A lesson I learned early on in my martial arts training was to avoid using the word “can’t”.

In fact, my sensei would even give us pushups as I recall if we did. I never put much stock in it though. I guess I never really understood the importance of it – until now.

I’ve trained in several martial arts since and besides the physical aspects of the training, there’s a huge mental component that goes along with it. The martial arts are all about empowerment.

A few years ago when I was diagnosed by a neurologist as having a disorder or condition that was incurable, he was quick to point out that “you can’t do anything about it”. Which obviously I took to heart and was the cause of a few dark weeks and months.

However, I came to realize that he’s wrong. That’s what I believe anyways.

And my opinion is not entirely baseless. People have been telling each other and themselves that they “can’t” for centuries. There have been some crazy people who have defied this paradigm. Gone against the flow.

I did a little reflection and some research which may change your mind if this is a word that you use.

Can’t: A Definition

Can’t is a contraction. The full version of the word is ‘can not’, meaning not able to. It’s inherently negative.

The word may seem fairly innocuous or harmless, but I would suggest it can have grave importance especially for those who has some major roadblock.

Maybe you might not see it because people say it all the time or you may not be directly affected by it.

But, whether said directly or indirectly, we convey this message of non-ability to the disabled, the elderly, women, our friends, family, even ourselves.

It doesn’t have to be this way, though.

Why Avoid Negative Language?

As I face the challenge of wanting to take my fitness and nutrition to new heights,  I find I have some doubts. On the other hand, I realize my doubts are unfounded.

By saying that I can’t, I have already given up and decided I won’t be victorious.

Words do have power. Words create thoughts, which create emotions, which fuel behaviour thereby producing results. If I, or anyone, want to open the door to new results, language is surely one of the keys.

In the book, Words Can Change Your Brain, the authors state that “a single word has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress.”

According to the Handbook of Depression, negative words fuel depression and rumination.

There are many more examples relating to sport, business, and life that would indicate that negative words like “can’t” disempower both the speaker and the listener. Its usage forces us to focus on our limitations. We should know our limitations and strengths, of course, but not before we’ve tested them.

I’m more than certain that the many great people the world has seen, Gandhi, Muhammad Ali, Mother Teresa, Bruce Lee all would have heard the word “can’t” on more than one occasion.

How then can we cultivate that unshakable belief within ourselves?

Tactics For Change

Study What’s Possible

There was a time when I was first diagnosed that “can’t” was tattooed on my brain. At that time, I was unable to see a way forward. That is, until I began reading. I read autobiographies, neuroplasticity books, personal development books. I watched inspiring TEDx talks (This is one of my favourites!). All of this essentially re-wired my brain, rescuing me from drowning in negative thoughts. Once I saw what was possible (and that nothing is impossible), I knew I would be fine.

Embrace Failure

The only way to make progress is to keep doing. It doesn’t matter if you fall.

Think back to when you learned to walk. You were probably 2 or 3 and don’t remember, but you kept trying to walk. At first, your attempts probably looked more like stumbling, but the point is that you didn’t give up. If you did, you wouldn’t be walking now. You never considered the thought that you couldn’t walk. So why do you do that now?

Instead, try things you don’t think you can do.

Can’t Alternatives

Over the past months and years, I’ve collected my own tactics for eliminating “can’t” from my own vocabulary. It’s not always perfect, but I’d say it keeps me pretty upbeat in the face of my challenges.

I would use these in place of “I can’t” when conversing with others.

I WON’T – Like I mentioned before, “I can’t” can be disempowering. Essentially, I am are saying to yourself and to others that I am relinquishing control. Instead, “I won’t” allows me to retain control while making my intentions clear to me and the person I’m speaking to.

I DON’T WANT TO – This is another way I can take back control without alluding to my limitations, helping to reinforce my values. Which are all good things, I feel.

I DON’T KNOW HOW TO – Ignorance is not something to be ashamed of. This may be an indirect way of asking for help.


These are just my thought and suggestions to maybe help you get through whatever challenges you are facing.

Especially if you are facing a disease or illness, somebody telling you that you can’t do something is not what you need to hear. There are alternatives.

Lots of people are able and willing to put you down, you should not be among them.



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