the bullsh*t of permission + the power principle




I went to hear Sir Ken Robinson give a talk at UCLA.

One of the things he mentions in his talk and new book (FINDING YOUR ELEMENT) is that

“the World Health Organization predicts that by 2020 depression will be the second leading cause of death in the world, affecting thirty percent of all adults….By some estimates, ‘clinical depression is ten times more likely to torment us than it did a century ago.’”

The antidote to this, according to Sir Ken? Find that sweetspot where your passion and talent come together and create real value in the world.

We have so many different words for it. Your purpose. Your Element. Your dharma. Your raison d’etre. Your soulprint. Your north star. Your voice. Your onlyness. It is, I think, variations on the same thing: an organizing principle for your life that gives it shape, energy and direction. It draws from the multiple levels of your personality, expresses itself through your gifts and hooks you up to a much bigger picture.

Being in your Element brings you joy, which Peggy Tabor Millin points out

“….is not an emotion but a physical sensation of wholeness.”

Instead of looking for a person to complete us – a dubious proposition at best – we should be hunting high and low for our Element. click to tweet

Most of us, according to Sir Ken, give up too soon. We sell ourselves short. We settle for too little. We live in a consumer culture that trains us to look for happiness in all the wrong places: a perfect body, a big white wedding, a midnight-blue Porsche and a house in the hills.

But I also blame the Power Principle.

The Power Principle is what writer and Jungian analyst Marion Woodman renamed patriarchy after too many people assumed that patriarchy automatically means men. It does not. Patriarchy refers to a system – supported and perpetuated by people of both genders – based on a power hierarchy that privileges so-called masculine values and attitudes over feminine values and attitudes. In order for someone to be in the up position, someone else has to be in the down position.

This means we’re constantly comparing ourselves to others.

This means we’re relying on external sources of validation to guide us.

There’s a lot of talk in the personal development world about asking for permission. In order for a woman – the person is usually understood to be a woman – to fulfill her destiny and reach for her potential, she has to give herself permission. Or understand that the universe has already given her permission. Or just quit waiting for permission in the first place.

Maybe what she – or he – really has to do is to reject the whole idea that permission exists.

When I was a teenager I fell in love with the fantasy movie LABYRINTH, starring David Bowie (Jareth) and a young Jennifer Connelly (Sarah). I was disappointed when Sarah spurns Jareth, the Goblin King, at the end of the movie. This was partly because Bowie injected the character with a wistful, yearning quality that I found romantic and hot. I was also caught up in my own version of the fairy-tale fantasy that Sarah learns to call out as bullshit.

In the final confrontation between them, Jareth tries to seduce Sarah into staying with him as his Queen. “Look, Sarah,” he tells her, “look what I’m offering. Your dreams!”

He goes on:

“….I ask for so little. Just let me rule you, and you can have everything that you want. Just fear me, love me, do as I say, and I will be your slave.”

But Sarah recognizes that, like any master narcissist, Jareth is working with smoke and mirrors. What he’s offering isn’t love. He’ll make her Queen (“you can have everything that you want”) for the price of her freedom (“do as I say”).

She would constantly have to ask for permission.

Instead, she realizes, You have no power over me, with a note of wonder in her voice. The reality that Jareth has created comes apart like a house of cards.

Watching this movie as an adult, I realized how the fairy-tale fantasy that still permeates this culture is not just about some rich dude on a white Mercedes galloping in to sweep you off your feet, whisk you away to a castle (in the hills, with a pool and a view) and love you happily ever after (once you’ve signed the prenup). It’s about the unspoken agreement that so many of us make with the Power Principle without even realizing we’re doing it. If we’re good, and perfect, and hot, and productive, and pleasing, if we fulfill the criteria set out for our gender (“do as you’re told”), then patriarchy will reward us with our dreams. We’ll get the relationship, the shiny career, the adorable kids who never misbehave in restaurants, the flat abs and fabulous shoes and lifelong security. Bad things will happen to other people – and we’ll feel sorry for them and tell them how strong they are – but not to us.

In return, all we have to do is keep checking in for permission, approval, validation; for all the signs that we’re playing the game exactly right.

Until, of course, something goes wrong, and the illusions are shown up for what they are. And we realize we no longer know who we are, or where our passions lie, or what we love. We traded our soul for an elaborate card trick.

But if we can say from the beginning, You have no power over me…..

Finding your Element requires you to tune out the worldly chorus and listen, instead, for the voice of your deep self, that nonverbal intelligence constantly communicating through dreams, images, physical symptoms and gut feelings.

It’s the voice of artists, rebels, lovers and visionaries.

Finding your Element is like falling in love, and love has a way of cutting across boundaries, ignoring taboos and challenging authority. Speak with that voice, and the world might suddenly be asking you for permission.

photo credit: orkomedix via photopin cc

May 25, 2013

13 comments · Add Yours

Ah! How timely! I just wrote about this very topic in my blog when I wondered to myself if I was allowed to be as ecstatic about life as I have been lately.. I got so used to being anxious and depressed, especially in my last relationship which lasted far too long and only really served to drag me down (for years) instead of lifting me higher..

So fascinating to hear that you’ve heard this topic discussed elsewhere a lot recently! I’ve noticed it too. I feel like I’m in this vortex of awesome. I swear, I feel so in tune with everything around me as of late..

And every time I read your writing, I find myself fervently shaking my head, saying YES in agreement!

Thank you. I’m glad you share so much of yourself and your thoughts. I love everything you have to say :)



Nice post! And I love that movie too by the way!

It is a bit disconcerting, though, when you first wake up from that dream and finally start living in our element. The difficulty is that in the beginning a person gets very little validation or reinforcement that they are doing the right thing, leaving the fresh pink skin from the newly torn scab exposed and somewhat unprotected. The people around them often actually DISCOURAGE the new behavior, others just appear to be indifferent about it, so the realization of this new vision becomes very dependent on how well the person can continue something new based on their internal energy alone.

Quite a daunting task for many! I know I am finding it quite a challenge at the moment!


Love this. Thanks so much for sharing!


Hi Justine, Tried to reply on twitter but it’s not possible. Did you turn reply off somehow?

Any way, I agree with your post. We are trained to give away our power to others. I see it all the time. Adults fooled into doing stuff they don’t want to do because they think they have to. Go to a Town Meeting in any town and you’ll see folks voting for things they don’t understand that are detrimental to them.

All part of the mind training from birth to be a dutiful consumer and obedient little boy and girl unable to question the status quo even as an adult. That is the source of depression, which is an epidemic.

And the only drug you need to treat it, is the drug called “standing up for yourself.”

Love it!


Holy crap, you write well. Such a pleasure to read.
Don’t agree that ‘patriarchy’ doesn’t automatically mean men, though, even if women help perpetuate this male-defined and male-dominated power structure and try to play into certain roles previously developed around men. A matriarchy is a power hierarchy, too, where for grand-aunt Lynette to maintain her power center she puts her younger sisters and cousins in the down position.
History has seen patriarchy develop through a myriad of slices. India and China display patriarchy, evolved along a different path from the Vatican and various European, East European and American versions.
Does one automatically demean men, now, with reference to patriarchal power hierarchies that might be gender-neutral?
Unlike mean men, are nice men feminists who promote matriarchy, help women oppose patriarchy, or help both genders escape all power hierarchies?


I should have been more specific. Patriarchy is a power structure that privileges so-called masculine attitudes and values — whether they’re expressed through a man or a woman — and regards anything feminine as lesser. And matriarchy is of course the reverse, which is why I don’t support that idea either. To attack patriarchy is *not* to attack men, as individuals or as a group, which is why Marion Woodman wanted to stress that distinction. Patriarchy damages and isolates men as well as women — but so long as each gender is competing to see who hurts *more* (or is more deluded), instead of coming together in a spirit of equality and mutual respect to share their stories (and their pain), the battle of the sexes will rage on. As far as “nice” is concerned — fuck ‘nice’, which tends to be more about manipulation than anything else (guys who pretend to be sensitive feminists in order to get laid, for example). Give me kindness, respect, and honesty. Once you speak honestly — give voice to what you *really* know, as opposed to what you’re *supposed* to know — you open the door to true intimacy, which by its nature can’t exist when power is unevenly distributed and the people on the lower end have to think about things like punishment and consequence. Love and intimacy subvert the power structure (and make real democracy, where everyone has a voice, and everyone gets heard, possible). But that requires vulnerability and risk — speaking out and speaking up — which is why a lot of people, of both genders, won’t do it.


“Love and intimacy subvert the power structure (and make real democracy, where everyone has a voice, and everyone gets heard, possible). But that requires vulnerability and risk — speaking out and speaking up — which is why a lot of people, of both genders, won’t do it.” Brilliant. As is the whole piece, as usual! Lucky us. Going to re-post my comment from FB ‘cuz now that I’ve read, I still think is relevant. Thanks, Justine!


As always, eloquent and provocative, Justine Musk! I think permission is essential. It’s internal. It’s about stretching beyond the confines of our limited beliefs, and constricted stories. Personally, I received permission from Mary Gaitskill and her book Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill early on in my writing career — to both tunnel down into psychosexual mysteries, with honesty and bluntness — as well as craft it into shapely tales. I read, and felt the permission on a cellular level. It released a mode of freedom of expression and exploration, fused with art. So I think, just like in writing, it is about parsing the definition of the word — splitting off the personal mythologies, associations and nuances — then clarifying the stance. The point of view. For me, each layer peeled back is a permission, and inextricably linked to heart. Lion’s heart. In the journey toward knowing thyself, so we can be better known and connected and vital in the world.


Robert Coles is (was?) a psychologist and writer I always admired. He took a team of colleagues with him to El Salvador and studied the street children there, the ones thrown away and left to live on their own. Mostly boys. They banded together and sold their bodies, knowing 15 was the outside edge of their life expectancy. Coles and his team found no signs of depression in any of these kids, yet suicide was pandemic amongst American youth. Perhaps those street children were spared the depression and suicide because they lived outside any concept of permission or expectation. It’s baffling, and it seems escape is a measure more extreme than we realize. It becomes a deeply ingrained habit we obey without thought. My hope is that this latest move by Abercrombie and Fitch will be the first flutter of an awakening eye, something so outrageous we start thinking about paying to wear the advertising for other people’s brand, and from there we stand back and ask what our own unique brand is and why we hide it. It’s a nice dream.


Ah, Beautiful. This is tremendous. I find myself using the word tremendous a lot lately, and maybe it is because I keep finding larger than life ideas to throw it towards. I love this post. Since I quit my job to come home and farm and play with my kids, and make very little money, but live off our land… I am so much happier. I keep seeing articles about how the 8 hour work day doesn’t create anything, that corporations know 8 hours doesn’t get your best, but what it does is keep you trapped, being too tired to do anything else but be a consumer, which corporations need to exist. And I feel free of that treadmill and oh so blessed. You are a delicious writer. Thank you for so eloquently putting your thoughts out here for us to find!


I fucking love this Justine. I look forward to the day when I can (hopefully) write as eloquently as you. The permission thing has always driven me crazy because I grew up with a control freak narcissistic dad who married my mom precisely because she lives in a world where nothing happens without a man’s permission first. However I totally agree that patriarchy isn’t about gender, but my specific family experience made me hate the idea of having to ask permission for anything. In fact, I named my business Republic of Freedom because of it. It’s such a waste spending a single day of your life living by a storyline, benchmarking yourself against anything, requiring validation from others, etc. In my view, permission only exists because we allow it to. It’s the story people tell themselves. Time to upset that applecart on a larger scale. The challenge is, it’s 100% an inside job.


This so beautifully speaks to my brand and my mission in the world. Thanks for writing such a poignant post!


I’m a big Sir Ken Robinson follower for my profession. I absolutely love how you took his teachings and applied them to these self-help principles. I never thought of it quite in this way of Patriarchy, but your application completely struck a chord with me. Thank you for that!


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