ACA Blog

Joan Phillips
Jul 09, 2010

Permission Granted

I like the concept of permission, as it flows from some sense that there are rules and guidelines to be followed and in life seeking permission is generally a good thing. “May I help you?” is even a small lesson in seeking and giving permission and may be the crux of the therapeutic contract. Clients grant us permission to help them. So can we then really “give permission” to clients to experience feelings or express grief or anger, etc.?

The term “permission” occurs frequently in the context of a technique of sorts to allow, encourage, and support a client in moving forward or expressing something they may feel was taboo or not allowed. The counseling atmosphere of safety and privacy itself may create a climate of “permission”. What if a client really does not want to explore an area we feel would be beneficial? Do we forge ahead for the good of the client- using techniques more aptly described as confrontation or reducing denial? Or do we always get and give permission in this process we call counseling?

I know I am raising more questions than answering- because this is one of those areas without clear answers. Permission though is a rich term- and one that can guide. I often feel in working with parents that they need to get my permission somehow to parent in the ways they intuitively are drawn to, but have no experience to support. For example, a parent who themselves was raised with little or no nurturance or positive feedback may at times want to be more positive, but almost feel like they are betraying some family tradition if they are too “soft” in their thinking or acting. They lose sight of the outcome desired (their child’s learning or modification of their behavior) and instead focus on what they themselves are doing- like grounding a child repeatedly and for long periods of time.

Permission seems needed for flexibility, listening, re-considering or even apologizing for one’s behavior. “Doesn’t’ it make me seem ineffective if I apologize to my child?” No, it helps the child see you are reasonable and human and expect the same from them. Permission also seems to come up when clients are trying to set boundaries with toxic portions of their family or workplace. Questions like “is it okay that I don’t want to spend the holiday with my drinking and drug-using family?” actually come up, because of those “rules” we all know about how important it is to spend family time. Who wrote this book of invisible rules you are following?

That’s my question to myself and to clients at times. These invisible rules are often what create the need for permission in the first place. The rule that we don’t show our feelings (especially if we are a man). The rule that good mom’s don’t have harsh thoughts about their own children at times. The rule that wives and mothers take care of everyone’s feelings in the family. There are so many invisible rules that this is often a great place to start to understand the motivations and blockages surrounding change. But one of the most important things is: Permission is granted to re-write the book!

Joan Phillips is a counselor, art therapist, and marriage and family therapist. She maintains a private practice and teaches at the University of Oklahoma.

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