As a former editor, I admit that I sometimes get too wrapped up in words and phrases, and my list of pet peeves is longer than it should be. But over the last few years, one sentence has taken the lead for my least favorite of all time.
“I could never do that!”
I heard it when I did a short-sprint triathlon. I heard it when I finished a metric century bike ride. I dislike it in those contexts, but when it really gets me angry is when I hear it in my everyday life.
I remember riding my bike three miles to church, one weekend. I sing in the choir, and one of my choir-mates saw the bike helmet and water bottle I stashed under the pew.
“Did you ride your bike to church?”
“I did— seemed like a nice day for it.”
“How far is it?”
“Not too bad, about three miles.”
“Seriously?! I could never do that!”
I know my choir-mate meant well. She probably meant to compliment me and to show her admiration for something she hadn’t ever thought to do. And I tried to take it that way, but I struggle.
“You know, you probably could do it. There might be good reasons not to,” I said, thinking of her disabled son, who needs extra attention and care throughout the service, and for whom transport can’t be simple, “but honestly, most things like this, you just work up to. Maybe on the first day, you can’t ride three miles, but if it’s something you want to do, you can make it happen over time.”
I don’t like “I could never do that!” partially because it implies that you should be able to do something cold. In my experience of endurance events (or indeed, almost anything worth doing— singing, cooking, writing), you can’t do them cold. Even if you’re in decent shape, the only way you can do a triathlon of any length is to commit to training for it. Same deal with a long bike ride. I couldn’t ride 62 miles on the first day, either. Or on the 31st day. I trained for months for that. And maybe that’s what you mean— you think you couldn’t make the commitment to train for an event. Maybe you couldn’t. Maybe you wouldn’t want to.
The other thing I don’t like about it, is that I believe that words like “I could never” have immense power. In grad school, I studied two psychological theories that work so well together that I jumbled them all up into a philosophy that I probably take too seriously. Let me say that they’re both fascinating and complex theories and I’m unlikely to do them justice in a blog post, so please, if you’re interested, find out more about them from people far more qualified than I am.
The first theory is called symbolic interactionism. The way I summarize this is that things mean what you think they mean. What I mean by that is best illustrated with an example. Let’s say that you are triskaidekaphobic (afraid of the number 13). You’re absolutely convinced that it’s bad luck, and you dread Friday the 13th. Whether there is or ever has been objective validity to your phobia, you are likely to behave according to that belief, and you’re likely to pay more attention to the things that confirm that belief than you are to contradictory evidence.
I can feel you triskaidekaphobics out there marshaling evidence to prove to me that this is a thing. Let me save you time. I totally believe this is a thing— at least for you. Because you’ve told yourself that it’s unlucky, you’ve been making meticulous note of all the evidence of bad luck, and discounting anything good that’s happened around that number.
But the truth is that we all do this, every day. The meanings you give to things matter. They matter so much that on the day that a man that I loved and hoped to build a life with told me that he saw himself as a lone wolf, destined for unhappiness and solitude, I let him walk away from our relationship without arguing with him. I knew that he believed it to be true, and I knew that if I argued it with him, he might stay, but he’d behave as if it were true, anyway. Rather than have him distance himself and go about consciously and unconsciously behaving according to this belief, giving us both good reasons that he should be alone and not with me, I took him at his word. (In fairness, we had talked a lot about this theory, and I knew he believed in its power as much as I did. And walking away without a fight was harder than I’m making it sound. The right choice, but terribly painful.)
The second theory is called narrative interpretation. It says that we tell ourselves and others our life story all the time, and we have to be able to fit the things that happen to us together with who we think we are in a way that we can explain to our satisfaction. Further, as with symbolic interactionism, once we’ve declared what something means to us, we live as if it were 100 percent true. Part of being a functional human being is an ability to explain ourselves and the things that happen to us in a way that we buy. I had a conversation recently with a loved one who is having an especially crappy year. He saw in an electronic message from awhile ago that he had asked me if I was safe and not underwater. He asked me why he would have asked me that, clearly disturbed at the idea. He had forgotten that he asked it during a time when Colorado was flooding. His relief when I told him there was a good reason for him to ask such a question was palpable, and I was glad to help him reconcile that piece of himself he couldn’t quite make fit.
So you need to reconcile meanings with what you think about yourself, but you will also live the truth of the story that you tell. So if you spend your life telling yourself and others that you’re bad at math, you’ll behave in ways that make it difficult for you to be good at math. If you tell yourself that you can do anything you set your mind to, you’ll live your way into that.
The insight I remember taking away from narrative interpretation was that if I was going to tell myself a story that was going to make all the difference in the way I lived my life, then I had better make it a good story— a story filled with happy endings and hidden joys along the way.
So, back to my pet peeve— if you tell me you could never do something that I know you probably could do if you tried/wanted to, I worry that you’ll never try, because you’ve proclaimed something with far greater power than you may know. There’s very little you could never do, if it was important to you. Say instead “What a cool idea. I might try that some day.” We’ll both be happier.