Overcoming Two Disempowering Words: ‘I Can’t’

Over the past 20 years working with individuals to help them unlock their fullest potential, I have found that there is an unconsciousness around the fact that everything is a choice. We are constantly making decisions throughout the day, yet many of us are unaware that we are making decisions, hence, the unconsciousness regarding the ownership of the decisions. Where this manifests itself quite often in my coaching is when I hear the words, “I can’t,” or any variation on that phrase. My response is consistent, “You choose not to,” and there is a long silence between us as those words sink in.

Saying ‘I Can’t’ Is A Choice

When we say, “I can’t,” we take away our inner power. When we say, “I choose not to,” we stay in our power and at the same time empower ourselves further by making that matter-of-fact statement. By changing the phrase, “I can’t” to “I choose not to” we bring awareness to the fact that we are making a decision. One of the steps toward unlocking your fullest potential is to remove any disempowering negative phrasing from your thinking and speech. A powerful exercise is to find ways to phrase your sentences in the positive. For example, instead of saying, “I can’t wait to see you,” which is a negative sentence, turn it into a positive one by saying, “I look forward to seeing you.” Start being aware of the times you start a sentence with, “I can’t” and change it.

Conscious Thinking

Implementing a mindset to be conscious of what we think and what we say is the path to self-awareness, propelling us toward self-empowerment. As we adopt this mindfulness, we become more cognizant of all the many thoughts and decisions we are making throughout the day. When we become more conscious of our thinking and control our phrasing, we can move up the hierarchy into a leadership position because we have removed a pattern of thinking that often keeps us stuck. “I can’t” is limiting thinking, not visionary thinking.

Thoughtful Leadership

Take a careful look at those who make it to the top. Look at those who follow a considerate leader. What is the potential to grow under thoughtful leadership? I have found that there is a certain idiosyncrasy to every successful and thoughtful leader. They have removed the disempowering phrase “I can’t” from their thought process. When we look at the etymology of idiosyncrasy, there’s a temperament, characteristic, habit or mannerism that is peculiar to the individual. It sounds obvious and simple, yet removing the phrase “I can’t” requires breaking a habit that was ingrained in us from a young age.

Often, this eccentric behavior in leaders can be uncomfortable, especially for those under their tutelage. One of the reasons for this is that thoughtful leaders stretch us to go beyond “I can’t” to “it can be done and we will find a way.” There are many variations on this theme in the workplace, such as “Come back to me when you have a solution.”

Humble Leaders

As challenging as working under this type of leader may be, contrary to what you might think, these leaders embrace humility. There are two main characteristics to humility, an intrapersonal aspect that involves viewing oneself accurately and an interpersonal level that involves an appreciation of others. Working under a leader who removes “I can’t” to “find a way,” is an opportunity to grow beyond your own limits, as they are encouraging you to take the initiative. When you follow this type of leader, you want to perform at your best because your input is valued.

Empowered leaders who have moved beyond limiting thinking can hold onto a vision despite the obstacles encountered. They are secure in their identity, and they are comfortable in the land of ambiguity and the unknown (paywall). This is why “I can’t” is not part of their thinking. Most of us do not thrive in ambiguity and uncertainty. We like known outcomes. Yet the humble leader moves with ease in this territory. Their eccentric trait breeds positive ways of interacting. They view mistakes as stepping stones to move in the right direction, and they need your help. They do not forge ahead without your contributions and assistance and want you to achieve your highest potential.

In the Academy of Management Journal (paywall), Bradley Owens and David Hekman wrote, “Our findings suggest that humility appears to embolden individuals to aspire to their highest potential and enables them to make the incremental improvements necessary to progress toward that potential.” They also noted that the posture of the humble leader is contagious as is the posture of an arrogant leader. Aspiring to your highest potential begins with being conscious that everything — your thoughts, your words and your perspectives on issues — is a choice.

What about you? Can you remove “I can’t” so that you can make incremental steps toward unlocking your fullest potential? Are you willing to take the challenge and step out into the land of unlimited thinking and opportunity and be a leader within your group? It all begins by taking ownership of your thoughts and words and staying in your power. Once you step into this consciousness, you empower yourself and others, and “I can’t” no longer exists in this newfound self.[su_spacer]

This Article originally appeared on Forbes and is featured here with Author Permission

Melinda Fouts, Ph.D.
Melinda Fouts, Ph.D.http://www.successstartswithyou.net/
Melinda is a select Columnist & Featured Contributor for BIZCATALYST 360° and a Member of the Forbes Coaches Council (comprised of Top coaches offering insights on leadership development & careers). Prior to executive coaching and leadership development, Melinda has been in private practice as a psychotherapist for almost 20 years. She leverages her strengths and insights from her psychology background to help leaders and managers in transition through increased self-awareness. Owner and founder of Success Starts with You, is based upon the premise that you are already successful. Increasing self-awareness to increase emotional intelligence and unlocking blind spots are paramount to continued success. Melinda uses assessments to help bring more awareness. Whether you are a leader or manager in transition, need a thought partner, or need to improve your professional presence, Melinda has developed unique and innovative techniques from her background to help you reach higher heights. Melinda received her Ph.D. in Jungian Psychology from Saybrook University and her Masters in Psychology from Pacifica University. Melinda has worked as a consultant with executives and businesses for over 20 years. As a result of her experience and studies, she has developed a unique craft to fine-tune leadership development for peak performance. She lives in Colorado with her big, beautiful dog, Stryder.


  1. I’m often amazed of just how useful the stories we all hear as children. When reading this article, I kept thinking — “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”

    I wonder. Just how many when they recall the story remember themselves as being the little train that could?

    • Perhaps, Chris, the story was written to change the negative mindset from I can’t to I can. It is a wonderful story illuminating the power of a positive mantra. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Great Article. The I can’t starts when we are children and how we are taught. My Daddy never told me that I couldn’t do something. He would say lets see how it works out or tell me how you would do it. I teach my team that they can do amazing things and I never say we can’t. That makes them think about possibilities not disappointments. They can tap into lets imagine.



🔀 SALON 360° 🔀 "Where Shift Happens"

It's time for more walkin'/less talkin'. It's time to change how we operate and how we cooperate. It's time for "shift" to happen.

Must Read

Choose Your Words Wisely

As we celebrate our country’s independence, it’s evident that things are not what they once were, nor will they ever be the same. The...