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It’s trampled by child abuse and many other things in children’s and adults’ lives. Here’s what it really means to be free, and how it brings happiness and well-being.

Freely Choosing, Not Controlled, In Any Way

Personal freedom may be the most important building block of well-being – especially for people who have been abused or exploited.

At the heart of personal freedom is this: the experience that you are freely choosing what to think, say and do – of your own freewill, not because someone else is coercing you in some way, and not because part of you is demanding or pushing you.

It’s about freely choosing what you think, say, and do.

Freedom is not being – or feeling – controlled or manipulated by anyone else or by some demanding part of yourself.

Exploitation or abuse of a child involves trampling a child’s capacities for such freedom, by force or by manipulation. It might have involved being gradually and systematically manipulated into believing that you ‘wanted’ or were ‘choosing’ to do sexual things that you really wouldn’t have freely chosen to do.

However it happened, in unwanted or abusive experiences the other(s) involved did not respect your freedom, but instead saw it as an obstacle to getting what they wanted – an obstacle to be overcome with manipulation, threats, or force. (See Sorting It Out for Yourself.)

When Freedom Is Supported

When we are freely choosing how we think, what we say, and what we do, we feel connected with ourselves and with life around us. We’re more likely to feel happy, confident, and energized – both by exercising our free will and by the experience of thinking, saying, or doing what we truly want to do.

In the same way, when people relate to us in ways that support our freedom, we feel great about being with them. We feel respected, connected, and energized.

Importantly, if someone respects and supports our freedom, that doesn’t mean they never challenge us, never tell us something we don’t want to hear, or never suggest we might consider seeing or doing things differently.

It’s all about how someone relates to us. We’ve all had the experience of someone who respectfully challenged us to find healthier paths to happiness while fully supporting our freedom to sort things out on our terms and make whatever changes we choose, at our own pace.

That’s the approach I strive for here on this website. I’m trying to give you information and tools for thinking through your unique situation, on your own terms. I’m trying to use language that doesn’t push you around and avoids labeling your experience in any way that feels like I’m imposing something on you. I strive to respect your freedom.

And that’s the most effective and helpful way of relating that you need – and deserve – from any therapist or other person attempting to help you. Sure, some people may have expert knowledge, experience and skills, but for you to benefit the most from what they have to offer, it must be shared in ways that respect your freedom.

Relationships with people who respect your freedom, who respect your capacities to be competent and effective in the world, and who respect your values, are the most fulfilling and healing relationships you can have.

When Freedom is Undermined or Missing

We all know how it feels when someone (e.g., a boss, parent, or other authority figure) tries to force or threaten us into doing something we don’t want to do.

We all know how being pushed by someone else to do something, even if we would have chosen to do it on our own, can ruin our enjoyment of it, or even make us not want to do it anymore.

True helpers respect & support your freedom.

In such situations, it’s our basic human need for freedom that’s being undermined, and it definitely does not feel good. Even in mild or subtle forms, we sense such undermining and react instinctively.

Such undermining of our freedom not only includes being pushed by threats. It includes being pushed by rewards too – if those rewards are imposed from the outside rather than the rewards that naturally come from doing something positive.

For example, consider rewarding children for reading books with a food they love, like pizza. The kids may read more books in the short term. But pizza really has nothing to do with reading. Expecting the pizza reward focuses children’s attention away from the natural excitement and joys of reading and gets them to see reading as a way to get something else. As many teachers have learned the hard way, such unnatural (and manipulative) rewards actually make children less likely to read in the future, and less likely to enjoy the pleasures that reading naturally brings.

In the same way, we all know how it feels to do something because we are ‘supposed to’ or feel like we ‘have to’ – even if no one else is saying so. In cases like this, the pushing or demanding is coming from a voice in our head, or some sort of craving. Again, we don’t feel free, and that runs counter to our fundamental human need for freedom.

That’s why so many New Year’s resolutions don’t go very far. It’s why so many plans to diet, exercise or quit a bad habit go down the drain. Even if it’s just a voice in our own head saying ‘you should,’ we don’t feel free. So eventually we either (a) rebel against that demand or (b) keep complying with it but feel resentful or lifeless inside.

And however we feel about doing things for rewards or because other controls are being imposed on us, lots of research has shown that if we’re doing something for such reasons, we learn less about what we’re doing and perform worse than if we’re doing it of our own freewill. Many studies have shown that when children and adults do something for a reward or because they’re going to be tested on it later – whether it’s reading, making art, or performing some job-related task – they learn less and perform worse than those who do the same thing because they want to, for their own reasons.

In fact, when it comes to anything that requires thoughtfulness, reflection, creativity, concentration, or intuition, we do worse when we’re motivated by such freedom-robbing controls. (For more on this, see Further Reading, below.)

Rebellion vs. Compliance

These are the two basic responses to the feeling of being controlled. Neither rebellion nor compliance is good for your body or your brain.

When you’re rebelling, it may feel like you’re acting freely, but really you’re just responding to what you’re rebelling against. As long as you’re acting based on what – or who – you are against more than what you are for, you’re giving power to what you’re rebelling against and still being controlled to some extent.

Also, we’ve all seen people rebel by conforming. That is, they think they’re acting on their own and not going along with what’s being imposed on them, but actually they’re caught up in conforming to the latest fashion, or something else, as the result of peer pressure.

Consider the teenager who refuses to do homework or even go to school because he’s so angry that adults are telling him he has to (anger that’s rooted in the feeling that his freedom is being trampled). Consider the young person who smokes cigarettes, at least at first, not because he or she likes how it tastes or feels, but because friends are doing it and it’s a way of saying ‘F you’ to adults.

When you’re free, you feel real, not fake.

In short, when people are motivated by rebellion, they’re not as free as they think they are.

Compliance usually isn’t what it seems either.

When people are complying, they haven’t really bought into what’s being imposed on them. It could be any kind of rule, or even an important value or moral principle. If it’s not followed out of free will and because it truly feels right inside, but instead from fear of punishment, shame, or other disapproval (even from a ‘voice’ inside our own head), then we have not actually made the rule or value our own. We are not freely choosing to do what we’re doing, however good and ‘right’ it is. And we will suffer the consequences of having been dominated into such compliance, even if it has been disguised as ‘learning.’

Many people with histories of abuse in childhood are ‘doing everything right’ on the outside, but feel like total fakes on the inside. Even if other people see them as good and moral, they don’t really feel like it’s true. Usually this isn’t just because sexual, physical and/or emotional abuse has given them the message that they’re a ‘bad person’ who deserves such treatment (although that’s part of it).

The feeling of being fake, as if at any time people could see that we aren’t really how we appear, can also come from well-meaning but confused parents and teachers. That is, we may have learned to act in the ‘right ways’ by being manipulated with rewards and punishments, not by being guided and supported to learn, for ourselves, how and why such values and ways of being are genuinely good. To truly feel good about ourselves, we need to experience our behavior as freely chosen – as truly our own.

Sadly, many people still think that children can be made into responsible and moral beings by rewards and punishments, or through guilt, shame or fear. In fact, children become moral beings despite adults treating them this way (which is probably how the adults were treated). Many children and teenagers have a hard time feeling genuinely good about their values and moral principles precisely because they feel that those values and principles have been forced on them, sometimes with doses of emotional and physical abuse.

The more we’re in situations where we’re either rebelling against, or complying with, people and forces that undermine our freedom, the less well-being, including confidence and joy in life, we’re going to experience.

That’s why children and adults who are continually without support for their freedom may become angry, depressed, or riddled with anxiety.

And that’s why children subjected to threats, punishments and even abuse by (confused) adults who are trying to teach them (in the ways they were taught) to be good people, will have a harder time growing into women and men who embrace and embody truly positive values and behaviors.

Abuse, Manipulation, and Freedom

Sexual exploitation or abuse includes being manipulated or forced into doing things you would not freely choose to do. But whether they manipulated or forced you, the person involved did not respect your rights to freedom and choice. They saw your capacity for freedom, your capacity to choose what to do or not to do as an obstacle to getting what they wanted – and they responded with manipulation, threats, or force. (See Sorting It Out for Yourself.)

Now let’s consider emotional abuse. It includes being psychologically ‘beaten down,’ with threats or other forms of manipulation, including shaming and guilt trips. “You’re a loser. You’re never gonna amount to anything!” “No wonder other kids don’t like you!” “What? You think you’re special?!”

Emotional abuse makes children feel terrible and causes them to have horrible internal images of themselves. But emotional abuse is more than that: It is an attack on the basic human need for freedom. It undermines freedom – even the sense that we deserve to make our own choices.

Being emotionally beaten down can lead to compliant thinking and behavior that crush our potential and dreams. It causes depression and a deadened feeling inside. We’ve all known other kids and people who gave off that defeated attitude. We’ve all known kids and people who have trouble standing up for themselves, or even knowing what they want. Maybe you’ve been there yourself. Maybe you still are.

Or maybe a childhood of compliance gave way to teenage years of extreme and self-destructive rebellion that still has a grip on you today.

Too Busy, Over-scheduled = Not Free, Not Happy, Unable to Heal

A common factor that undermines many people’s freedom is being too busy, simply having too little unscheduled or unpressured time. Whether or not you have been abused or exploited as a child, if you have a job or other significant responsibilities you are likely to have this problem.

Basically, our society is too busy and overly scheduled, not only at work but in our private lives. That’s definitely the case for many adults, especially those who have children and/or workaholic tendencies. But it’s increasingly true of many kids, too, who have much less ‘free time’ than kids did 20 years ago.

Freedom brings happiness, confidence & well-being.

Reflecting on your life, how often do you feel like you can’t keep up with all of your work and other responsibilities? The more you feel like you’re always behind and playing catch-up on things you have to do, the less free you feel. And that doesn’t feel good. It certainly doesn’t bring a sense of well-being.

Do you feel like there’s little room in your life for spontaneously changing your plans? Like you can never suddenly decide to give yourself a break for an hour, to relax or do whatever?

Again, the less opportunities you have to be spontaneous, or even just feel like you can’t be, because of a sense of obligation to ‘stay on track,’ the less free you’re going to feel. And the less freedom you experience, the less happy, confident, and connected with life you will be.

True, this feeling of confinement, this feeling that our freedom is limited, isn’t directly related to having been abused or used as a child (though many people like to ‘keep busy’ as a way of avoiding unwanted thoughts, feelings and memories including those related to painful past experiences). But it is a very real and powerful force in many people’s lives – one that, if not understood and countered, can make it very hard to find the time and space to heal, or even to feel that we have the freedom or ‘luxury’ of doing what’s necessary to find healing and happiness.

Healing Relationships Support Your Freedom

Finally, I want to repeat this key point: The most effective and helpful relationships are those that respect and promote your freedom. This is especially true of the people you turn to for support and help.

Yes, some people have expert knowledge, experience and skills. But for you to benefit the most from what they have to offer, it must be shared in ways that respect and promote your freedom.

Whether at work, at home, or when we’re seeking help with healing, relationships with people who respect our freedom, as well as our values and and our capacity to be competent and effective in the world, are the most healing – and fulfilling – relationships we can have.

You deserve such relationships in your life. Keep going until you find and benefit from them.

Further Reading: Science on Freedom and Well-Being

Edward Deci and Richard Ryan are psychologists who have done the most to prove that freedom is a basic human need.

Of course, we don’t need scientists to tell us that freedom is important. It’s recognized around the world as a central human right. But science can show things we might not expect about the importance of freedom in our personal and work lives. It can show the all-too-common ways that controlling rewards and punishments undermine the freedom of children and adults, and the consequences for their well-being.

Numerous studies by Deci, Ryan, and other researchers have proven the benefits of having one’s freedom supported and promoted, as well as the costs of being manipulated or dominated with rewards or punishments, and the costs of falling into the traps of rebellion and compliance.

Although they haven’t focused on how child abuse and exploitation undermine the development of healthy freedom, their work definitely sheds light on this issue.

See the Wikipedia entry on their ‘self-determination theory’ of human motivation and well-being, and Deci’s book for the general public, Why We Do What We Do. In the book Deci provides tons of evidence for the benefits – not only to general well-being but to learning, moral behavior, creativity, and productivity – that come when people in ‘one-up positions’ (e.g. parents, teachers, supervisors) respect, support and promote the freedom and competence of those over whom they have influence and power.