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Weekly Wellness Word: Freedom

Monthly Theme: Intimacy

This week’s word is Freedom

"Thou shalt not should on thyself." The cartoon looking up at me from the page of the book hit me like a ton of bricks. It was one of those books that helps you better understand yourself, your strengths and pitfalls. Apparently shoulding on oneself is a pitfall for people like me. It is a tyranny of other people's expectations over my life. I am controlled by a sense of obligation to others. I live in a constant state of regret that I have not been able to meet those obligations because there are too many people with too many expectations. There is no way to fulfill them all.

I could see the problem. No one knows my life like I do. No one else fully understands my To Do list other than me. It makes no sense to give another person control over how I spend my time and energy since no one else can see the whole picture. It is a violation of my personal and individual freedom to do so.

So how do you get rid of shoulds. Start by replacing it with the word could. Suddenly obligations give way to options. You have choices. You can choose to say yes or no to the requests, suggestions and expectations of others. Next, replace it with the word want. What do you want to do? What are your preferences? There's a powerful thought. In what way do your values and dreams speak to this decision?

Yet shoulds are a bit more complex than just saying yes or no. There are relationships involved here. Weighing a request, a choice, a preference, includes weighing the importance of the person who is asking something of you. You must consider what saying no might mean to your relationship. Will it build or diminish trust and closeness with that person? What does your heart say? Is there a way to say yes to that person with your heart and say no to their request for your time and energy? Or visa versa. Can you say yes with your time and energy for a task that needs to be accomplished without giving your heart to it?

This week notice the shoulds of your life. Who are they coming from? Mentally note whether you acquiesce to the requests of one person more than others. If so, what is it about that relationship that gives it a higher priority in your life? Reflect on how much freedom you experience in being able to say no. What situations precipitate a greater freedom to say no - limits of your time and energy, violation of your values, misalignment with your priorities or dreams? Consider keeping track of when you give in to a should this week. Maybe make checkmarks in your day planner. Note which shoulds you responded to in freedom and which ones you gave into out of a sense of obligation. Notice whether you feel free to say no when you wanted or needed to do so.

Quote of the Week

"There are two kinds of freedom. Freedom from (negative freedom) and freedom to (positive freedom)...

Negative freedom is freedom from external interference that prevents you from doing what you want, when you want to do it. These restrictions are placed on you by other people. The more negative freedom you have, the less obstacles that exist between you and doing whatever it is you desire. Charles Taylor calls negative freedom an 'opportunity concept' of freedom because it gives you access to a range of desirable opportunities, regardless of whether you decide to take advantage of those opportunities or not. The concept of negative freedom can be summed up as: 'I am a slave to no man.'

Positive freedom is the freedom to control and direct one’s own life. Positive freedom allows a man to consciously make his own choices, create his own purpose, and shape his own life; he acts instead of being acted upon. Taylor calls positive freedom an “exercise concept” of freedom because it involves discriminating between all possible opportunities, and exercising the options that are most in line with your real will and what you truly want in life. The concept of positive freedom can be summed up as: 'I am my own master.'

If the difference between negative and positive freedom still seems fuzzy in your head, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy offers an excellent analogy to explain the nature of the two concepts. Imagine a man driving a car. He comes to a crossroads. There is no traffic light, no police roadblock, and no other cars; the driver is free to turn whichever way he wants to, and he decides to turn left. This is negative freedom; the driver is free from restrictions which force him to go one way or the other. But what if the driver turned left because he needed to stop at a convenience store to get cigarettes, and he stopped even though it would mean missing an important appointment? It was his addiction that was really steering the car. This shows a lack of positive freedom; the driver lacked the freedom to do what he really wanted—to get to the appointment on time. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains:

'This story gives us two contrasting ways of thinking of liberty. On the one hand, one can think of liberty as the absence of obstacles external to the agent. You are free if no one is stopping you from doing whatever you might want to do. In the above story you appear, in this sense, to be free. On the other hand, one can think of liberty as the presence of control on the part of the agent. To be free, you must be self-determined, which is to say that you must be able to control your own destiny in your own interests. In the above story you appear, in this sense, to be unfree: you are not in control of your own destiny, as you are failing to control a passion that you yourself would rather be rid of and which is preventing you from realizing what you recognize to be your true interests. One might say that while on the first view liberty is simply about how many doors are open to the agent, on the second view it is more about going through the right doors for the right reasons.'

At a certain point, you begin to realize that while an infinite number of opportunities are open to you, not every opportunity is equal in importance. You go from thinking, “I can do whatever I want!” to “What do I really want out of life?” You begin to seek for greater meaning and to discover your life’s purpose. You find a higher level of desires for your life.

As your mindset changes, you start to discriminate between all the options open to you, deciding that some are more significant than others—those that lead to the fulfillment of your higher desires. As you examine the different doors before you, you notice that those that front your lower desires all swing open freely, and lead into a single room, while the doors that lead to your higher desires open to a staircase that takes you up a level to another hallway with a new set of doors. You also realize that some of the doors to your higher desires are locked. These locks represent internal obstacles keeping you from attaining what you really want in life...

You realize you have plenty of negative freedom–you’re free from external restrictions–but you don’t have much positive freedom, the ability to overcome fear, ignorance, and bad habits and traits in order to become the man you want to be.

While people are no longer imposing external restrictions on you, you decide that in order to become the man you want to be, you will have to come up with your own rules for yourself and set your own limits. You willingly work on developing your self-control, self-discipline, and willpower. In so doing, you gain the ability to control your lower desires in order to fulfill your higher desires. For example, the driver in the story above quits smoking, so that his addiction no longer controls his decisions.

Philosophers like Kant would say that these self-imposed restrictions do not decrease your overall negative freedom, because you have created the laws yourself, of your own free will and choice, and no man can enslave himself. Your negative freedom can only be constrained by others, who coerce you to do things contrary to your will. By learning to control and harness your desires, you actually become more autonomous. You’re not only free from external restrictions, but you are no longer a slave to your passions. You not only have the freedom of standing in a hallway of an infinite number of doors, you also have the freedom to step through any of them. Self-mastery is the master key that opens all doors."

Next Step

For Helpful Tips for Saying No, check out this blog post from Tiny Buddha.

Further Information

For a deeper dive on knowing your limits, check out one of these featured articles on Psychology Today.

Have a GREAT week!

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