As we move toward the 4th of July, the concepts of freedom and independence shift into greater focus. In the United States we are grateful for and enjoy many freedoms, and there are other freedoms we tend to take for granted.
Beyond patriotic pride lies a more personal kind of freedom. In my time as a therapist, my clients talked about freedom from varying perspectives. We would discuss equality, fairness, kindness and accountability. We would talk about autonomy and what it means to govern the self. We looked at freedom by dividing it into sections: for, to, from and with.
Freedom for everyone
My client Wanda was the owner of a large, successful company. She was accustomed to getting things done and being treated with deference. When Wanda walked into a room, people scurried about, trying to please her. She had grown comfortable in her role as leader and had lost her sense of commonality with the people she came across in daily life.
Her stated reason for coming to therapy had to do with a series of estranged friendships. She maintained that she was mystified as to why the friendships had ended. As we explored the patterns in her personal relationships, it became clear that Wanda expected everyone in her life to “snap to” when she wanted something. We discovered together that her assumptions were faulty and her expectations were unrealistic. She was a savvy businessperson, so she came to understand the value of changing her attitude and approach.
It might sound basic to most people, but what Wanda needed was a refresher course in the concept that freedom is not just for her—it’s for everyone. Freedom doesn’t mean special treatment; it means equality, decency and fair treatment. As she experimented with being a more humane and fair employer, she found herself treating others with the same dignity she required for herself. Her work relationships and her friendships were better off for it.
Freedom to be yourself
My client Peter came in to his first session feeling nervous about telling me who he really was. On the outside, Peter was a fitness enthusiast, a man’s man and a friendly storyteller. His friends liked him, his co-workers admired him and his family adored him. Peter confessed to me that he was gay and closeted. He believed he would never marry because he was too ashamed to date anyone of the same sex. The religious and political tension in his community over same-sex marriage was enough to silence him in front of other people.
During session, we talked about his deep sense of truth—a knowledge that he would never marry a woman and that he wished he could allow himself to form a genuinely deep and lasting bond with another man. In the past, he had allowed the negative opinions and judgment of other people to prevent him from finding love. As therapy progressed, Peter began to value his own individuality and to gain a sense of pride in his unique contributions to his community.
The more he claimed the freedom to be himself, the more confident and integrated he became. There is such a thing as spiritual and personal freedom: a clear sense of self, a feeling of rightness, a set of beliefs or values that no government or anyone else can take away or deny. Peter claimed the right to be himself and felt freer and more honest as a result.
Freedom from cruelty
Adam came into therapy to work through the mistreatment he had suffered in childhood. He’d had a domineering, aggressive, verbally abusive mother. She belittled and controlled him, sometimes slapping him for the most minor misbehavior. Her harsh voice had become his own. He focused on his mistakes, sometimes even slapping his own face when he was alone and upset. He found himself criticizing his children, speaking viciously to them when he was merely annoyed.
We worked on a series of anger management strategies, including instituting the 45-minute rule (a time out) when he was angry with someone. Then we turned those anger management techniques around onto himself. I reminded him that it’s important to create an environment that is free from cruelty, not just toward others but toward himself. He couldn’t go back in time to change or control the cruelty he experienced as a child, but going forward he could banish meanness toward others and eliminate the self-punishing attitude he took toward himself.
We talked about grace and kindness as the antidote to cruelty and discussed how they both go a long way toward making a person feel free and independent and alive. The gentler Adam was with himself, the happier he felt. He began to treat his friends and family with compassion and warmth, and his relationships improved dramatically.
Freedom with responsibility
My client Alice joined group therapy in an effort to find equally effective but less expensive treatment. She was a person who bumped along through life, quitting jobs, squandering money, rushing recklessly into romantic entanglements and expecting that somehow life would just work out.
One of the strengths of group therapy is that it creates a safe place to discuss problems, while helping clients improve relationship skills by facing them with their effect on others. Alice, for instance, found herself gently confronted by another group member who didn’t appreciate her loose personal boundaries. Alice had shown up at the woman’s place of work, asked to borrow some money, and made the woman feel uncomfortable. The group talked about appropriate versus inappropriate boundaries and what it means to use our freedoms wisely in a way that doesn’t impinge on the freedoms of others.
Group therapy helped Alice to see her impact on the people around her, her self-sabotaging tendency not to plan ahead, and her refusal to take personal accountability for her actions. Alice liked to “live free,” but she had neglected to understand that freedom comes with responsibility, and responsibility includes a conscientious willingness to extend freedoms to others.
As we consider our patriotic freedoms and gratitude for all that we have on this Fourth of July, I hope we can spend some time thinking about the more subtle freedoms in our lives: those we have, those we lack, and those we have the power to extend toward others.