Life Health & Wellbeing

Wednesday 29 January 2020

Why do we ask for permission when we don't need to?


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Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

Approval-seeking manifests itself in many different ways. Sometimes it's obvious and ugly - think gloating and bragging; and sometimes it's quiet and reserved - think not speaking up for fear of losing favour.

Other times, it manifests as a need for constant reassurance. This type of approval-seeker second-guesses almost every decision by asking others for their opinion.

Do you think they would mind if I did this? Would it be really bad if I didn't do that?

They don't actually want an alternative opinion, though. They simply want to be told that, yes, their position is perfectly acceptable and, no, it wouldn't be that bad at all.

We do this dance all the time, women especially. One person purports to be asking for advice and the other purports to be giving it.

Yet what we're actually seeking, if we're entirely honest, is a permission slip to be ourselves, and an insurance policy to act autonomously.

We live in a permission-seeking culture. Children have to put their hand up to ask if they can go to the toilet in a school setting; adults have to file requests to take their annual leave in the workplace.

Because we are so used to asking for permission, some of us have forgotten that not every decision needs the stamp of approval.

The approval-based system of social media 'likes' doesn't help matters. Sure, we can post whatever we like, whenever we like, but crowd consensus validates our opinions, giving us permission to have them in the first place.

The death of privacy, and the culture of transparency, can also make us feel as though we have to share our decisions before we actually embark upon them.

Writer Bell Hooks explains it best: "In our culture, privacy is often confused with secrecy. Open, honest, truth-telling individuals value privacy. We all need spaces where we can be alone with thoughts and feelings - where we can experience healthy psychological autonomy and can choose to share when we want to."

Chronic permission-seekers, however, have neither healthy psychological autonomy nor personal authority because they have allowed themselves to be governed by the opinions of others.

"The only permission, the only validation, and the only opinion that matters in our quest for greatness is our own," wrote Steve Maraboli in Unapologetically You, yet chronic permission-seekers rely on others to endorse their opinions, losing their connection to their own inner knowing in the process.

They have become so used to the reassurance of others that they can no longer hear their own inner wisdom or feel their gut instinct. Meanwhile, they are misled by the mistaken belief that they have to ask for permission to pursue their passions.

Some people have a big, potentially transformative idea and immediately go about actualising it. Permission-seekers, however, believe the idea has to be rubber stamped and signed off by a committee of friends and family before they even allow themselves to truly contemplate it.

"It's a poor fellow who can't take his pleasure without asking other people's permission," wrote Hermann Hesse, yet this is precisely what permission-seekers do, time and time again.

Do you think this is too expensive, they wonder, before buying an item of clothing. Do you think this comes across as rude, they ask, before sending a text. It's a habit that breeds inconsistency and indecision.

If you're always asking for permission, try to catch yourself just before you seek reassurance. Do you really need to send your friend a photograph of the coat you want to buy? Do you really have to ask everyone else at the table if they are ordering dessert?

There is huge empowerment in thinking entirely for yourself, and then following through on it.

As a more challenging exercise, you could try taking up something new - a hobby, a sport or a fitness plan - without discussing it with anyone in advance.

"Imagine what you'd do if it absolutely didn't matter what people thought of you," writes Martha Beck. "Got it? Good. Never go back." It is in this spirit that permission-seekers should re-evaluate their constant need for reassurance.

It's also important to look at the language you use. Do you start sentences with 'Sorry, but ' and texts with 'Would it be okay if...?' The words we use affect the way we think and behave, so try saying 'I will' and 'I am' instead. When we make more assured statements, we tend to act accordingly.

Likewise, try to get into the habit of examining your underlying intentions. Are you really seeking someone's opinion, or are you simply asking them to tell you what you want to hear? Sure, we all need guidance from time to time, but there is a big difference between a sounding board and an echo chamber.

So many dreams go unfulfilled, and so much talent goes untapped, because people are waiting to be given permission to do what they really want to do.

Why not just give yourself a permission slip to do it anyway?

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