If ever there was a misused phrase, “I can’t” has got to be it. Probably 99% of the time you hear—or say—“I can’t,” it’s not really true. You can, but you don’t want to.
The truth is, “can’t” is often used in place of “won’t” because it feels stronger, less vulnerable, more final—and it absolves you of responsibility for the choice you have made but don’t want to face up to…or face questions about.
“Uncle Otto and I are going to the Quilting Bee Tea and Sale on Saturday,” Aunt Millicent tells you. “We have an extra ticket if you’d like to come with us.” Rather than tell your dear dotty old aunt that you detest quilts even more than you detest tea, you tell her “Oh, I’d love to, Aunt Millicent, but I can’t. I have a previous engagement that I just can’t get out of…”
OK, you may have a previous engagement but can you really not get out of it? Is it really impossible to call that hot guy who has finally asked you to go out for coffee with him and ask for a rain check? Of course not…but it is definitely something you do not want to do…but to avoid hurting Aunt Millicent’s feelings, to avoid a discussion about tea and quilts and why you should come, you just use the magic word, “can’t,”—you imply your unavailability is beyond your control—to get out of it.
Of course there are things that you cannot do: hang upside down by your toes like a bat to sleep, leap off a building in your altogether and soar like an eagle, put out a raging house fire with a 2 litre bottle of Coke…there truly are things beyond your capability. You can’t lick your elbow, you can’t hear or smell as well as your dog, you can’t count to infinity nor see a bacterium with your naked eye. There are, in fact, many, many things we cannot do, but we, unfortunately, do not limit our use of the word “can’t” to just those things.
We say we “can’t” all too often when, in fact we can. We use the word as a verbal escape hatch to get out of things, sometimes to protect us, sometimes to keep us stuck right where we are even as we protest we want to move on. We self-sabotage with it, give away our power with it, make ourselves helpless with it. We hide behind it, we carry it in front of us like a shield, we use it to define and limit our lives…and often we use the word when we really mean something else.
“I can’t drive a stick shift,” really means “I don’t know how” and very possibly “I don’t want to learn, either, because I do not want to embarrass myself with my ignorance and incompetence or because I am just too lazy to learn.”
“I can’t get up in public and make a speech!” really means “I am afraid to get up there and speak. I am afraid I will make a mistake and make a fool of myself…”
“I can’t wear that!” means “I won’t wear that because I don’t want people to see my body because I am ashamed of it” or “I won’t wear a shroud because I want to attract attention with my scantily clad body and that won’t happen if I don’t wear a skirt that almost shows my butt.”
“I can’t loan you $50” when you have $500 in your wallet means “I don’t want to loan you money because I don’t think you will pay it back” or “I want to spend it on something else.”
“Can’t” means “I don’t want to” or “I am afraid” or “I don’t know how” or “I am unwilling.” Most of the time when we say the words “I can’t” what we really mean is “I won’t,” but we abdicate responsibility for our choice by trying to make it look like we are powerless.
It is time for you to start making a list of the things you believe you cannot do because you need to start being clear on what you really cannot do and the things you are unwilling to do. You may be thinking “Oh, this is just semantics,” but it is truly more than that. When we say “can’t” instead of “won’t,” we disempower ourselves, we abdicate responsibility for our choices, we take the weak and weaselly road rather than the path of strength and integrity. We lie when we say “can’t,” we lie to others but most importantly, we lie to ourselves, making ourselves weak and powerless.
Why is this important? Because if we are ever to have any hope of dealing effectively with our NMs and the other Ns and even the Passive Aggressives in our lives, we have to learn to differentiate between what we truly cannot do and those things we are unwilling to do. We are unlikely to ever change the true cannots—you’ll never grow prehensile claws to grip a branch or bump in a cave wall or ceiling, you’ll never develop microscopic vision, you’ll never grow an extra joint in your arm so your tongue can reach your elbow—these are clearly outside the realm of possibility and no amount of effort on your part is going to change the status quo. But other things…like dealing with your NM or EF or the flying monkeys, taking care of yourself, standing up to a gaslighting or PA spouse, leaving an abusive job, losing weight…or any one of a thousand or more “can’ts” that you tell yourself, that keep you stuck where you are, you need know which ones are really “won’ts” and what you are doing to yourself to keep yourself fooled into believing that you can’t.
And why is that important? Because if you have any hope of ever having a fulfilling, healthy emotional life, you must first identify what is holding you back and then work on improving it. When you say “can’t,” you build an insurmountable wall, you convince yourself that whatever it is, it is impossible to change, so why waste effort trying. “Can’t” is a locked door whereas “won’t” is merely a closed one. “Can’t” takes the power to change things away from you, “won’t” puts it in your hands.
Some of us are afraid of that power. Other’s of us are still stuck at the “fairness” stage, resentfully believing that since we didn’t create the problem, we shouldn’t have to fix it. But the truth is, “should” doesn’t enter into the equation. If you are the one who is unhappy, then you are the only person who can fix it. Who else is more motivated to make your life happy than you are? Who cares more about you and your life than you do? Certainly not the people who screwed it up with their selfish, narcissistic ways—they only care about themselves!
Ok, some of us may want to find a way to fix or rehabilitate our NMs, perhaps fantasizing that if NM is happy and can be made mentally healthy, the natural result of that will be a loving mother who will fix all our hurts. Sorry to burst those lovely bubbles, but it ain’t gonna happen. Narcissists don’t change—and it doesn’t matter if they can’t or won’t, the fact of the matter is that that don’t except, perhaps, to worsen with age. And even if they did , you are no longer that impressionable, vulnerable, malleable child, so it wouldn’t do any good. Besides, you can’t go around rearranging other people’s psyches to make your own life better—that is what narcissists do—the last thing you want to do is behave like they do! So why waste energy working towards (or even fantasizing about) fixing NM and maybe getting healthy as a by-product of that when you could be putting that energy directly towards fixing what is wrong with you?
Because it isn’t fair. Because it will take a long time. Because it hurts.
And you are right…it is all those things. But right now, it is the only path out of your pain. Until modern medicine comes up with a magic elixir that will heal you overnight, you have basically two choices: keep things as they are or change things.
And that is where “can’t” vs “won’t” comes in. As long as you say “I can’t” when the real truth is that you won’t, you make yourself powerless, you choose to remain stuck, whether you acknowledge it or not. When you begin to acknowledge that you are not willing to do something rather than are cosmically prevented from it, you begin to take back your power. Taking back your power does not have to be a grand, dramatic gesture like blowing up at your NM and giving her a piece of your mind, it can be a small and quiet as recognizing that by saying “I don’t want to confront her, I am afraid of the consequences, I am unwilling to deal with them,” instead of “I can’t say anything to her” gives you back your power. It acknowledges that it is your choice not to provoke the mad dog, not that you are incapable of doing so.
This is important for you to understand, even if you actually do nothing more than grasp the concept. At some point you will begin to see where you disempower yourself with the helplessness of “can’t” and how you can empower yourself with “won’t.” This will become critical knowledge when you are ready to take your power back in bigger ways, like confronting your NM or going No Contact.
Next: Superior, Subordinate, Equal
It is difficult to deal with a narcissist when you are a grown, independent, fully functioning adult. The children of narcissists have an especially difficult burden, for they lack the knowledge, power, and resources to deal with their narcissistic parents without becoming their victims. Whether cast into the role of Scapegoat or Golden Child, the Narcissist's Child never truly receives that to which all children are entitled: a parent's unconditional love. Start by reading the 46 memories--it all began there.