliest accusing voice in your head and it’s time to hit the delete button on this negative, erroneous, irrational, illogical and harmful word. Ready to stop feeding your can’t mindset?

The best way I know to overcome this self-disturbing belief is to listen to, take an inventory of your negative thinking pattern, and replace it with more rational and optimistic thoughts. I know it works, having helped folks for decades overcome this learning and replace it with “learned optimism.” You can view the world from a positive view. Sounds nearly impossible given the world today, but even in the midst of COVID-19, chaos in our streets, employment and economic challenges, it’s clear that better health outcomes, longer lifespan, lower stress levels and better mental wellbeing can be yours.

“Optimism is invaluable for a meaningful life. With a firm belief in a positive future you can throw yourself into the service of that which is larger than you are,” Dr. Seligman teaches us. You’d do well to remind yourself that what’s on your inside will show up on your outside. 

Start here by looking at the word “can’t” itself. Remember, I’m an acronymologist:
Catch, challenge and change every negative thought, whisper, or belief to see the good in whatever happens. I was recently waiting at an airport after a series of talks I gave, and just before I began making myself annoyed at the long wait, a young woman came up to me and asked if I was Dr. Mantell. I said I was and she proceeded to tell me that she did not plan to go to my third talk, but heard strong raves about my first two, so decided to go. She was thrilled she caught up with me at the airport because she was able to tell me how “life-changing” my words were, how impactful my talk was on her life and how she intended to use my points at her work. So THAT’S the reason I waited in line. Not because nothing can ever work out for me, not because bad things always happen to me, not because I was too stupid to read the fine print that Alaska Airlines didn’t open until 2:30 in Orlando. Not because I can’t get it right. I caught, challenged and changed my negative thoughts about “I can’t stand waiting in line” to see the good.

Appreciate your achievements and be grateful for your accomplishments. Do you focus on your losses, your slip-ups, the wrong turns you make in life, and how you ate the donut when you knew you weren’t “supposed to”? Or do you focus on the wins you’ve had, the good guesses you’ve made, the right turns you’ve made in life, and all of the times you didn’t eat the donut? Guess which will propel your success? Kurt Vonnegut urged, “Please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’”

No on the negative. The story is told about Jean-Paul Sartre, who was writing “Being and Nothingness” in a coffee shop when the barista asked him if he wanted anything. Sartre answered, “Sure, I’d like a cup of coffee with no milk.” The barista answered, “I’m sorry sir, but we’re out of milk. Would you prefer no cream instead?” Some folks just focus on the negative. They turn rainbows gray. What can you do to see what goes right in your life, what you have, instead of don’t have? Would you be ok with no cream instead of no coffee? Think “I can’t do this and will never be better at it!” Replace it with, “I’ll keep trying.” “I’m just a lazy person and can’t change.” Replace it with “I haven’t been able YET to fit it into my schedule, but I can take another look and find a way.”

Ahhhpostrophe. Ahhhh, yes. It’s that little break, the chance to catch your breath and your thinking. That moment to meditate on Marcus Aurelius’ wonderful reminder, “The happiness in your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” That tiny pause when you can focus on my mantra, “The link is what you think,” and then catch your thoughts. Remind yourself that in the 1590’s happiness, the antithesis of “can’t” thinking, shifted in meaning from “good fortune” to “pleasant and contented mental state.” That “ahhhh” feeling of inner peace is required for you  to be at peace with others.

Trust and faith in something larger than yourself. Remember the “serenity prayer”? “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference.” It begins with trust and faith. I’m not preaching a religion here, but acknowledging what science tells us about those who have serenity and trust. They have healthier hearts, better cholesterol, handle stress better, have stronger immunity, have lower stroke risk, regulate emotions in healthier ways and have better longevity. Faith encourages healthy behavior, prayer which is a form of meditation, reduces stress, folks who spend time in communities find improved emotional health, and the act of helping others overcomes the “can’t “mentality. When you walk in faith you cannot be defeated. That’s enough for me. How about you?

“Can’t” is a word that is best deleted from the tape that’s always playing inside of you. Next time your ears hear your mouth say it or your brain think it, consider the steps in “C.A.N.’.T.”, and to paraphrase Vonnegut’s urging, “If that isn’t better, I don’t know what is.’”

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