At 59 years of age, I thought I knew myself pretty well. I knew what I liked to do, what I liked to eat, where I liked to go and what I liked to wear. I knew my own taste in music, movies and books – didn’t I? Well, no. I still have things to learn about myself. The thing I’ve learned most recently is that I need to be given permission to do – or not do – certain things.
I’m not talking about my working life. If I’m in a library or teaching a class and I see something that needs addressing, I just go ahead and do it. I don’t ask anyone if I’m allowed to and, most of the time, I don’t even ask if there is a correct procedure for getting it done. If it needs doing, I dive in. It seems I’m not as dynamic in my personal life.
I first became aware of my need to be told that something is OK for me to do about five years ago. I was working my way through a book – and I use that term deliberately – and really wasn’t enjoying it. In fact, I thought it was dreadful. But I’d started it which, in my head, meant I had made a commitment to it and so I ploughed on. Ten pages. Twenty. When I finally reached thirtieth page I realised that it had taken me two days to get that far. I looked at the final page number. Three hundred and how many? At this rate it as going to take me weeks to finish and I had so many other books I wanted to read. That was my ‘Road to Damascus’ moment. Life is too short to waste on books I’m not enjoying. (Please note, I don’t say ‘bad’ books. Just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean there aren’t hundreds of other people who do.)
In the first fifty-four years of my life I had only given up on a handful of books and usually felt guilty about it. No more. I gave myself permission to stop reading a book if, after thirty pages, I wasn’t involved with the story or the character. I was allowed to say ‘no thank you, not for me’ and move on. I even created a shelf on my Goodreads account called ‘surrendered’. There still aren’t many books on that list, but there is something liberating about knowing there could be more.
That was a huge step for me and, for a long time, that was as far as it went. Every now and then I have felt a little prickle of an idea in the back of my head, but not slowed down for long enough to take it out and look at it. In the last few weeks, I have. It is this idea of giving myself permission. Instead of saying that something might be a good idea, or maybe I should try, I have started to actively give myself permission to do – or not do – things. I’m sure lots of people have already discovered the power of permission, but it feels very new and quite astonishing to me.
It started because I knew I had to take better control of my life. I couldn’t carry on sitting around and waiting for it to happen. I didn’t feel able to engage with my creative writing and not writing was making me feel guilty, so I decided to start keeping a journal. I’ve tried having a diary in the past and never made it last for longer than a week. This time I set myself a few goals, including writing in my ‘One Line A Day’ five year diary in the evenings and sitting down to write in a free-form journal in the morning if I had the time. I also resolved to remove the word ‘fail’ from my vocabulary (at least where it applies to me) and not to beat myself up if there were days when I didn’t achieve all my goals.
The idea of ‘permission’ appeared in my journal less than a week after I started writing in it on a regular basis. I said I was giving myself permission not to self edit the words I put on paper. I was already managing to do it in my journals, why not apply the same to my fiction work? Two days later I was giving myself permission to not give up on something just because it seemed difficult. On the same page I also gave myself permission to quit something if it was not moving me forward in a positive way.
A few days later I was giving myself permission not to go to a full day conference that I was booked on. I’d been told I wouldn’t be getting much more work in that field so why waste an unpaid day on something I didn’t particularly want to do? I gave myself permission to refuse to take on any more work in August because I had already agreed to do fifty percent more than my contract. These may be decisions that come easily to other people but I have always found it tortuous.
Finding the inner voice that gives me permission to do things – or not do them as the case may be – has been liberating. I look forward to more discussions with that voice and making more positive decisions about my life. With permission, of course.