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Rethinking "I can't"

I’ve always hated to say “I can’t.” Almost as much as I hate for it to be true.

Boot Camp

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been determined to do anything and everything that I was asked of me (or that I asked of myself). Until recent years I could overcome virtually any energy deficit or obstacle in order to accomplish something I considered important. I’ve been the “can do” person, the “go to” person, the “yes woman” – and happy about it, perhaps in part because I didn’t know any other way to be.

I, and others of you who find yourselves avoiding “I can’t” like the plague, have been reinforced by our society in this not-always-healthy state of being. We Americans are taught to embrace the “can do spirit,” to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, to keep on keeping on. We sense that it’s frowned upon to retreat, to be a noncontributor, to say no. The fact that you can find all kinds of articles and books about how to say “no,” how to reduce commitments, and how to take control of your life by defining boundaries (this article is one of many examples) indicates to me that the struggle is fairly widespread.

Up until I had cancer, almost nothing forced me to say, “I can’t.” Even pregnancy and childbirth didn’t really put me out of commission. I recall shopping at Target five days after Louis was born, still looking pregnant, charging up and down the aisles – because the holidays were happening, and there was a new baby and a toddler in the house, and things needed to be done! I remember freaking out a few Little Gym employees when, very pregnant with Delia, I did a few cartwheels at some child’s birthday party. Someone wondered if I could – and, not wanting to say no, I had to prove it.

In cancer treatment, I experienced undeniable “can’t” for the first time. After my mastectomy and reconstruction surgery I could not stand up straight or raise my right arm higher than my shoulder, and by the time those conditions began to improve, I started a chemo regimen that knocked me flat. This put me out of commission for working, parenting, housekeeping, volunteering, pretty much all of the ways I spent my time and energy. Even on days when I felt better, my energy was not what I expected. I would mean to call someone or accomplish something in the evening, and next thing I know I’d be waking up on the couch at 3 am having done nothing. Often I became so tired in the mid-afternoon that I’d find myself slurring my words. I just couldn’t pick myself up and fight it like I used to be able to do. So I didn’t. In the years following my treatment, I pushed to be back up to 100% but never quite got there. I still felt marginally compromised, often unable to fight through fatigue or keep information in my memory.

After my brother’s sudden and unexpected death, my physical and mental energy took another dive, and have remained wildly unpredictable. I often intend to do something but find I cannot concentrate on it. I mean to email someone and the task falls out of my head. I make to-do lists that I cannot cross everything off of, and every so often I consolidate a pile of these half-finished lists in frustration. I often feel my energy crumbling inside, diminishing, and I have to lie down somewhere and do nothing or sleep for a while.

My struggle is in accepting this state of affairs. In my mind, “I can’t” has always meant “I’m lacking, I am not enough, I am sub-par, I have failed.” However, this judgmental line of thinking only adds to the pain. I believe it's time to rethink “I can’t.” It’s time to translate it, simply, as “I don’t have the necessary resources right now.” By “resources” I mean time, physical energy, mental bandwidth – and sometimes money as well. Our resources are finite in any given moment. If we don’t have what's necessary for a prospective task, there's no benefit in judging ourselves. We might have had it yesterday, and we might have it tomorrow, but today we don't have it, and that's the reality of the present.

When you ask someone to do something and the answer is "I can't," consider: Maybe this person doesn't have the resources to accomplish that right now. Try not to judge him or her as lacking or selfish. Think about it: Might you not be better off asking for a contribution from someone with less depleted resources? Might your acceptance of "I can't" convey an understanding and respect that sets the stage for future positive associations?

If you are the one struggling to say no, try to re-envision your “no” as a lack of resources rather than a failing. Accept what your resources are and be honest about what you can and cannot do. You may find honesty brings you a measure of freedom and peace. You may also find that what the world asks of you shifts to more effectively match what you are able to give.

Over time, this manner of being kind and honest to yourself and others may open up new reservoirs of energy and give rise to new endeavors. I’m holding out for this possibility, anyway. Join me and let’s see what happens.

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