There is no shortage of overly-optimistic catch phrases out there designed to encourage you to think positively about yourself. These can be helpful at times, but what happens when thinking too positively feels like you are lying to yourself? On the other hand, being pessimistic about yourself often feels like an added barrier to success. So what’s a realistic person to do?
If self-acclamations like “I can do it!” and “I’m a winner!” are not your style, I would recommend that you start with replacing the phrase “I can’t…” with the phrase “It would be very difficult to…”. One reason why thinking in terms of “I can’t…” is unhelpful is because it creates a rigid way of thinking about yourself (a mental set of sorts). Mental sets often restrict our abilities to see new possibilities that we have yet to consider. In previous posts, I have talked about the impact that the language we use has on our ability to see potential solutions to a problem. If you cannot do something, why would you bother trying to do it? If I can’t teleport myself home from work, why would I waste my time trying? However, if it would be very difficult to teleport myself home from work….well, I might try to think of ways of making that happen (If you know of ways, please let me know.). In all seriousness though, it can have a significant impact on how we see ourselves and our abilities. If I think about a difficult task in terms of my complete lack of ability (“I can’t talk to my boss about a raise.”), then there is no reason to think of ways of accomplishing it. However, using a realistic and honest rephrasing (“It would be difficult for me to talk to my boss about a raise.”) allows me to consider that there are possibilities for success. Not to mention that it is validating to acknowledge that something would be difficult to accomplish. It recognizes the struggle and it provides more reasons for pride when you have accomplished it.
Try paying attention to each time you use the phrase “I can’t…” and try simply replacing it with the phrase “It would be difficult to…” and see how that might change things.
Shawn Healy, PhD