Freedom 2019

Several years ago, a client, Danielle*, told me the following at the first session of the new year:

I want to be free this year. I don’t want to have to rely on my friends anymore, I just keep getting let down. I’m capable and strong enough to rely on myself, I don’t need anyone. Last year I grew so much emotionally, this year I want to spread my wings. I need to get away from the negativity of the people in my life.

Part of human life development is the search for freedom. Children have a core need for autonomy – to separate themselves from parents. The tantruming toddler and the insubordinate tween are early examples of little people forging a sense of independence and identity. As adults, we cannot rely on our own parents to cater to our needs forever, so this search for freedom is healthy.

Sometimes however, some people spend their whole lives on a futile search for an extreme version of freedom. Danielle had been a timid child with overprotective parents. As an adult, she felt strong urges to be cared for, to be around others who would nurture her. She made friends easily but was often let down. She yearned to be free from her “need” for others and sporadically rebelled against this need – burning friendships, burning bridges. Her life would be simpler without friends. Then, crushing loneliness followed by the formation of new friendships, the cycle continuing.

Simon* was a former defence force member who had left the army a few years prior to seeing me:

My last two years in the army were spent dreaming of getting out. I hated being told what to do by the end. Resented being trapped, just wanted my freedom back. I planned to spend the first year out taking it easy on myself. But then the alcohol kicked in, and I’ve pretty much squandered the last few years.

Simon imagined that the routine and responsibilities of army life was stifling his freedom. He had lived under a violent, authoritarian father when growing up. Nevertheless, he initially thrived under the structure of the military. However, when he discharged, he deliberately pursued a life of “doing what he wanted” i.e. following his own impulses in the moment. His had no sense of routine and drank heavily, friends and family started to avoid him. Unfortunately for him he had swapped one master for a worse one. His new master was his own whims, which was the most destructive one yet.

Some things in life we have the capacity to change. An abusive relationship or a soul-crushing job are examples of things that we can and should aim to free ourselves from if possible. But, if we imagine that we can make ourselves happy by freeing ourselves from the need for human company, like Danielle, or from routine and responsibility, like Simon, we are to become disappointed. A certain reality underpins life. Denial of this leads to suffering and confusion.

There is hope. Acceptance of our lack of freedom in the face of reality eases suffering. Acceptance does not mean sitting passively on your hands. It means recognising those things that are unchangeable reality with an air of serenity. Stoic philosopher and former slave, Epictetus said: “Do not ask things to happen as you wish, but wish them to happen as they do, and your life will go smoothly”.

Danielle found solace in the reality that good people are important to her. Eventually, instead of running from relationships, she embraced her vulnerability and desire to be with others. She renewed contact with good people from her past. She practiced her interpersonal effectiveness skills so as not to burn bridges with people so readily. Simon connected with his values. As much as he had chaffed under army life, he recognised that health and stability were more important to him than the pursuit of pleasure and the easy life. Danielle and Simon had found the closest possible version of real freedom – acceptance of limitations of humanity and reality.



* All names and key details changed to protect anonymity

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