“I Can’t” vs “I Won’t”

Shakespeare was right to create new words for the English language. Lacking adequate description, our words are hopelessly vague. One of our laziest representations is the word “can’t.” In the French language, there are two words to our one. Pouvoir is the direct translation you would receive from a dictionary for our word “can.” Conjugated, I can becomes je peux. I can’t becomes je ne peux pas.

However, live in France and you would find that this verb is rarely used. The direct translation of “I can’t” is reserved for things that are physically impossible, instances that truly cannot be. It is not watered down or weak, it is for direct situations where there is a physical impossibility. All other times, the verb arriver is used or another weaker form of expression. A child cries over too difficult homework, je n’arrive pas. Can’t get a jar open, je n’arrive pas. Can’t find a pencil, je n’arrive pas. Can’t understand something, je n’arrive pas de comprendre. Or, in place of a lesser form of can’t, they simply use don’t. Instead of saying “I can’t find a pencil,” they would use, “I’m not finding a pencil.” Or “I can’t understand,” becomes “I don’t understand” or “I’m not understanding.” Their form of “can’t” is reserved for specific situations. When you truly use “I can’t” or “je ne peux pas,” it means something.

Our “can’t” has lost its value. So much of our use of “I can’t” is a replacement of “I won’t.”

  • “I can’t go tonight.”
  • “I can’t be bothered with this.”
  • “I just can’t put up this, I’m done.”
  • “I can’t see why anyone would do that.”
  • “I can’t stand that music.”
  • “I can’t see them now, I don’t want to deal with it.”

With Aspergers, when you use “I can’t,” it doesn’t mean “I won’t.” It literally means “I can’t.” It means there are triggers and overwhelming stimuli making this utterly unbearable and unfeasible. Most likely, yes, I could physically do and complete these tasks. But I’m weighing the psychological costs that I carry afterward in the form of meltdowns and inescapable triggers, the level of extreme stress I will endure during those moments, and the added challenges I face making what is so simple and nonchalant to someone else, Mount Everest to me.

But often when I say, “I can’t,” even to my friends who know me the closest, even to my friend who understands Aspergers, I am taken aback by what those two words still seem to communicate. I am taken aback at how it is still interpreted like a choice—like I am being lazy, negative, uncooperative, irresponsible, or stupid. What is not communicated is that I may agree with them, I may know that is the reasonable option, I may likely even want to do that thing because I understand it is best, I may want the benefits from it, I may have thought it a billion times over in my head, but all of this is entirely trumped, entirely overpowered by something beyond my control making this prospect morbidly unbearable down to my very bones.

Understand that my can’t is not the same as your can’t. My situations are not the same as your situations. My perspective is not the same as your perspective. Understand that I don’t want it to be this way. I don’t want to not be able to do things that I know benefit me and others. I don’t want to be stuck, halted, hiding from triggers, seeking an escape in my mind. Just understand that when I say, “I can’t,” it’s not to be taken lightly. It’s not to be shrugged off. It’s not to be a source of frustration. Just understand that if I could, I would.

So what to do, though? Respect that I really mean and feel like I can’t. Validate that there is something making it harder for me. Try to understand. Maybe even talk to me about why I feel that way, what is making me believe that this is an unbearable impossibility. Maybe even discuss ways to lighten the load. You can support and convince me; there’s been times where I’ve said and believed I couldn’t and it turned out to not be so bad. But just don’t pressure me or make me feel anything negative such as disappointment or frustration from your side. Chances are I already feel bad enough and pretty stressed. What I need from you is love, understanding, validation, and support. Love goes a long way.

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