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I’m Sorry, I Don’t Know, I Can’t …

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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!



I’m Sorry

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

Kara Pecknold Bored Bordom Table Woman Sitting
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.


I Can’t

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 …

Kara Pecknold Focus Shoes Red
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:

  1. It brings you pleasure/benefit. ie. Something you enjoy doing.
  2. 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.


Parting Words

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!

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About the author

Tina Su is a mom, a wife, a lover of Apple products and a CHO (Chief Happiness Officer) for our motivational community: Think Simple Now. She is obsessed with encouraging and empowering people to lead conscious and happy lives. Subscribe to new inspiring stories each week. You can also subscribe to Tina on Facebook.

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81 thoughts on I’m Sorry, I Don’t Know, I Can’t …

  1. Thank you for this post, it is true, we are so often not minding our mind! It is so important to be aware, this takes us to see patterns and conditioning that my be of no more use to us. A nice review of our thoughts and quick responses is always a good way to take the clutter out our heads and out of our lives!

  2. It is amazing all the little things that we constantly do unconsciously. All of us to some degree have the automatic responses you talk about, which constantly reinforce the feelings you talk about.

    Without becoming aware of all these little things we do every day, we simply can’t change. There is a lot to become aware of, and a lot to free ourselves from.

    The simple discoveries you have mentioned can change peoples lives quite quickly, imagine what happens when we pay attention to every action, thought and emotion that occurs.

    Thanks Tina

  3. Tina, your article is great!

    Here’s a favorite poem on the relationship between thoughts-words-actions-habits…

    “The thought manifests as the word,
    The word manifests as the deed,
    The deed develops into the habit,
    And the habit hardens into character.
    So watch the thought and its way with care,
    And let it spring from love
    Born out of concern for all beings.”


  4. I know I’m guilty of getting lazy with my thoughts and actions. I always misplace my sunglasses and the first thing that pops out of my mouth, “Honey, do you know where my sunglasses are?” I know that I haven’t given myself the time or energy to find them.

    I need to rephrase the conversation I have with myself. Make it more of a game to find the sunglasses and not just take the easy out.

  5. The unconscious mind is powerful. Very informative article Tina. It reminded me of this quote:

    The center that I cannot find is known to my unconscious mind. – W. H. Auden

    Thanks for the read… ;-)

  6. Words that are direct and that mean what we really feel and think, communicate to others — and ourselves — much more fully.

    I catch myself saying “I have to,” quite often. It is much more empowering for me to say “I want to.”

    And choosing our words in this way makes us conscious of choosing what we say to people in conversation, rather than giving an automated habitual response. Conversations become more meaningful.

    Life is relationship, and words are a huge part of it.


  7. I know exactly what you’re talking about! I notice it in other people more often now, and I try to avoid using these words and sentences too. It makes a big difference in the way you see yourself and act. My mom is a big fan of “have to” but I’m slowly getting her to notice that we don’t have to do anything, we choose to.

    Thanks for putting everything into a concrete form, which makes it easier for us to analyze ourselves!

  8. Great analogy of the Captain of the ship and the guys in the engine room for the conscious mind and unconscious mind. It’s a testament to putting a positive spin on your thoughts to bring about good actions/results. Good read!
    it also reminds me of a great George Costanza quote from Seinfeld “stuff your sorrys in a sack mister!”

  9. Tina,

    Wow… I think you hit this topic on the spot! Another phrase might be “I’m not sure if…”

    I deal with the power of thoughts in competitions and athletics all of the time. And the person who believes they can win, or believes they cannot win is always right.

    Most games are lost before they begin because the athlete or team does not believe they can win, and those subconsious thoughts that fire the engine ultimately don’t fire it enough to become successful. The doubt, fear, and other harmful thoughts take over and when this happens the body is limited.

    Thanks for the post, it is a very useful reminder Tina!


  10. Very well written Tina. I have always been interested in the exploration of the Unconscious mind.

  11. Scott McIntyre

    It’s so true that both the words we whisper to ourselves- and those we say out loud to others- strongly influence our attitudes and actions.

    Being able to replace destructive, negative phrases with constructive, positive ones is a powerful skill in a healthy approach to life.

    Repeated practice definitely helps develop this.

    Thank you for the more constructive alternatives, Tina.

  12. Thanks for the post. Sometimes such posts come right at the best fitting moment. :-)

  13. DerDom

    Great post, so true and indeed working very well. I already used the “I have to”-Alternatives since some years, the others presented by you are perfect additions to this. Thanks. :)

  14. Great article!

    As an alternative for “I’m sorry” I often use “Thanks for your patience” if I’ve kept someone waiting about something (like an email response). It removes the feeling of blame and compliments the other person too!


    That’s a great one! Thanks for sharing Bridey. I’ll use this next time.


  15. Yes, indeed “Thanks for your patience” seems to be a good one.

    And I just invented an alternative for “I don’t know”: “Thank you for pointing out that interesting thing I could learn.” :-)

  16. I’m glad you’re starting to cover topics to do with the unconscious mind… something I’ve always been fascinated with.

    Indeed, in NLP, we believe that words are a reflection of and have a significant impact on our thoughts.

    That’s why we make use of sleight of mouth (reframing) and the milton model language patterns to confuse and overload the conscious mind, so as to effect change on the unconscious level.

    Looking forward to more articles on the unconscious mind! =)

    Shun Jian
    Personal Development for the Book Smart

  17. Sub communication is very powerful and it definitely has an effect on our mind and body beyond what we know. The way we use words communicates how you feel not only about the world we live in but also about yourselves.
    I agree that there’s nothing wrong about saying some of those phrases, its why you are saying, the subconscious reason behind will ultimately will have a huge impact on our lives.

  18. This is really great stuff. I love your blog. I often catch myself saying “I’m sorry” for absolutely no reason and it makes me feel guilty.

  19. “I dunno, I can’t cuz I have to take care of this, sorry.”

    Ahh, hell, why can’t I resist being silly sometimes? It’s my inner goon, I tells ya.

    Simple to hear/read/see, difficult to make habit: don’t listen to your inner voice. “The Voice of Knowledge” by don Miguel Ruiz is helping out my father-in-law right now. Really good read with one person’s journey told in a context that can help many.


  20. Dear Tina. This is a fun topic to explore. Thank you for posting it. Instead of I don’t know, how about, “This is interesting..”, or “The answer’s here/there, I’ll keep exploring…”. I feel it’s up to the person how they want to handle an unknown. If there’s enough intention and/or action behind finding an answer, it will present itself. I feel that unconsciously, there’s a lot happening, and so much potential lies in the unconscious domain, but we’re filtering very little of it through because of the beliefs we hold. Once we’ve become aware of the belief that is causing something to repeat itself, we have more free attention to deliberately choose our thoughts, words, and actions. For example, when you wish to take more responsibility for something in your life, and you begin to look at and change the belief(s) behind it (that were unconscious), and you begin to say “I can do this”, or “I can do this better with practice”, suddenly your reality reflects the new belief.

  21. Great article! Saying ‘I don’t know’ in many cases is a lazy way to deny your intelligence and seek the answer by thinking on your own.

    However, in some cases, it could also be a state of high consciousness. As you understand more and more that you really don’t know anything…


    Thomas Herold
    CEO Dream Manifesto

  22. Jamie Ganz

    This is a good article. I read – and recommend – a book called The TAD Principle that discusses this and similar subject matter. Very empowering.

  23. bill s.

    This post is a step above most blogspam i’m directed to throughout the day. I was wondering why I felt this way when i got to the bottom of the page and saw that you link NLP. Very nice article, content-thick, time worthy. Keep it up!

    Saying “I don’t know” usually means, “I don’t care enough to have an answer,” “I haven’t thought about it enough,” or, “I don’t want to talk about it.” Listen to how often people say it, or how often they say I don’t know only to follow with information that was difficult for them to say.

  24. Ari

    Nice post! The phrase “I have to…” seems to me to be synonymous with “I should…” Using the word should can get to be like a put-down, making us feel guilty when we say it. I try to say things like – “I want/need to…”, or “I am doing this because…” instead of using the phrase “I should…”, just like your suggestion for replacing “I have to”

    A fun way of remembering not to use “I should…” is the phrase- “Stop shoulding on yourself!”

  25. samu

    i love this, thanks

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