Permission / by Michelle Cowan

Lately, life has been about permission—well, permission and impatience, but I’m focusing on the former for this post. I find that too often, I live in bondage to myself. Instead, I want to be the loving person that comes with compassion and trust to unlock my chains.

But I can I give myself permission? What if I allowed everything? What if everything was okay? What would happen—what would I do—then?

At first speculation, it seems like I would do all kinds of unhealthy things like drink too much, eat too much, smoke, or try every drug under the sun. But that has not been my experience. Although, by giving myself total permission, I claim license to do any of those things, I simultaneously acknowledge my license to do everything else, too. When everything is allowed, all choices are equal, and it’s easier for me to spot my true desires.

Yes, every choice is equal. If there are no better-thans, do I trust solely in my own desires? On the surface, this can seem dangerous. But really, it’s a simple alleviation of guilt. Listening to my desires does not mean abandoning everything I’ve learned over years of trial and error. The main breakthrough here is that where there is no shame, there is freedom. I am a human being who uses that freedom wisely and wants the best for myself and the world, even if I don’t know what the best is yet.

I make a massive amount of choices simply in order to avoid guilt. I hate feeling guilty, so I try to always pick the “best” thing to do, often disregarding my personal desires/dreams and the fact that I usually have no clue what the “best” thing actually is. By granting myself permission to do everything, even the “bad” things, I free myself to make a choice without feeling guilty that I didn’t choose something “better.”

I do not want to live in fear of guilt. I want to see each option clearly and make a decision based on a combination of external circumstances, inner propensities, and my knowledge and intuitive sense about what is best. Decisions overwhelm me when the options are blurred by an arbitrary ranking system my psyche has developed over the years that places things on a scale of “good” to “bad,” a scale that much of the time fails to account for the vast array of mitigating circumstances that could surround any one decision.

Do I have permission to cancel at the last minute? Do I have permission to say no to this person? Do I have permission to say yes? Do I have permission to change a previous decision? Do I have permission to do nothing? Do I have permission to ask more questions?

By throwing away my list of approved actions, I open myself up to an infinite number of paths. Perhaps my choices aren’t limited to a simple yes or no. Perhaps I can ask for more information or for a different date or location. Or could I ask for more time? Maybe I don’t have to choose anything at all. Maybe I can disregard this decision and move on to other things. When none of the options are bad, creativity springs to life and reveals new ways of thinking.

Because I have learned many of life’s lessons through the lens of food, I can explain this liberation with a food metaphor. When a person is controlled by an eating disorder, dieting, or even has taken for granted misguided ideas that certain foods are bad or good, selecting an item from a restaurant menu can be a nightmare. On the surface, it might appear that the dilemma results from a menu too packed with choices. It contains too many selections, too many combinations, too many tastes. But perhaps this is not the issue.

The true issue is that the person at the restaurant believes that an item (or combination of items) exists on the menu that will be better than everything else. The valuation of one item over another can be based on many factors: quantity; nutritional information; color; texture; price; or even whether it is categorized as an appetizer, entrée, breakfast or lunch, salad, or dessert. Everyone has his/her own hang-ups.

Now, what if everything on the menu was equal? I, of course, am not accounting for those people with allergies, etc. But I speak from personal experience of the change, the widening of scope, that resulted from discarding the system I relied on to help me make day-to-day meal decisions. I thought my system helped me make menu choices. However, in hindsight, I see that adhering to my beloved system, in fact, resulted in panic if the “right” items weren’t available or if what ultimately showed up on my plate didn’t match what I thought it would be when I ordered. It also made a perusal of the menu a sort of scavenger hunt for the right things instead of an exploration of new tastes. My system, in effect, served as blinders. I thought that whittling down the choices was best, when in fact, I was blind to the array of options and too busy hunting for the “right” food to listen to my body’s needs.

Leaving the system behind, I realized that any choice could be okay. I could take a breath, hear my body, and choose something to eat. Today, I have the power to order it cooked specific ways, with certain ingredients, or in combination with other items. I even have the power to not order anything at all or try something most people wouldn’t usually eat at that location or time of day. I can pick an item at random, ask the server for more information, or request an off-the-menu special.

If my order doesn’t show up as I envisioned, I can send it back or accept and eat it, knowing that what I choose to eat does not make me a better or worse person. Food doesn’t have that authority.

So I must ask, do any of our choices make us better or worse people? This question challenges some, who would contend that yes, our choices reflect the kinds of people we are. I wouldn’t flatly disagree but would follow up with: What standard are we using to measure “good” and “bad”? What makes one option “bad” and another “good”?

Too many variances exist to support hardwired measurement systems that work in every circumstance. By equalizing all choices, everything on life’s menu becomes visible, including combinations I never would have noticed before with my blinders on. Now, I see every choice clearly and don’t have a ranking system overshadowing my true emotions and needs.

Give yourself permission. Allow yourself to be who you are. In difficult situations, many times, all we have to do is step back and ask, “Am I allowed to feel this way/do this thing/be this person?” Then, we can remind ourselves, “Yes, I am allowed to feel/do/be that.”

Now, do you want to continue on the same path, or do you want to change? Neither choice is better or worse. What do you feel is best for you, regardless of any preconceived ideas? By giving yourself permission, you accept life as it is, and it’s easier to accept others as they are. We are allowed to be ourselves. It’s just true.