When is the last time you heard someone use the phrase “I can’t?” Was it a student trying to do a math problem? Was it a friend whose workload had just been doubled? Or was it a child being asked to put on the coat they had put on without issue dozens of times before?
With a toddler in the house, it gets easier to hear all the shades of meaning that can hide behind two words. “I can’t” might actually mean “I don’t want to,” “I’m afraid,” “I’m confused,” or even “I don’t know how.” And after parsing out hidden meanings for the hundredth time, I can understand why my childhood gymnastics coach had put a gym-wide ban on the phrase.
Anyone who used it, even the other coaches, had to do 50 push-ups before trying conversation again. It wasn’t that he wanted people to do things beyond their skill or safety level. The policy was against the words themselves. He felt they were a shield to hide behind instead of admitting more useful – and actionable – hesitations. “I’m afraid.” “I’ve never done it by myself.” “I need to rest a few minutes before I try.” “I’m embarrassed to try in front of other people.” “I don’t want to, because…”
Academic experiences can follow the same pattern. Answering unexpected questions or trying a new protocol in front of an audience can be crippling. Homework problems can compound and seem to get worse with each try instead of better. We end up uttering “I can’t,” because sometimes it’s easier than “I am so frustrated and exhausted I want to cry,” “This makes me feel so dumb,” or even “I need help.”
As an asthmatic, my most vivid memories come from the annual hazing ritual known as the gym-class mile run. For me, “I can’t” actually meant “I’m afraid of having an asthma attack in front of all of my classmates,” and “It’s so embarrassing to run and be laps behind my peers; I would rather shield my ego from the hit by intentionally walking the whole thing, so please leave me alone.” My heart still starts to race just thinking of the number of times my self-preserving “I can’t” was met with a dismissive “Of course you can.”
But letting ourselves fall back on the “I can’t” can do more damage than just hiding our deeper feelings. Eventually we, and the people around us, start to believe it. I know there are things I have stopped trying because, well, I just can’t. So why try? The number of laps I have avoided with well-timed bathroom breaks is staggering. I can’t go back and tell my childhood self that the mile run wasn’t worth the anticipatory anxiety. But I can remember how badly I wished even one classmate had acknowledged that I had barely missed the school record in sit-and-reach instead of teasing me about laps the next day. I can remember that “I can’t” can so often mean something else. And I can take the time to try to ask the right questions, so that I can say something more useful in response than “Of course you can.”