There are certain words in the English language that get tossed around so often and used so loosely, that it’s challenging to pin down a specific meaning for them.
One such word is “freedom”. Take a moment right now and try to come up with an adequate definition of freedom, or what freedom means to you. It will be useful throughout this post to revisit your own personal definition and see if it becomes more nuanced.
What Does It Mean To Be “Free”?
“Freedom (n.): To ask nothing. To expect nothing. To depend on nothing.”
- Ayn Rand
When most people think of the term freedom, they think of it politically, in the context of living in a “free” country, for example.
The libertarian conception of it is the most clear and relevant to us here: freedom is the ability to do whatever you want, so long as it doesn’t infringe on anyone else’s right to do whatever they want.
This is a great starting point to begin thinking about what it means to be free in a personal sense. Clearly, freedom has a lot to do with the degree of personal choice that you are capable of exercising.
Of course, the libertarian definition applies specifically to the political realm. But what if you have the political right to free speech, yet you are incapable of exercising it because of a limiting belief or limited resources?
In this case, we can see that personal freedom is more complex and involved than political freedom, with political freedom being a subset of personal freedom.
Even if no one is directly forcing you into something, you may be limited by personal constraints, external circumstances, and cultural and societal norms.
Increasing your personal freedom or independence, then, is a “multi-disciplinary” practice. It involves developing the capacity and resourcefulness necessary to do whatever it is you truly want to do.
Being your own person requires independence of thought, feeling, and action.
Primary Threats To Your Freedom And Independence
It’s easy to fool yourself into thinking that you act independently. But as I touched on in the previous section, becoming a more free and independent person is a complicated issue, and there are many road blocks that will get in your way.
In this section, we will cover some of the most insidious and common factors that hold you back.
The Need To Play A “Social Role”
In public, it is very common to behave in a way that you never would alone. That is because you feel the need to adhere to a particular role in that context.
Consider the doctor who feels obligated to drive a nice car as a status symbol. His identification with his job creates a role that he “needs” to play, and then imposes a severe restraint or condition upon him.
This can be an issue with all customs and traditions, from things as complex as religion to traditions as innocuous as “going out to lunch with so-and-so every Wednesday”.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that traditions are always bad. Far from it. But they can have unintended side effects regarding your ability to make decisions and act on them independently.
These social roles can be very hard to identify and break, so you will need to be more mindful and pay attention in order to overcome their negative influence on you.
Guilt And Shame
The next big threat to your autonomy is the emotional conditioning that society uses to regulate behavior. Primarily, this means the emotions of guilt and shame.
First, some definitions. Guilt is the feeling of having done something “wrong” which arises from your own actions (even if that action was only a thought). Shame is when you are conscious of and disappointed by something about yourself. The two emotions overlap heavily, and the difference can be summed up as feeling bad about what you did vs. feeling bad about who you are.
These two emotions serve the social function of regulating behavior and keeping people “in line”, for better or for worse.
Consider the child who pulls his pants down in public and gets yelled at by his parents. The parents have made the child feel guilty for having taken off his clothes, and perhaps even ashamed of his body. Whether you think this is a good thing or a bad thing isn’t the point; rather, I just want to bring to your attention how deep-seated this conditioning can be.
No matter how hard you try, you will be hard-pressed to completely banish these two emotions from your life. That’s okay.
The important thing is to recognize when your behavior has been conditioned by them so you can analyze your situation more rationally. If you can step back and realize that you are acting in a particular way due to guilt or shame, you have done a huge part in freeing yourself from their influence.
Lack Of Self-Confidence Or A Need To “Prove” Yourself
Most people are strongly influenced by a desire for external validation. In an attempt to win the approval of others, many will behave in ways uncharacteristic of their true nature, or even totally counter to it.
A good example of this is the guy who changes his opinion about something in order to impress a girl. She says she loves sushi, so he says he loves sushi too, even if he isn’t a huge fan.
In order to overcome this, you need to practice radical self-acceptance. Only when you are comfortable in your own skin can you let go of this need for validation, stop trying to prove yourself to others, and behave congruently with your own values.
Irrationality And Emotional Outbursts
As much as many of us may strive to be rational beings, an unavoidable fact of our humanity is that we have emotions.
Emotions, of course, are not a bad thing. They are what make the human experience interesting! That being said, emotions truly have a way of clouding our judgment on important matters, and causing us to act in ways we wouldn’t otherwise.
A free and independent person still listens to their emotions. They provide a valuable feedback mechanism that shouldn’t be ignored.
But people are highly suggestible and very easy to manipulate when experiencing strong emotions. When you are in a highly emotional state, listen to how you feel. But don’t go making any rash decisions; save those for a time when you are more level-headed.
Dwelling On The Past And Worrying About The Future
It’s perfectly normal, natural, and healthy to try to learn from the past and plan for the future. Moderate amounts of time for both can make you more efficient and effective, and reduce the number of mistakes you will make in multiple areas of your life.
However, it is very easy to get caught in the trap of spending far too much time outside of the present moment.
If you obsess over something that has happened already, you give that experience a disproportionate amount of weight in your mind. The same is true about worrying about the future too much; some event that you have limited control over has taken serious control of you.
The only actions that you have total control over are the ones that you take right now. What’s done is done, and what will come is uncertain. It is worthwhile to prepare for this uncertainty, as long as you know that you can never fully eliminate the risks of life. To be free, you need your focus to be on those things which you do have control over.
Procrastination, Or Not Following Through On Your Decisions
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
- Viktor Frankl
Oftentimes, we are emotionally and intellectually aware of what it is we want in our lives, and yet we delay action on it.
A very common example would be the guy who knows he needs to start going to the gym, but can’t bring himself to put on a pair of shorts. He’s made the decision to go, but procrastinates on the most important part: following through.
There is a very wide disconnect between knowing what you want to do and actually doing it. But to be truly free, you need to be free not just in thought and feeling, but also action.
Even worse, when your actions are out of alignment with your values and desires, your confidence takes a beating. Lower confidence makes you even less likely to take action in the future, and can spiral downwards if you aren’t careful. A very dangerous threat to your freedom indeed.
“The proverb warns that, ‘You should not bite the hand that feeds you.’ But maybe you should, if it prevents you from feeding yourself.”
- Thomas Szasz
Whether you are addicted to drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, food, receiving pity from others, video games, Facebook, or an emotion, having an addiction works against your freedom and independence.
Imagine something as simple and common as a caffeine addiction. You may relate to the feeling of “needing” a cup of coffee in order to function at all in the morning, and possibly another two or three throughout the day. And if you don’t get your coffee? You get headaches, you are exhausted, and you are cranky.
Note: If you are trying to break your caffeine addiction, check out that post. Been there, done that.
If you are addicted to something, you are dependent on it in order to feel normal. Your behavior becomes warped around the addiction so that you can get your fix, even if it’s not what you really want to do or what’s in your best interest.
By definition, the search for independence requires you to reduce your dependencies. You must be able to turn things down or say no to anything that isn’t what you really want or aligns with your values.
This is probably a good place for me to bring up material possessions. We all have “stuff” that we love and never want to see being thrown away. But too much attachment to any object, experience, or outcome is detrimental to your independence and provides an additional burden upon you.
“We need to help people to discover the true meaning of love. Love is generally confused with dependence. Those of us who have grown in true love know that we can love only in proportion to our capacity for independence.”
- Fred Rogers
Any relationship (significant other, friend, or family) where the other person involved tends to make you feel worse most of the time when you interact with them is a toxic relationship.
These people will bring you down, make you feel used, and generally take advantage of you. Despite this, an emotional maelstrom combined with inertia keeps you bound to them.
Almost everyone is actively engaged in at least one toxic relationship at a given time, even if it may be hard to spot. But then there are some people who are drawn to this kind of relationship (due to some negative experience as a child, perhaps) and must learn to end them and deal with any underlying issues that are causing their addiction to toxic people.
Breaking out of your toxic relationships will free you from people in your life who are all take and no give. These people hold you back and cause obvious negative consequences for your independence.
For more info on how to break out of your toxic relationships, check out this guide.
The Identity Trap
The identity trap is a concept that I am borrowing from the phenomenal book, “How I Found Freedom in an Un-Free World” by Harry Browne, which I will return to in a later section.
This trap has two parts: one that is self-related and one that is about other people. In both cases, the identity trap is when you expect somebody to act contrary to their nature or demand that they be someone who they aren’t.
You could say that the point of this whole post is to stop falling into this trap on a personal level, but right here I want to talk about how the others-facing half restricts your freedom.
We can boil this down to a desire to change other people or to demand of them to be someone who they aren’t. A trivial example would be if your friend has clearly stated that they don’t like rap music, and yet you continually play songs for them in a vain attempt to get them to appreciate it.
This expectation to make other people be someone who they are not is severely limiting to you personally. It makes you continuously spin your wheels and reduces your influence with other people (and probably annoys the hell out of them, too). On the flip side, your attempts to change someone else may be exactly what is causing you to remain stuck in your toxic relationships.
If you can learn to accept other people as they are, you will have far more success in your relationships. Instead of expecting from them something which they can’t or won’t provide, you’ll have realistic expectations that you can work with.
How To Find Freedom And Independence: The Short Term
Now that you recognize the things that are holding you back, it’s time to begin taking steps to make yourself more free and independent. In this section, we will look at the more short term options you have available to increase your personal freedom right away.
Keep in mind throughout this section that your primary goals in this stage (the short term) are conquering your fears so they no longer limit you as well as learning to recognize abundance. Combined, they will help you see what choices you have in any given situation as well as give you the courage to take action on these choices.
“Experiments In Living”
John Stuart Mill argued that everyone should be free to pursue their own experiments in living (so long as these “experiments” don’t directly harm anyone else) because a variety in personal experience is good for a society.
By being allowed to pursue these experiments, an individual develops “a particular kind of self-mastery or self-realization through choosing for oneself”. In other words, the best way to get to know yourself and your values is by trying them on, so to speak.
The first thing you should remember when trying out a new lifestyle is to be open minded about the way you have lived, the way you are trying to live now, and the way everyone else lives. By being open minded, you are far more likely to find lifestyles that actually work and make you happy.
You should be willing to consider any mode of living. When you stop being judgmental, it becomes much easier to live a life of your own choosing, and not one guided by the judgments of others.
Make Yourself Uncomfortable
It is critically important at this stage that you begin to take yourself out of your comfort zone.
There is nothing “un-free” about doing things that you feel comfortable with. Comfort is great! But the potential discomfort you feel from certain activities can be severely limiting, which is most certainly un-free.
For example, if you would like to be able to talk to strangers at will but your shyness makes you feel uncomfortable doing it, you are not completely free. By doing it anyways, you begin to expand your comfort zone, which expands the amount of things you feel confident doing, which makes you more free and independent.
Fear may be even more limiting than governments/actual restrictions on your freedom. In fact, fear is what allows all these regimes to survive. But while the consequences of doing something illegal may be severe, doing something you are personally afraid of is nowhere near as bad.
Remove Your Social Mask
Essentially, this means that you should act more authentically and more true to yourself when around others.
It’s so easy to slip into a persona in public and pretend to be someone you’re not. In fact, if you’ve done this enough, it can be almost impossible to take off your social mask, but you must try.
This can range from fairly mild to fairly serious. It’s not the biggest deal in the world if you pretend to like music that you would never listen to on your own, for example, but it can lead to much bigger lies.
Your social mask takes away your freedom to act like yourself. Over time it will lower your confidence and eat away at you. It’s the exact opposite of being authentic to your values.
If this is a problem for you at all, I suggest you take a few minutes and read the link from a couple paragraphs up. Bookmark it, reread it, and continue applying it until you’ve got this area of your life handled.
Stop Censoring Yourself
I mean this within reason, of course. The classic example of yelling “Fire!” in a movie theater (or anywhere) is not acceptable unless there is an actual fire. Duh.
When I say stop censoring yourself, what I mean is that you should feel comfortable expressing your emotions and desires. These things should not be suppressed, as they are in most people.
Note: While this affects everyone to some degree, I’ve noticed it is a much bigger problem in men than for women, who seem to naturally feel more comfortable expressing their emotions.
You rarely censor yourself when you are alone (and if you do, that’s a more serious issue), so what causes you to do so? Usually, it’s a fear of being judged.
This fear is not unreasonable; after all, people do judge. And that’s fine.
No, you probably shouldn’t be telling strangers on your morning subway commute about your fetishes. But, say, smiling because you are happy about something? Do it! Many people will suppress it because they think it’ll look “weird” to smile for no reason in public. Who cares?! Express yourself.
To not censor yourself is a very simple request, but one that is very challenging in practice. You come up against many years of conditioning, but you can begin to undo it. A good starting point is this post about micro-avoidance.
Start Giving Things Away
It may seem almost paradoxical at first, but one of the most important techniques for freeing yourself is to give away your stuff.
This has two very important effects:
- Helps create a mindset of abundance
- Reduces your attachment and dependence to things
When you think you have very little of something (love, money, time, possessions, etc.), the best thing you can do is to give more of it away.
Why? If you give something away, it presupposes that you have more than enough of it in the first place, and that is what you experience. If you feel like you don’t have enough time in your day, spending time on others will give you the internal experience of having plenty of time. Studies have shown this to be true, and I’ve written about it many times before. It’s truly a very powerful practice.
Naturally, giving things away also reduces your attachment to them. When you are highly dependent on your possessions, clearly this makes you less independent. For example, having lots of “stuff” makes it harder to move apartments when you want to, makes you more anxious while worrying about what will happen to them, and increases your frustration when its impermanence kicks in and you do lose it.
Giving your stuff away short-circuits that response. It can be a little painful at first, but it’s much less so when you give it away voluntarily than when it’s taken from you.
Spend More Time Outdoors
When you are no longer enclosed in walls, it just feels like a huge constraint has been removed. I’m sure this is one of the major reasons so many people love spending time outdoors.
There is something primally fulfilling about being outdoors. It connects you to your more basic instincts, and helps you recognize the beauty that surrounds you everywhere. Perhaps it even trains your mind to feel more free and uninhibited.
I can’t off the top of my head come up with serious intellectual reasons why spending more time outside makes you more independent (if you can, let me know), but on an emotional level it just feels like that’s the case.
How To Find Freedom And Independence: The Long Term
In the long term, freedom is primarily about having choices and flexibility in exercising them. We all have choices in every situation in our lives, but some people are better at recognizing this control than others. Cultivating the ability to recognize these choices, prioritize them, and then act appropriately on them is the key to having freedom and independence.
Ultimately, you should be able to say with confidence: “If I want X, I can do Y in order to get it.” Then you must be willing and able to act on it. Even if you are not ultimately successful, it is the mindset that is most important.
The Very Basics Of Meditation
It takes an extreme level of mental control and discipline to reach this point. It’s too easy to get distracted and lose focus on what you actually have power over on a moment to moment basis.
But in order to recognize/prioritize/act on your available options, you paradoxically must embrace a certain amount of chaos and stop struggling to control everything in your environment.
On the one hand, many times you will mentally limit yourself and give up responsibility in a situation. On the other, you may delude yourself into thinking you have far more control than you actually do.
Meditation will help train you to see things as they are instead of how you think they are or how you want them to be.
The art of meditation can be infinitely complex (kind of ironic, isn’t it?), but it need not be. Especially if you are first starting to meditate, you should keep it as simple as possible.
To start, set a timer (anywhere from 5-20 minutes for beginners), get yourself into a comfortable position, and relax. Keep your attention focused on one thing, be it a mantra or your breath. As your mind inevitably wanders, bring your focus back gently; there’s no need to get upset about your mind wandering while meditating.
And that’s just one kind of meditation. If you decide to become serious about it (and you should if you plan on developing the maximum amount of independence you can), do a little research into other kinds, such as mindfulness meditation. For more information on meditation:
I don’t have much experience with guided meditations, but in the process of researching this article I came across one that I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s approximately 25 minutes (there are several minutes of silence at the end), and was very effective at inducing serious relaxation in me.
Search around on youtube to find a guided meditation you particularly like. There are tons of them available for free, so take advantage of this resource. In general, guided meditations are easier to stick with during a given session, because you are being led through it.
While it can be incredibly challenging at first, the rewards of meditating are well worth it.
Find A Purpose/Values To Align Your Life With
A critical part of of freedom and independence in the long term is having some guidance, or an internal compass directing you towards those things most important to you in life.
While you may have freed yourself in other ways, not being aligned with your values will prevent you from knowing how to act appropriately in many situations. Not knowing the right direction can be just as bad as thinking you know but being wrong; either way, the wrong action is still the wrong action.
In your life, you are pulled in so many different directions – both by internal and external forces – that it can make your head spin. Having deeply held values is what makes you resilient, and what pushes you towards the best actions for you. Your values determine your priorities.
You may already have a good feel for what your personal values are, and that’s great. But it’s important to revisit them regularly, because they can and do change. Here is a useful technique for eliciting your values, and a strategy for converting your values into a personal mission statement.
You should always have your values and your purpose in the back of your mind. As you internalize them, you’ll find yourself acting more authentically, which is the essence of freedom.
Start From Zero
“Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth.”
There is a fantastic exercise from Harry Browne’s “How I Found Freedom in an Un-Free World” that really helps cut through many issues at the heart of seeking personal freedom.
The exercise is called the starting from zero technique, and you can read more about it at that link. I will present the general idea of it in this section, but I suggest reading that post (and furthermore, the whole book) in order to learn how to apply its seven steps.
The essence of this technique is that we all have a lot of baggage that prevents us from looking at our lives and what we want to get out of them in a rational way.
Instead of figuring out where you want to go from here, figure out where you would want to go starting from zero. No debts or liabilities, no commitments, and no excuses. In this case, what would you want your life to be like? What do you have in your present life that you wouldn’t want in this ideal life? Get rid of those things.
What about the things that you want in this ideal life but don’t have right now? Come up with a clear road map for how to get there. Take stock of your real assets and liabilities, and do what you need to do.
If you do this exercise while keeping your values in mind, you will discover a lot of interesting things about your life: baggage that can be eliminated, dreams that you thought were unrealistic being not so far off, and a path forward.
Take a look at that link and actually apply this exercise. It is truly awesome.
Develop Your Physical Capacity
While you can certainly still be free even if you are not in perfect health, maintaining good health and building your physical capacity will drastically expand the options available to you.
There are two different levels to consider here. At a minimum, you should practice enough healthy behaviors that you have a healthy weight and are free from illness.
Beyond that, I would advise that you also strive for optimal health and fitness. Of course, if that doesn’t vibe well with your values (in other words, it’s not a priority), you shouldn’t invest the extra time it takes to develop this level of healthy lifestyle. That’s up to you.
Either way, being obese or underweight is dangerous and can close a lot of doors for you. So do most chronic diseases. Sure, you don’t have 100% control over your health, but weight issues and most chronic diseases can be prevented by getting some physical activity, eating a reasonably healthy diet, getting enough sleep, and managing your stress.
It’s important that I emphasize something here, lest I be misunderstood. I’m not saying that you aren’t free if you have diabetes or are obese. So long as you recognize your choices and the degree of control you have over your life, you are free. We all age, and we inevitably will lose some of our physical independence. My point here is just that being physically fit and healthy increases the actual degree of control you have over your life.
Achieving Financial Freedom
As with physical capacity, you don’t need to be rich to be free, but it does give you more options. Over the long term, you can take definitive steps to become more financially independent, so you might as well.
The first key is to eliminate any debt you may have. Pay it back as soon as humanly possible, because debt is the primary financial enemy of independence. Sometimes debt can be a good investment (say, for college), but usually it is a huge waste (say, for college). Having high monthly debt payments makes your life drastically more limited.
The next key is to live within your means. This is a corollary to the first, and simply means that you should spend less money than you take in. In order to make this easier, you have two options: increase your income, and decrease your spending. You should do both, but decreasing your spending tends to be simpler.
Think about how much more freedom you have if you can be comfortable on a $40k/year salary as opposed to a $60k/year one. You have a lot more flexibility in choosing a job that you enjoy rather than one based on higher pay. And the less money you spend, the fewer things you accumulate, the less dependent you become on your possessions. And fewer possessions also makes you more mobile, in case you want to live somewhere else.
I’m starting to ramble a little here, but you get my point. Decreasing spending and eliminating debt are your primary keys to financial freedom. But if you can increase your income (ask for a raise, start a side business, etc.), that certainly helps too! Regardless, you need to be in control of your money rather than let your money control you. Deep, I know. Just imagine some Zen master saying it.
Social Freedom And Independence
“Language … has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.”
- Paul Tillich
“Associate with noblest people you can find; read the best books; live with the mighty. But learn to be happy alone. Rely upon your own energies, and so not wait for, or depend on other people.”
- Thomas Davidson
You might think I’m about to advise you to learn to be happy alone.
And you would be right! But that’s only one part of having social freedom. A life without fulfilling relationships is hardly a life at all.
Besides, having good friends has many freedom related advantages. Wanna go on vacation, but you need someone to feed your cat? Need something fixed but you don’t know how to do it? Friends, yay!
Most important though is to have some close friends who you can have stimulating conversation with, share in good times, and prop you up during bad times.
There are all sorts of social skills which can help you tackle this area of your life, including how to give compliments, being able to forgive, and learning to comfortably approach strangers. I won’t dwell on these skills much here; you know which areas you need to improve.
Developing this social freedom is one of the most important aspects of becoming independent, even if it sounds contradictory. Make sure you invest some time into this area of your life, or you’ll find the freedom you’ve gained in other areas won’t make you much happier.
Well, that was a seriously long post. Thanks for staying with me this far!
Clearly, there are many things that you can begin doing right away that will grant you more freedom and independence both in the short and the long term. By getting started on a few of these now, you will be significantly more independent within a few months, and can be almost completely independent within two years (my estimate).
But while a drive toward self-sufficiency is healthy and important, it is not the be all and end all. The fact is, we are all interdependent. We all need each other and are made better off because of our interactions with others. The economic concept of comparative advantage proves this.
Finally, I’d like share a quote from a great book, “Original Wisdom”. Malaysians in the cities would refer to the Sng’oi tribe as sakai, or slaves. When a tribe member was asked if this bothered them:
“No,” he said, “we do not mind when others call us Sakai. We look at the people down below – they have to get up at a certain time in the morning, they have to pay for everything with money, which they have to earn doing things for other people. They are constantly told what they can and cannot do.” He paused, and then added, “No, we do not mind when they call us slaves.”
What do you think? Are there any other ways to become more independent or increase your personal freedom? Let me know.