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The Basics - Freedom and Responsibility

This is the third in a collection that aims to briefly capture my perspectives on different elements of my approach to psychotherapy, generally keeping to under one typed page each. I have attempted to be as clear as possible in hopes that everyone can understand these topics well enough to give them a sense of how I think about and experience my work.


When I sat down to write out my perspectives of freedom as they relate to my being a therapist, I faced a dilemma almost immediately: can I appropriately discuss freedom on its own while being aware that (for me) this concept is always and necessarily tied to the idea of responsibility? While I certainly have much to say about the basics of freedom alone, after some consideration I decided that to write about only freedom would be rather irresponsible given my valuing of responsibility.

As I see it, freedom is a part of every person’s existence. In many cases we have freedom to choose our course in a given moment: whether we will get out of bed, watch one of a dozen television shows, have cereal or eggs or nothing for breakfast, agree or disagree with another person’s opinion (and to what degree), on and on freedom presents itself. In instances where we do not experience being able to choose a course of action, I argue that we very likely still have two freedoms: (1) of nonetheless choosing to do otherwise, and (2) how we want to respond to the situation.

This is where responsibility comes in: we are free to do as we choose, but every choice has consequences. We are responsible for our choices and choosing how to navigate the results. Existentially speaking, there is no real reason why someone with a sense of obligation to go to work because there are bills to pay could choose not to, unless there was some outside force that absolutely made them. It is a different and absurd position to say that this person could make such a decision without facing any consequences, though. This person may not make the money required to pay all their bills. They may be reprimanded at work for not showing up. I think it is important to keep in mind that consequences are not always detrimental, however. This person may also use the time not working to pursue other projects that are meaningful. In this way, sometimes our freedom is expanded as a result of responsibly navigating our existence.

We humans tend to struggle when we fail to stay aware of this connection and do not attend to the importance of balancing our freedom and responsibility. I believe this is especially true in the United States, where our societal values idolize freedom and offer hazy perspectives on responsibility. Accordingly, one of the ways I help my clients is to invite them to reconsider themselves and their predicaments through the lens of response-ability: what are they truly responsible for? How can they respond more authentically and, in kind, increase their freedom to be themselves? Are they responsibly valuing their freedom to choose? To advocate for themselves? To be treated with dignity? To love and to be loved?

There are, of course, some constraints on our freedom of choice. For instance, we do not choose where or when or how we are born into the world, nor into what kind of systems and structures exist. However, in my practice I tend to hear people overestimating how many parts of their lives fit into these kinds of constraining conditions. A collaborative, curious, and nonjudgmental exploration of these perspectives often illuminates newfound freedom for my clients to be who they are and to pursue who they want to become. Shifts at this level necessarily come with consequences, but most decide that they are worth navigating when compared to the consequences that they face in not embracing their freedom.


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