I’m Sorry, I Don’t Know, I Can’t …
I find myself blurting out I don’t know as an instant answer to questions I don’t have immediate answers for. Lately, I’ve been noting how these simple words made me feel, and I’m starting to take notice that on some level, these casual words are effecting my emotions and self-esteem.
Saying I don’t know, I’m sorry, I can’t and “I don’t want to but have to” are slowly changing my mindset. Through my observations, I’ve noticed how common it is to use these popular phrases without giving them a second thought.
Do you find yourself saying the words I’m sorry or I don’t know often? Did you know that this over-sighted language pattern is actually limiting our potential to happiness and ultimately getting what we want?
Let’s have a closer look at each one and notice their effect in our internal mental space. Let’s, also, consider some alternative phrases we can use in their place, which are more conducive to our personal growth.
Before diving in, let’s point out a few things about our unconscious mind.
Our Hidden Gold Mine: The Unconscious Mind
We function as a result of the beautiful harmony between our conscious and unconscious mind. The unconscious mind is the master mind hidden away from our awareness. It is a powerhouse of unlimited potential. Our unconscious mind stores the majority of information in our brains, and can process much more data simultaneously (about 2 billion times more) than the conscious mind.
We believe that our conscious mind controls everything, because it is the only brain we are acutely aware of. And we commonly associate our conscious mind as “me”.
If our conscious mind is indeed “in control” as we believe, then why do we sign up for gym memberships after new years and never go? Why it is that even after we’ve decided on something we really want (like a new hobby), we fail to take action on it?
While our conscious mind is the captain of our ship, our unconscious mind is the guys in the engine room, making the ship run. The ship moves because of the work done by these engine room guys. They listen to the commands from the captain, without question. They are exceptional at taking commands and executing them.
Since the conscious mind has limited capacity and can only become aware of a very limited set of information, our unconscious mind only surfaces what we consider important. How does the unconscious mind know what’s important? It doesn’t. The unconscious mind determines this based on the frequency of commands it receives of the same topic from the conscious mind.
Each time we have a conscious thought, or we verbalize words aloud, or see a scene in our imagination, it gets fed into our unconscious mind. Like a command from the captain, whether it is our intention or not, the command gets executed in some form; it leaves an impression on the unconscious mind.
This explains why when we are shopping for a particular type of car, we start to notice it everywhere. We have given this car repeated conscious attention. Our unconscious mind noted it as being important and begins to surface this information whenever possible.
In summary, what we say gets noted by our unconscious mind, all the time. It then shows you more evidence to back up those thoughts. This is true for both thoughts which are conducive and un-conducive to our wellbeing.
Okay, let’s dive in!
We’re all familiar with and have casually used this in our daily communications. Here are some variations:
- I’m Sorry but…
- I’m Sorry
- Sorry about that
When we reply to an email two days after receiving it, many of us insist on starting the email with I’m sorry. Now consider this: have we done something wrong? Do we really feel sorry? Or are we just repeating a popular saying? What are we gaining as a result of saying this?
Try this: close your eyes. Repeat the words “I’m sorry” in your imagination. You can even say it out aloud. Now, observe your feelings. Do you feel a tightness subtly bunching up in the pit of your stomach? Or a light pull along your inner throat? Do you sense feelings of guilt?
Now imagine that this feeling of guilt is triggered in us each time we say the words “I’m sorry”, even when casually used. Remember how our unconscious mind takes orders of what we say? If we repeatedly tell it that we are sorry for trivial things, then it will note down that we have done something wrong, thus polluting our internal space, unnecessarily.
Additionally, we’ve created an association between that feeling and the action taken. So, if we repeatedly say I’m sorry each time we reply to emails after 2 days, then we’ve programmed ourselves to feel guilt whenever we do not respond to emails immediately.
Lastly, the more we repeat these words, the more we dilute their meaning. People are incredibly sensitive creatures, and can sense when we don’t genuinely feel sorry. This may come off as insincere to them. So we’re better off by not saying it. I recommend we reserve the words I’m sorry to situations when we really mean it, and need it to express our genuine feelings.
Suggested Action Items:
- Observe yourself in your daily life and see how often you want to say “I’m sorry”.
- Each time you type “I’m sorry” in an email or catch yourself saying it, ask yourself, “Do I really feel sorry? Or am I just saying it?” If the answer is “I’m just staying it to sound good”, erase it from the email.
- Try to reduce the frequency of saying I’m sorry. Reserve it for when you really mean it. Reserve it for when you truly feel sorry for something you have done that may have hurt another.
I Don’t Know [Part 1]
When it comes to making a decision, we are often caught saying I don’t know. It’s a popular answer because we get lazy and we have conditioned ourselves to the habit of saying it. Here are some variations:
- I don’t know where it is
- I don’t know what to do
- I don’t know which to choose
- I can’t decide
- I don’t know
Photo by Kara Pecknold
There is a difference between truly not knowing something and believing that you don’t know something. There’s also the connotation that you do not have the ability to decide or to learn something new. These words are repeated so causally that we start to rely on them out of laziness and habit.
At times, even for the smallest decision, we would shrug and say “I dunno”. Why? Because it’s an easy answer. We don’t have to think.
Trivial decisions like, “Which type of pasta should I order for lunch?”, “Which color should I get?” I have personally been caught saying I don’t know during similar scenarios. You’re not alone.
While saying this is the easy way out, it is also conditioning us that indecision is okay. We end up leaving decisions open, while it consumes our mental energy, unnecessarily.
Often times, we have the answer, but we are hesitant to repeat it out of fear that it might be the wrong decision. So instead, we say “I don’t know”.
Each time we use this casually, we are telling our unconscious mind that “I am an indecisive person. I am not very intelligent, because I cannot even decide on the simplest of choices. I am not capable of making a decision on important issues. I am not important.”
I am exaggerating here, but you get the point.
What we repeatedly do becomes our habits. And if we make a habit out of indecisiveness on small decisions, how will we react when we need to make important decisions in life, in business, or in relationships?
Being indecisive sends a similar message to the people around you. We tend to trust and rely on people who are decisive. It is a character strength; especially in business.
Suggested Action Items:
- Replace “I don’t know” when making a decision with an alternative phrase. Come up with a list of such alternatives. Here are some ideas:
- “Give me a moment, I have not decided yet.”
- “Let me think about it.”
- “I am evaluating my options.”
- “Hmmm. Let me see…”
- Action: List out the options and their pros and cons.
- Practice repeating alternative phrases, so that we can internalize them and say them when appropriate in place of I don’t know.
- Instead of wanting to fill space and silences with “I don’t know” when being asked a question, practice not saying anything immediately. Pause a moment before speaking.
I Don’t Know [Part 2]
The other type of I Don’t Knows, tend to imply our inability to do something. Here are some variations:
- I don’t know how to …
- I don’t see …
- I don’t remember …
Again, we say this, because it’s easy. We throw our hands up in the air and simply declare that we don’t know. Often, we have given up before we even try.
Consider the following scenario:
Person A: “Where is the salt?”
Person B: “On the kitchen shelf.”
Person A: “I don’t see it.”
Person B walks to where person A is standing, reaches over where person A is looking, and pulls out the salt bottle. It was right in front of person A.
Have you been in such a scenario? I certainly have. Did person A truly not see the salt? Or did person A believe that she did not see the salt? Bingo!
Remember that our unconscious mind takes commands directly from our words? When we tell ourselves that we do not see something, we are passing the message to our unconscious mind in the form of a command. It proceeds accordingly and makes a note to stop passing anymore messages to the conscious mind when salt bottles are seen. Isn’t that funny?
Similarly, when we say “I can’t remember”, we are telling our unconscious mind to not let us know the answer, even though the unconscious mind remembers. So, while we have the memories stored in our unconscious mind, we have deliberately sent the command to not bring the memory to our awareness.
Suggested Action Items:
- Practice rephrasing common non-conducive phrases to wordings that suggest possibilities. Here are some examples:
- When you hear yourself saying , “I don’t see the salt anywhere on the shelf”, rephrase and ask yourself, “If I could see the salt, where would it be?”
- When you want to say “I don’t remember where I put the keys?”, rephrase the question to “If I could remember, what would they be?”
- Instead of saying “I don’t know how to.”, rephrase to “I have not learned how to do that yet, but I can learn.“
- Instead of saying “I can’t open this” rephrase to “If I could open this, how would I open it? Let me keep trying. I know I can do this!”
- Practice repeating alternative phrases, and use them when appropriate. Turn the alternative phrasing into a habit.
This is such a common phrase that I too catch myself saying it, and it seems to slip out automatically before I even realize consciously. Here are some variations:
- I can’t find it
- I can’t do it
- I can’t get it working
- I can’t make it today
- I can’t remember
- I don’t have time …
Photo by Kara Pecknold
When we say I can’t do something, we’ve just declared impossibility as a definite answer. We are telling ourselves that we will never be able to do it, because we lack the necessary capabilities.
Similar to I don’t know, there is a difference between not being physically capable to do something, and mentally believing that we do not have what it takes to do it.
By saying we can’t do something, we are suggesting that we do not have the ability to learn, that we have given up, that we lack the potential that other gifted humans possess. Also, by saying things like “I can’t do it” or “I can’t find it” or “I can’t get it working”, we are denying ourselves of possibilities and solutions. We blind sight ourselves.
By saying we don’t have the time, we are impressing upon ourselves that we are very busy, making us feel important. It is an illusion. Yes, we may have a very full schedule, but when we say we don’t have time, it usually means that we just don’t want to do it. Not having enough time is an excuse. If it was important enough, we’d find the time. Besides, if we counted the total time we spent browsing the web, checking email, and watching TV, we would have more than enough time to fit in those things we just didn’t have time for.
One of my favorite quotes is, “If I can’t, then I must.” Try it, you’ll find that what you used to consider impossible suddenly becomes probably and very accessible.
Suggested Action Items:
- Come up with alternative phrasings to popular I can’t phrases. Here are some examples:
- Instead of saying “I can’t find it”, say “I have not seen it yet, l will keep looking.” or “If I could find it, where would it be?”
- Instead of saying “I can’t get it working”, consider saying “It is not working yet, but I will keep trying until it works.” Or “I am still working on this. If you have a sec, will you help me?”
- Instead of saying “I can’t make it today because…”, consider skipping out the excuses and give a firm but honest answer, “I am going to pass on it now, maybe next time? Thank you for inviting me. It means a lot.”
- Stop telling others they can’t do something. Alternatives to “You can’t do that” are “I prefer you not to do that” or “I don’t recommend doing that because …” or “I tried it last time and it did not work for me, maybe it will work for you.”
I Have To
Saying I have to suggests that we do not have a choice, and that we are not in control of our lives. Here are some variations:
- I have to finish this
- I have to go to this event
For starters, you don’t have to do anything! You know that. The world will not come to an end if you don’t do something (in most cases). We feel like we have to for one of two reasons:
- It brings you pleasure/benefit. ie. Something you enjoy doing.
- It reduces pain. ie. Losing a job or friendship, or an excuse not to do something else.
Similar to I’m sorry, by suggesting that we have no choice but to do something, we introduce guilt in our inner space. For example, we don’t want to go to a party, but we feel pressure to do so, and if we do not go, we feel guilty. This guilt is really unnecessary.
We are in control of our lives, and instead of saying I have to, replace it with I want to, or I am doing something because here are the benefits it brings me. Maybe you don’t want to go to your friend’s baby shower, but you go to it, because it will make your friend very happy for her special occasion. Your attendance benefits you because it makes you feel good that you’ve made someone else happy.
If we have decided to do something that we would rather not be doing, instead of treating it like a chore or dragging it on with unpleasant thoughts, why not shift our perspective so that we can enjoy it? What benefit will it bring us by prolonging the unhappy thoughts and using the “I have to do this” excuse?
Suggested Action Items:
- Instead of saying “I have to do this“, say “I want to do this” or “I am doing this because (insert benefits to you)”
- If you don’t want to do something, instead of giving people excuses starting with “I’d love to but, I have to…“, just gracefully say “Thanks for the invite, but I am resting at home tonight.” Or “Thank you. I have plans tonight. Maybe next time.” (Note: a date with yourself at home count as plans.) You don’t owe anything to anybody. Be honest and do so with your head held high.
The language we use is incredibly powerful. It is a direct command into our unconscious mind. Whether we realize it or not, or it was spoken casually or not, our unconscious mind is listening. Your unconscious mind takes notes even when you’re not paying attention.
While this article focused specifically on language, the same principle is applicable to other sensory inputs. Inputs such as the movies we watch, the clothes we wear, the thoughts we repeatedly iterate in our minds, the day dreams we have, the types of books and blogs we’re reading. They all get fed into our unconscious mind as input and treated as commands.
“Your beliefs don’t simply reflect your reality, they create your reality.”
Our unconscious mind is a magnificent tool, and learning to take advantage of its functions can help us achieve our goals and to live the life that we desire. As fluffy as that may sound, it is true. These are all examples from my own life, and I hope you find these (possibly new) ideas useful in your own life. Adapt them, give them your own twist, live it and pass it on.
What are some alternative phrases you can suggest to I don’t know, I’m sorry, I can’t, I have to? Any other thoughts you want to share with us? Talk to us below in the comments! See you there!