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Navigating permission and choices - how might this work?

Have you ever debated whether or not to do something? Should I eat this or that, should I make that purchase? Is it OK to stop working, down tools, and relax? Is it alright to put my needs before others? Life is a series of choices, and some of those choices might feel as though they involve a sense of being given permission. Who gives us permission to enjoy ourselves; who lets us play? Who rings the bell for recess? Who says whether or not it’s OK to eat that cake or have that moment of rest? Who might be permitting us to dance? Who might be denying us and saying 'no'?

We might not be aware of how we make some of these choices and decisions. It might be a deeply embedded, historical pattern to feel, for example, "I can’t dance", "I’m not a painter", or "treats should be rationed or earned". And yet, what happens for us when we begin to think "it would be lovely to do/eat/watch/read that", and then back away from or reject it with an "I can't" or "I shouldn't". Permission to play or to enjoy, and who gives it, can be quite a powerful dynamic and can truly inhibit or enhance our happiness and sense of engagement with a wider world.

Permission can be experienced in different ways. 'Shoulds' and 'should not's' are interesting forms of permission. We all pick these up throughout our lives. Some can oil the wheels of us living in a social world - "you should write that thank you note, you should chew with your mouth closed". Others can be quite punishing, incorporating a measuring stick set of values almost impossible to meet - "you should be doing better, you shouldn’t be eating so much, you should be further along".

And there are other, subtler, and equally as affecting 'shoulds'. I wonder if this might feel familiar - "the world can be a scary place, you might not be up to meeting the challenges; you should keep your head down and not be noticed".

What might happen when these internalised 'shoulds' meet a desire to sing, to dance, to rest, to play? How do we begin to manage what might feel quite a potent discussion between the part of us that wants or needs something and the part of us that wants to govern, or is frightened of what might happen when that want or need is satisfied?

How challenging, then, could it be to follow the advice we are so often given in the interest of self-care; to 'have some me-time', 'be kind to yourself', 'snuggle down with a good book'. Self-care might be a matter of noticing that it can be difficult to follow this advice. There might be some unspoken 'should' around pleasure and spontaneity, which can make them uncomfortable indulgences. Perhaps that indulgence has always felt as though it comes at a cost. Maybe it would be helpful to explore the flavour of permission around this. Where might we have previously experienced this permission being given or withheld, and what does that voice sound like?

What about when that internal permission giver is trying to help us out, setting limits that are sensible for us but which we find difficult to accept? What might it be like to ignore that voice, that 'should'? What might it be like to comply?

Working with a supportive counsellor in therapy might be helpful if this sounds familiar or uncomfortable. Being able to make these choices for ourselves and managing permission from a position of awareness and acceptance can be freeing. Being able to understand how we give ourselves permission can open worlds.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Merri Mayers MBACP

Merri Mayers, an MBACP registered counsellor, works near Cirencester, Gloucestershire. Merri is an integrative therapist employing the most effective aspects of person centred, gestalt, psychodynamic, systemic and TA models. She works relationally, understanding that how we engage with others can illuminate how we see and feel about ourselves.… Read more

Written by Merri Mayers MBACP

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