Many of us enter therapy struggling with external locus of control. We blame partners for dysfunctional relationships, accuse the universe of conspiring against us, or suggest demons assume command of our behavior. When these premises arise in therapy, I strive to help clients accept responsibility for their behaviors. Finding the word “Can’t” most often used by clients to avoid responsibility for undesirable behavior, I now seldom accept it in treatment.

A client with whom I have a deep relationship recently demanded she “Can’t” stop her binge/purge cycle. In prior sessions, I sympathized with her perceived powerlessness while we resolved childhood trauma, and disproved negative self-perceptions. Although she had gained insight, her bingeing endured, replacing relationships, and serving as a conduit to self-loathing. It was then I made the radical choice to put “Can’t” under a microscope. Hoping to underscore choice, and awaken her latent ability to be self-guided, I suggested she replace “can’t” with won’t.

When she denied bingeing was a choice, I suggested it must then be true she was also not responsible for several previous stints of remission. Because she was unwilling to credit another entity for her choice to periodically cease bingeing, she accepted responsibility for the choice to engage in such behavior, and an in-road was made.   

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The removal of can’t is also useful in couples therapy where blame fills the room. It always shocks each individual when I underscore their own contributions to the dysfunctional dynamic. When I suggest alternative courses of action, “I can’t”! is a frequent response, but I am quick to suggest the removal of can’t, and subsequent insertion of “won’t.” Once personal responsibility is acknowledged, change becomes possible.

 We are often tempted to perceive our own actions as beyond our control, but such surrender of our will perpetuates behaviors sure to stunt progress, and hinder growth. Consider this a challenge to replace can’t with won’t, and assess how it feels to accept responsibility, and regain control. In the end, we are the authors of our own narratives, and are the only creatures on Earth with the ability to change our circumstances through force of will.

The Nutley Family Service Bureau's mission is to strengthen the emotional and social well-being of individuals and families through affordable counseling.

Through its hundred year history, the services provided by the NFSB have changed to meet the needs of the community. From 1913 through two world wars, concerns were foster care, food and other supports for families. As government agencies and programs began to meet those needs, the NFSB evolved into a professionally-staffed counseling agency for families and individuals. But its fundamental mission has remained the same – to provide strength to families under stress.

NFSB 155 Chestnut Street Nutley NJ    (973) 667-1884     http://www.nutleyfamily.org/