Give Yourself Permission

Giant steps start out with “Yes, you may.”

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A row of eager children wait, bodies swaying with the effort required to hold themselves in mid-step. One leg raised, the tottering children are waiting for the next set of instructions from the child standing across from them, facing them.

She ends her fateful pause of thinking what she’ll tell them to do next.

“Take two steps forward.” At that command, some of the children take two giant steps, practically leaps, halving the space between where they stood balancing on one leg and where the girl stands. The first person to tag the girl by advancing within reach — if all the directions have been properly followed — will win the game, and they get to issue the directions the next time.

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Others take medium-sized steps towards the girl. These are the children who think that the leap-like “steps” of their peers constitute a kind of cheating, and they’ll have none of that — these are the children who want to win “fair and square”, or not at all.

The children who have not gotten carried away in the excitement of the girl’s words, however, haven’t moved an inch. They haven’t forgotten how the game is played; they ask,

“Mother, may I?”

“Yes, You may,” the girl says, and the children who hopped or leaped or even timidly walked ahead two steps are all out of the game. They lose.

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And maybe this was part of how it was drilled into our heads that we must ask permission, at least if we want the next step to be meaningful. If we want it to count. If we don’t want to be out the game.

The problem is that for many of us, once we have grown up and left the days of playing “Mother May I” far behind, we continue seeking permission to take steps forward. We seek out mentors for everything. We hire life coaches. Spiritual advisors. Therapists, counselors, psychologists and psychiatrists and personal trainers and priests and politicians, union leaders and block leaders, administrators and authorities and newspaper columnists and financial advisors and real estate seminars to seek mentorship, leadership, advice… we seek out gurus of every kind, and for every endeavor under the sun.

The Rise of the Official Expert

People don’t just want permission; they want permission from experts. They want permission, in other words, from a person with the authority to provide it. And this explains the rise in experts of every persuasion, experts which command high figures from TV programs, podcasts, seminars, one-on-one coaching sessions, and books. They don’t want an expert in one thing to give permission for another thing; it’s one thing to be told to make a move in your career and quite a different one to be told how to cook a particular dish.

The increasingly sophisticated algorithms recording our mouse clicks to offer us the chance to buy what we are seeking also offer up courses, colleges, programs, seminars, newsletters to channel us to the expert advice we so desperately seek.

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But is it classes, know-how, skills, traditions, background, how-to, trivia, history, code that people are seeking? Or so these amount to the signs and symbols of people hoping to be given permission convincing enough to act upon?

There are self-appointed experts for everything, from parenting to sex, from how to pray to how to start a small business. Life coaching has become an enormous growth industry. So has spiritual mediumship, as hapless mortals strive to get permission from beyond the earthly veil.

Because in fact, after we take the class or earn the degree or go through the course of therapy or do the program at the gym, or join the new church, complete the course, attend the seminar, buy the product, don’t we turn around and do it all again?

Isn’t there always a new authority that we manage to appoint for ourselves?

Experts may contradict one another. This sets us back on the road to seeking someone even better, even more authoritative, or maybe just someone more likeable, from whom to seek advice. Aren’t we seeking permission more so than advice, in all this seeking out of experts and digging into our wallets to fund others who know better than we do?

Awaken the expert within

A lot of us were raised with the belief that somehow, in order to make a move, come to a decision, or effect any sort of change in ourselves or the world around us, we had to be given the green light by some sort of authority figure.

The authority figure when we were children was our parents, teachers, maybe the babysitter, teachers, the school principal, the neighbor next door who yelled at you to be careful when you were playing baseball on the street.

We needed to ask permission.

Some of us exert control over ourselves, refusing to do what we must because, although we know very well what we need to do, and, in a sense, must do, we stall, because of a sense that we have not obtained the necessary go-ahead; we retain a niggling, nagging sense, or feeling, that we have not gotten permission.

If you don’t give yourself permission?

Years may go by as you watch the signs and look with eagerness to each new candidate who occurs in your life that may have the authority to persuade you to do what you’ve wanted to do, in your heart, for a lifetime. You will seek out psychotherapy. You will meet each counselor with the greatest of hopes.

It won’t be long, however, for misgivings to arise in your heart, either because of something they said that makes you wonder if they’re not the right person to give you permission, or because you wonder if you were wrong about what you believed you should be doing, and, therefore, don’t really want permission to do it at all.

I didn’t want to start a business that would fail; I only wanted to put in the work if I could somehow “know” it would succeed.

When I was 30, I decided that I wanted to start a business. I went to a small business course offered through community college, and I attended a seminar in which graduates of the small business course would meet one on one with retired business people from the community for personal advisement. I still remember exactly what I said when I was finally sitting face to face with the person who had been assigned as my mentor.

With a completely straight face and an utter lack of irony, I asked, “What business will make a lot of money?”

My advisor reminded me of some of the business basics which I had learned in my classes, wrapping up by saying, “What sort of business do you want to have?”

“What business will be successful?” I asked, “What business will not fail?”

“Well, no one can answer that,” my advisor said, “There’s never any guarantee that any business will succeed.”

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I left the seminar that day feeling extremely let down, feeling as though I had wasted a lot of time in a pointless endeavor of taking classes to learn how to start a business that now I knew I would not start. I didn’t want to start a business that would fail; I only wanted to put in the work if I could somehow “know” it would succeed.

That’s why I consulted the experts. I wanted to know I would succeed. I wanted permission to succeed — exclusively. I didn’t need permission to fail; I could handle that very well without any outside help, thank you very much.

There’s more than a dash of magical thinking in our desire to rise above ourselves a certain class of people who are all-knowing, and can provide us with failsafe solutions. As I wrote above, in part this is because of the desire to have someone else on whom to place the blame if and when what we attempt goes south. It’s also in order to — as in my time in the small business administration program — assure ourselves of the outcome we hope for if we only supplicate ourselves to the right authority.

Breaking away

What if you fail, and are left with egg on your face? Won’t you be embarrassed? Won’t you wish that you hadn’t tried at all?

What if your marriage ends in divorce? If you were given permission, or felt that you were, by your sister’s encouragement, you can at least share the blame with your sister. You can tell her, “Well, you did say you liked him because of the way he was always friendly at parties,” or, “You said you thought it would be brilliant if Susanna and I got married.”

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What if the business ends in bankruptcy?

This may be the hardest part making a move that many people in your life don’t agree with: the sheer uncertainty of the results. What if the thing you gave yourself permission to do doesn’t work out?

This is the deep heart of the problem of having enough self-esteem to give yourself permission.

Give Yourself Permission

You must accept that your giant step will have to be what you make it.

You can still see an expert (or many experts), but only for information. This time in, know the truth: that only you can ultimately give yourself permission to do the great things you have inside of you.

Give yourself permission — or keep putting your trust in the hands of experts and authorities, and risk never finding a person whose judgment you trust more than your own. You must give yourself permission to try, and fail.

You’re the only one who can do it.

True, no one will be able to give you a fool-proof guarantee that you’ll win. Releasing yourself from the thrall of experts and authorities has its own rewards. Releasing yourself from the belief that any authority knows your hopes and dreams better than you do is worth risking everything for.