“Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility. For the person who is unwilling to grow up, the person who does not want to carry his own weight, this is a frightening prospect.” – Eleanor Roosevelt.
I hope everyone being affected by the cold, snowy weather is keeping safe today. I am lucky to just be getting a few bouts of snow, enough to have that childlike wonder and excitement, but not enough to have the adult fear of the consequences of the weather.
I have been getting back into reading recently and found myself finally picking up Irvin D. Yalom’s Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy. I have been thoroughly enjoying it and have found myself looking into his theories of existential psychotherapy. For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, ‘existential psychotherapy is a philosophical method of therapy that operates on the belief that inner conflict within a person is due to the individual’s confrontation with the “givens” of existence’ (Yalom 1980). According to Yalom, these “givens” are the inevitability of death, freedom and its attendant responsibility, existential isolation and meaninglessness.
That might all sound like complete gibberish to anyone who doesn’t have an interest in psychotherapy, but I wanted to talk about one aspect of it that I find particularly interesting. The fear of freedom and responsibility is something I think should be talked about more in society as many don’t realise that it is a fear that we all share. We may think we crave freedom, and on some level we do, but it is also a huge fear in our lives because of the responsibility that comes with it.
Have you ever noticed how often we start a sentence with ‘I have to’? I have to do the dishes, I have to go to work, I have to take the kids to school. These statements often end with ‘I have no choice’, but that is where we are wrong. We always have a choice. Yes, if we want money to pay bills we can go to work and earn money, but we don’t have to. We make that choice to go to work to earn money and pay our bills. We make the choice to find employment, to rent or buy a home, to have electricity and internet, to have children, to get married. These are all choices. Now you may say that you don’t have a choice, that if you don’t work you will become homeless and freeze to death. That is a possibility, but you are choosing the other option, the choice of not being homeless when you have the means to achieve an alternative, is still a choice.
We tell ourselves all the time that we don’t have a choice. ‘Oh I’d love to change jobs but I have to put a roof over my kids head so I can’t, I don’t have a choice’. ‘I want to leave my husband but I have no money so I don’t have a choice, I have to stay with him’. ‘I want to move to America but I can’t leave my parents so I have no other choice but to stay’. We all say that the choice, the freedom to choose is out of our own control but it’s not. We shift this responsibility to someone else, or even to the universe itself, because we are afraid of the responsibility for our own lives, our own choices. We want freedom but we are afraid of it because with freedom comes the realisation that we are responsible for our own lives, no one else. No one is forcing us to make the choices we make but we are too afraid to acknowledge this.
It is a very tough thing to accept, this responsibility for ourselves. We love to blame other people for our circumstances, to shift the responsibility so we feel that it isn’t our fault. You may argue that there are some people who have their choices taken away. You may say for example, what about people who are born into a society that will kill them for being gay? They have no choice but to hide their true selves for fear of their lives. Though that is indeed a cruel and horrible situation, that person still has choices. They can choose to be open about their sexuality and face the consequence, in this case death. They can choose to hide their sexuality and conform to the social norm to avoid death. In many tough and horrendous situations the options are often not good, but they are still options. The choices are still there and the only person who can make that choice for us is us. We fight against this fact of life, against the responsibility for ourselves, to soothe our anxiety over our responsibility for our circumstances.
No one, not even Yalom himself, can truly and fully accept this fact 100% of the time. It is in our nature to deny it, but taking responsibility for the choices we have made and accepting that our circumstances have come from those choices, can be very healing. We all make mistakes, we may think that the choices we have made in the past were not the right ones, but we made them and here we are.
Accepting our freedom does not mean judging ourselves or critizising ourselves, it means accepting ourselves and our past choices, the good ones and the bad ones. It means accepting where we are now and trying our best to take responsibility for ourselves going forward. It is a difficult thing to do but I think we would all gain a lot by trying it. The only person that can make me happy is me. The only person that can make you happy is you. There is freedom in that responsibility, we just have to choose to accept it.
I hope that wasn’t too deep and head wrecking for you all! Let me know what you think of this topic, I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts on it!
Enjoy making snowmen and drinking hot chocolate in the snow!