“i can’t” means something else entirely


“i can’t do it.” how often do people use that phrase? i’ve used it myself frequently. it was my go-to response when i thought about stopping my harmful behaviours. “i can’t do it. i can’t stop. it’s out of my control. i want to but i just can’t”.

“can’t” is an interesting word. often, our use of it isn’t technically accurate. such was the case with my eating disorder. there was nothing physically preventing me from stopping or changing my behaviours, only my own thoughts and feelings and discomfort. a more accurate response would have revealed the truth i kept hidden way down deep; i didn’t really want to change. accepting the idea that it was all out of my control, accepting that “can’t” was an accurate truth was easier but a costly mistake.


“can’t” seems to mean one of two things a lot of the time; either “i don’t want to” or “it’s too hard”. both of those would have applied.

i would tell people when discussing my recovery, therapists mostly, that i couldn’t do it. i would tell them that i was trying but that change seemed to be beyond my abilities. what i really meant was that it was too hard; the anxious discomfort i felt when i contemplated letting behaviours go seemed unbearable. i didn’t believe in my ability to stand against it or move beyond it. i didn’t believe the agitation which rose up when i tried to push back against my behaviours was ultimately bearable and surmountable.


i also didn’t want to change. “can’t” covers that position as well. for a long time, a large part of me believed that all my problems would be solved by thin, and if thin didn’t get me there then thinner certainly would. giving up my eating disorder felt like giving up on the promised good life, despite never achieving it. i also didn’t want to do the work. recovery is hard, and it felt like my life was hard enough already. i didn’t want to add struggling in the trenches. what i wanted was to wake up one day and find i’d been magically cured while i slept. i wanted the urges to restrict gone. i wanted the need to binge and purge abated. i wanted the hatred i felt toward my body and by extension the hatred i felt toward myself to magically vanish overnight. i didn’t want to get better, i wanted to be better.

“i can’t do it. i’m not strong enough to push through the pain. i’m not strong enough to face the dark ugliness that drives my behaviours. i don’t want to live with the ugly feelings and have no outlet. change doesn’t work for me. i’m different from other people. what works for them can’t possibly work for me.” what an arrogant position i held. thoughts like these imply that somehow i’m just a little bit worse than anyone else, and what works for them can’t possibly apply to me.

as it turns out, hard things are possible and achieving them is within our abilities, despite our knee-jerk, negative responses. i now apply an internal test when “i can’t do it” pops into my head. if i was dropped onto a desert island and didn’t have access to the tools that enable my behaviour, would i make the change? if i couldn’t obtain the things i needed to continue with the negative behaviours, would not doing them kill me? if the answer to those questions are yes and no, i know something else is going on.

i think that as people, part of our programming is to take the path of least resistance. sometimes this is a good thing. it lets us be creative in our problem-solving. it helps us think outside the box. when it comes to maintaining harmful behaviours, however, the path of least resistance is one we should be wary of.

yes, changing the things we do is hard. yes, altering our behaviour is a challenge. the whole process is often miserably uncomfortable. coming to the point of wanting to change more than we want to maintain the status quo is key. believing we have the strength for the battle is also vital. bowing out because we believe we lack strength and courage, quitting before we start because it’ll be hard means nothing changes. it means that in a week, a month, a year, or a decade we’ll still be in the same place, still using the same justifications that don’t stand up to scrutiny.

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“can’t” is easy. change is hard. letting go of negative behaviours is scary but it can be done. getting rid of the inappropriate “can’t” means that for the most part, life will get better.


(may 19, 2018 )

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