Don’t vs. Can’t: How to Own Your Choices

I once came across a psychological study mentioned briefly in a health magazine.  The study focused on the subtle influence of language on diet.  It found that participants who spoke about their diets in terms of don’t (“I don’t drink soda”) lost significantly more weight than those who explained their diets in terms of can’t (“I can’t drink soda”), even when other factors were controlled for.

This is powerful. Think about it for a minute.

The researchers theorized that usage of can’t unconsciously indicated powerlessness.  It implied that the can’t dieters had some sort of inability, some restraint preventing them from making a conscious choice. The don’t dieters, meanwhile, were expressing empowerment, indicating clearly how they do and do not behave based on personal decisions. They may have wanted to drink soda, but saying “I don’t” expressed their will and neatly precluded further discussion.

Why does this matter? For starters, follow-up discussion is an underrated danger. In the diet arena we all too often behave well on our own but give into friendly social pressure, and this is especially true when sabotage comes in the form of flattery (“Girl, you NEED dessert with your lunch! Just look how skinny you are!”) or encouraged self-indulgence (“Come on. You earned at least three beers tonight, man”). We all want to seem fun and easygoing, and women especially hope to avoid the shame and stigma associated with dieting.

That’s why it’s time to take don’t for a ride…

Imagine I’m at a restaurant with my friends and suddenly announce that I can’t drink soda.  At least half of my uppity friends would immediately call shenanigans on this claim, and some of the more devious ones might even start to think challenge accepted.  The hard truth is that badass people will not accept lame-ass excuses, and a feeble “I can’t drink soda” is the equivalent of a “kick me” sign.

Now imagine I said “I don’t drink soda” and promptly ordered a water. Most people would not blink an eye at this. Of course if someone did happen to ask me “why not?” I would respond to them simply (“It’s too sugary for me”; “I don’t like it”; “health reasons”; etc.), but the key here is that I would not have to apologize, defend, or explain. Don’t is a choice word. It expresses who you are.  People find it easy to question imaginary disabilities, but questioning life choices is a whole different game.

So now take this trick and apply it to anything. You’ll be amazed at how your confidence and efficacy soar. If there’s something you don’t like, say so kindly, firmly, and with minimal fanfare, and don’t forget that the opposite is also powerful (stating what you do and are.) I think you’ll be pleased to discover that your choices require much less justification than you think they do, and that you can safeguard your routines and other priorities without coming across as rigid or obsessed.  Seriously. This week I challenge you to decline an invitation with “I run on Tuesday nights. Maybe Wednesday?” instead of a lame and rambling excuse like “Well I wish I could go to happy hour tonight, but I don’t think I’ll have time because I usually try to run, and running is important to me for my health because blah blah blah.” Etc. Ain’t nobody got time for dat.

I want to end this article with a reminder to my fellow gluten-free and paleo folks, all of whom can relate to the experience of being challenged and questioned for going gluten/grain/etc.-free. People will insinuate that you’re just being trendy; they’ll say that you’re paranoid or really extreme; and horribly, they’ll imply that your health problems are imaginary if you don’t have celiac sprue.

So how do you respond? You don’t, folks. Haters gonna hate. All too often I hear gluten-free folks frantically justifying their gluten-free lifestyle, as though anyone anywhere has a right to give you shit about what you put in your mouth.  

So the next time you need to tell someone you don’t eat gluten, I challenge you to just say, “I don’t eat gluten.” The same goes for sugar or dairy or other foods.  If people ask you why, you can explain your decision, but make sure you’re explaining to educate or bond, not because you’re trying to prove that you are not trendy/arbitrary/insane.

Because really, so what if you were? What if you adopted the difficult gluten-free style for absolutely no reason at all? 

That’s your prerogative.

Own your choices.

You don’t apologize for who you are.

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