“My role is to offer people permission: to be catered to individually, to treat themselves to something beautiful, to be important, to feel better.”
— Betty Halbreich “I’ll Drink to That: A Life in Style, with a Twist“
Ms. Halbreich is head of the Solutions department at Bergdorf Goodman in NYC, where she helps women express their personal style through direct consultation. Her book is a glimpse into her life and a window into how she enters the lives of women as they transform to help also transform their appearance. They need external change for so many reasons that are expressions of the phases of a woman’s life, reminding us how the outside just reflects the inside rather than replacing it.
She deals with mostly rich and powerful women, women who can afford to shop at Bergdorfs. Even these women crave the permission she gives them, wanting to trust her expert eye and deep knowledge. I am sure that most readers of her book will imagine a the luxury of having a relationship with her, imagine how wonderful it would be to have that kind of permission delivered on a regular basis.
In the world, though, waiting for permission is just a crippling mistake. No one can give permission for the choices that you have not yet manifest. They can’t imagine the possibilities like you can, can’t see how your choices will be shaped and polished by the process of becoming.
They can’t even give you permission to be who you are in front of them because most of the time, their own vision and fears tint their perception of you. If they have to sign off, to give permission, then they want changes to make you more like their vision of you, more in line with their expectations of the right way to do things.
How many of us while looking for affirmation are really looking for permission to be beautiful, important, better? Can anyone actually give us that permission, or do we just have to do it for ourselves?
I was writing about trans for about a decade when I wrote a 1994 speech for Holly Boswell that I really needed to hear her give. I needed to hear her give permission, permission to be transgender beyond binaries, permission to shine, permission to be free, permission to be happy.
Holly was committed to The Transgender Alternative in the face of binary revering crossdressing and transsexualism, so I looked to people like her and the amazing Kate Bornstein for permission. In fact, I offered a fantasy of Kate doing baptisms at Coney Island, ritual permission to be reborn into our own queer and shimmering nature.
At a local TDOR event, a gender soft person came up to me after, wide eyed and kind of lost. I could see what they needed, though I could only give a bit of it: permission. They wanted permission from me to break lose of the current them, still connected to a support system that held to the conventional, and find a new possibility, a new invocation.
I understand this urge just like any woman who visits Ms. Halbreich looking for permission, looking for the affirmation to go beyond habits & conventions and embrace the new. Even if my head knows that no one can give me permission to be myself, knows that my creator gave me that permission when I entered this world, my tender and feminine heart still craves it.
So much of my caring for other people is about reminding them of the connections threaded through their life, connections that reveal they already have the ability to transform, to create the new and the beautiful. Supporting their successes rather than the failures their ego mind often jumps to is supporting their possibilities, their ability to become new and better in the world. Affirming their power is reminding them that they have the permission to try, to fail, to transcend, to blossom.
So many communities seem set up to deny permission to others, to make them jump through hoops that are too small for their heart. Permission is only given to choices that fit the group think, not to choices that develop and grow the individual.
For parents, learning to give permission to children to try the bold and the innovative is often a very hard thing, but it is the key to creating families that value growth over compliance, families that create better for the next generation. Saying “Yes!” to children even when our own fears flare up is not easy, but it is the only way to support them in being the very best that they can be.
Without permission to try, even though failure is possible, we don’t have permission to go beyond our current level of skills and comfort, don’t have permission to find out just how high we can soar. Isn’t that one of the key roles of a “life coach,” repeatedly giving permission to be bigger, bolder, more audacious and more powerful?
The desire for permission is wired deeply into us, as Ms. Halbreich notes. We need to be tame, part of the group, well seen and affirmed. For me, who missed that process as a child for many reasons, that need is still there in a profound way that isn’t obvious to those who see my maturity and boldness.
Waiting for permission, though, is a dead end, as I also know. We need to be wild, our own unique self, authentic and creative. I know how to take permission for myself, though only in my own hermetic life. I don’t feel the same permission to boldly be me in the wider world, in “polite society.”
I was taught that the private realm needed no permission, but the public realm did. Is there any wonder why transpeople work so hard to try and pass in the world on the permission slips of others, or why they zealously guard permission they believe others are colonizing, like transsexuals who want to believe they paid for permission with their “blood sacrifice?”
I know, though, that no one is going to give me that permission to enter the world. They not only can’t imagine that I need it, they wouldn’t imagine that they have the authority to give that permission, because, after all, they are still looking to have permission to stand out more than they do.
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
— Marianne Williamson, “A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles,” Harper Collins, 1992. Chapter 7, Section 3 (Pg. 190-191).
I know that it is part of my work to give people permission to let their light shine in the world. I also know that no one can give me permission to enter the shared, normative world, removing my fears with their own authority. As a human, I have permission to be a part of society, just as my creator made me.
Still, I wish the process of shared permission, of an encouragement and affirmation round-robin was more available. I will say “Yes!” to you if you will say “Yes!” to me, encouraging moving beyond small to transcendent.
Well, either that or have enough money to get an appointment with Ms. Halbreich. I could use some amazing clothes that fit and flatter, but I could use the permission even more.