NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Friday, December 15, 2017

Understanding the Difference Between "I Can't" and "I Won't"

Understanding the difference between "I can't" and "I won't" is often the key to successfully making lasting changes in your life.  While "I can't" means you're not capable of doing it, "I won't" implies a choice--in other words, you're not willing to do it (see my article: Fear of Making Changes, Making Changes: Are You Creating Obstacles For Yourself Without Even Realizing It? and Making Changes: Overcoming Ambivalence).

Understanding the Difference Between "I Can't" and "I Won't"

Often, when people really mean "I won't," they say, "I can't."

For instance, when someone, who he wants to give up smoking, says, "I can't," he's saying that he thinks it will be too hard for him to do it so he chooses not to do.  Although he might not see it that way, if his psychotherapist explored the meaning of "I can't," it usually comes down to choosing not to do it (see my article: Becoming a Successful Nonsmoker).

While it's understandable that change can be scary, when you say, "I can't" it tends to foreclose any discussion about the obstacles that are getting in the way.  Whereas if you say, "I won't do it because I'm afraid that I'll fail" or "I won't do it because I'm too ashamed to admit that it's a problem," that leaves an opening for an exploration of the internal obstacles getting in the way.

The Clinical Implications of "I Can't" and "I Won't" in Psychotherapy
People often come to therapy because they want to make a change in their life.  Usually, they've tried on their own to make changes, but they run into obstacles.

Even though many people begin psychotherapy because they want to make changes, once there is a possibility for change, they often experience ambivalence because there are core issues that need to be addressed that are getting in the way.

If fear and shame are involved, and they often are, an inner conflict develops between the desire to change and the desire to remain the same and not work through the necessary obstacles to be able to change.  

The other possibility, when faced with fear and shame, is that the status quo begins to look good to the client for a while ("Maybe things aren't so bad in my life after all") until the client realizes, once again, that he really needs to change.

At that point, the client's psychotherapist can help the client, if the client is willing, to face the internal obstacles to making the change.  If the client isn't willing to explore his ambivalence, he might leave therapy prematurely (see my article: When Clients Leave Therapy Prematurely).

Let's take a look at a fictional vignette which illustrates these dynamics in therapy:

After Ed's father died, he became a compulsive gambler as a way to distract himself from his grief (see my article: Overcoming Grief Gambling).

His gambling began with March Madness and quickly progressed to other sports (see my article: Compulsive Gamblers: Beware of March Madness).

At first, when basketball season ended and he began betting on baseball games, he told himself that he would stop gambling at the end of the baseball season.  Then baseball season came and went and he was gambling on football games, and he continued to bargain with himself about stopping.

When the bookmaker refused to take any more bets from Ed because Ed owed him money, Ed got panicky.

Without the highs and lows of gambling as a distraction from his grief, he felt overwhelmed with anxiety and sadness, and this was a "wake up call" for Ed.  He knew he needed help, so he contacted a therapist who specialized in addiction.

Understanding the Difference Between "I Can't" and "I Won't"

During the initial consultation, Ed told his psychotherapist that he knew he needed to stop gambling because he was in debt for thousands of dollars and he didn't want to get any further in debt.

At that point, Ed didn't make the connection between his gambling and his fear of facing his grief over his father's death.  He only knew that he couldn't go on gambling and getting more and more in debt.

When Ed and his psychotherapist talked about when the gambling started, Ed told her that he gambled a little when he was in high school, but nothing compared to his current level of gambling.

As they traced back the origin of his compulsive gambling, Ed was able to see that it began soon after his father died.  Reluctantly, he began to put the pieces together, and he understood that he used gambling as a way to distract himself from his grief.

His therapist recommended that, in addition to coming to therapy, he also attend Gamblers Anonymous groups (G.A.), but Ed didn't think this was necessary.  He told his therapist that he would "just stop."  He believed, "I can stop whenever I want to."

Understanding the Difference Between "I Can't" and "I Won't"

His therapist decided, at that point, not to challenge Ed or insist on G.A.  She told him that they could see how he did with coming to therapy and not attending G.A.

Ed managed not to gamble for the first week, but he felt overwhelmed by anxiety and sadness, so since his bookmaker refused to take his bets until Ed paid off his debt, he told himself that he would "just place one more bet" on an Internet poker site using his credit card.

After placing the first bet, Ed felt he still had his gambling compulsion "under control," so he placed another bet and another--until he was gambling online nearly every day.

Although he felt ashamed about it, he knew that if he wasn't honest with his therapist, he would be wasting his time in therapy, so he admitted that he was now gambling online nearly everyday.

His therapist explained the brain chemistry involved with gambling and other forms of addiction and why continuing to gamble would make it that much harder to stop.

His therapist recommended that they work on coping skills so that Ed could manage his urges.  She also recommended that he identify the triggers that made him want to gamble.

Ed knew that he had a problem tolerating his anxiety and sadness related to his father's death.  Until now, he didn't realize the magnitude of his gambling problem and what it would take to overcome his problem.

He agreed to practice mindfulness meditation at least once a day, but he didn't follow through with his commitment.  Instead, he gave into his urge to gamble, telling himself each time, "This will be the last time."

When he returned to see his psychotherapist, Ed acknowledged that he didn't listen to any of the mindfulness recordings that he downloaded on his phone.

He also admitted that he was still gambling, and he was beginning to feel hopeless about overcoming his gambling addiction.   He asked his therapist, "Isn't there any easier way?" (see my articles: Beyond the Band Aid Approach in Therapy).

His therapist recommended that Ed come twice a week to therapy, attend G.A. meetings and get a sponsor in G.A.  She also explained to Ed that, when he was ready, they could work on the underlying trigger, the grief that he was avoiding.

In addition, she discussed how, if he followed her recommendations, he would probably be able to build up his tolerance for his uncomfortable feelings so they would no longer feel intolerable to him (see my article:  Expanding Your Window of Tolerance in Therapy to Overcome Emotional Problems).

At that point, Ed threw up his hands and told his therapist, "I can't.  I can't do this."

When his therapist explained the difference between "I can't" and "I won't," at first, Ed continued to maintain that he couldn't do what needed to be done to overcome his gambling addiction.

But as they continued to explore whether he was really incapable of overcoming his gambling addition or he was unwilling to give it up, Ed reluctantly admitted that he was unwilling.

At that point, his therapist and Ed had a basis to discuss his unwillingness to give up gambling and unwillingness to deal with his grief.

Over time, the more Ed talked to his therapist about his emotional struggles, the more he was able to see that he was creating obstacles for himself.  So, he followed his therapist's recommendations to practice mindfulness meditation every day, he began attending G.A. meetings, and he obtained a sponsor.

After attending a G.A. meeting, Ed told his therapist that he was surprised to discover how many people were in a similar predicament specifically related to grief gambling.  When he heard other people in G.A. speak about their guilt, shame and overwhelming sadness, he understood what they were talking about.

Gradually, Ed began to talk to his therapist about his grief.  At first, he was afraid that he would be overwhelmed, but he was surprised to discover that he actually felt better after he talked about it.

Understanding the Difference Between "I Can't" and "I Won't"

As Ed dealt with his unresolved mourning in therapy, he felt no desire to gamble.  He paid off his debts and even began to save money.

Over time, Ed was also able to see that he used the idea of "I can't" as a way to avoid dealing with his uncomfortable feelings.  Now he could see the difference between "I can't" and "I won't" and it was an important lesson in other areas of his life.

Even when people really want to change and they come to therapy to get help with making a change, ambivalence often sets in as the process begins (see my article: Starting Psychotherapy: It's Not Unusual to Feel Anxious or Ambivalent).

At that point, they're likely to say, "I can't" when they really mean "I won't."

Although making a change can be scary, it's a conscious choice and, by the same token, so is not making a change.

Fear and shame are usually the underlying obstacles as to why people are unwilling to take the necessary steps to change.

This is especially common for people who grew up in a family where they didn't have the emotional support they needed when faced with difficulties as a child.

On an unconscious level, they fear that they will be as overwhelmed by emotion as they were as children, but this is rarely the case.  For one thing, as an adult, there is a greater capacity to tolerate emotions (as compared to when they were children).  And, for another thing, as an adult, they have the wherewithal to ask for help.

Making a change that's challenging is often a gradual process:  One step forward and two steps back.     Along the way, there are usually setbacks before you succeed (see my article: Setbacks Are a Normal Part of Psychotherapy on the Road to Healing).

Getting  Help in Therapy
It takes courage to make a major change (see my article: Developing the Courage to Change).

There are some changes that feel so daunting that you might need help from a licensed mental health professional (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

If you've been struggling on your own to make a change in your life, you could benefit from seeing a licensed psychotherapist who has experience helping people to overcome obstacles to change (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist)

Everyone needs help at some point in his or her life, and getting help from a skilled psychotherapist could make all the difference between making a successful change or not.

The choice is yours.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many clients to overcome the obstacles that were getting in the way of making a major change in their life.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.