Asking for Permission

When we were young, we asked permission quite often. Can I watch another TV show? Can I be excused? Can I spend the night at Bobby’s house? Can I borrow the car? When we had parents or caregivers lording over our choices and freedom, asking permission made perfect sense. Since childhood, you’ve probably been taught that asking permission was the polite, courteous and appropriate thing to do. After all, it seemed a whole lot more considerate–and ultimately less complicated–than sneaking out of the house or stealing the family car without asking.

However, if you’re reading this article right now, you’re likely no longer living with mom and dad, but nonetheless still haven’t fully outgrown this pesky habit of asking permission. Maybe you ask your partner for permission to stay out late with your friends. Or maybe you ask your boss permission to take a day off from work. If you have kids, you may even ask them permission to wipe their face clean or put on their shoes. If so, you’re bound to have suffered some of the negative consequences that come from asking permission.

The biggest problem with asking for permission is that doing so gives someone else the opportunity–and power–to say no to you. Just the other morning, I asked my wife if I could leave home early to get a head start on a busy day of work for me. Since this meant she would then take our son to school (rather than me, as we had agreed upon the night before), she balked, voicing her frustration. How did I respond? The way most people do when they are denied permission for something they’ve requested; I pouted and felt resentful toward her almost immediately. Childish, I know, but this is exactly the risk we run when we ask for permission.


Asking for permission is always a gamble. Sure, sometimes you might get the permission you seek. If so, jackpot! No wrinkles there. But if you get the answer you don’t want, what then? You lose the gamble, then (unless you are adept at giving permission) are left harboring some measure of resentment, a sentiment that feels rotten for you and simultaneously burdens your relationship with tension and ill will. You now very likely feel mad at this person for not better supporting you, for not honoring your wants, for not being more sympathetic and cooperative with you. Basically, you blame them for not giving you the complete freedom you desire for yourself. Was this freedom of yours ever theirs to take away? Of course not, but the moment you asked for permission, you put your freedom in the hands of another–which, by the way, is never a wise idea.

The truth is that, as adults, our lives are ours to do with exactly as we see fit. Our freedom is absolute, limited only by the physical laws of the universe. If I wanted to tell my wife, “Tough cookies, honey. I’m outta here!”, I could have done just that. That choice was available to me. Although I didn’t make this choice, recognizing it as an option helped me quell the little resentment towards her that had arisen in me. My self-coaching about this went something like, “Right now, I can stay or I can go. The choice is completely up to me. If I stay home, that’s on me. There’s no sense blaming her for my choice to stay here. Plus, I can totally understand why she doesn’t want to take Xavier to school and I’ll still be able to find a way to get everything done today. It’s okay that she wants me to help out in this way.” The key was for me to fully understand that my wife wasn’t refusing me permission for anything, because I’m an independent adult with free will, responsible for my own choices and actions.

The next time you catch yourself about to ask for permission for something, stop and try a different approach. Rather than (ever) asking, “Can I ______?” (which just gives someone power over you that, in reality, they don’t actually have), state your desire and inquire how this person feels about it. For instance, in that interaction with my wife, I might have said, “I’m considering leaving early today to get a jump on my day. How would you feel about that?” Then I could have weighed her feelings about this in my decision about what I wanted to do. By not asking for permission, I would have spared both of us a moment of unnecessary disconnect.


Another approach to take is to simply state that you have made a decision to take a certain action. This works when your mind is 100% made up about what you want to do, regardless of how someone feels about it. For example, instead of asking your employer if you can take the day off on Friday, tell her that you won’t be in and see what happens. Your employer’s response is likely to be something like, “Uh…. okay.” Why? Because you didn’t open this up to negotiation. You simply informed her what was happening. Worried about the consequences or fall-out from this decision of yours. Well, this is something for you to take into consideration prior to making your decision.

Permission, as I say often, is the key to happiness in life. But joy comes from the permission we give in life, not the permission we receive from others. Take responsibility for your own choices always, giving yourself this permission. It never helps to ask for permission. Permission is already yours. The question is what you want to do with it.