L. Neil Smith's
Number 262, March 7, 2004

Remember: Free Hunter!

Freedom and Well-being:
Libertarian Psychology

by Audie Gaddis, Ph.D.

Special to TLE

Sometime during their first session with me I inform my new clients that my philosophy as a psychologist is what I call, "Libertarian Psychology." Since the word "libertarian," has a variety of meanings attached to it, I then offer this explanation:

"Libertarian Psychology is a psychology of personal freedom and responsibility. As your therapist it is not my job to impose a set of rules and guidelines (values) on you; rather, it is my job to help you understand your potential to make choices that are best for you, and accept the intended and unintended consequences of those actions. It is my job to help you achieve your potential of human freedom without looking to anyone else or any institution (such as the state) to assume responsibility for your welfare. I believe personal freedom and emotional health go hand-in-hand. The path to understanding yourself is understanding the power of your freedom."

I sometimes cap it with these questions:

Who do you allow to control your life?

What would it take for you to assume responsibility for your happiness?

I am often amazed how many clients initially agree with me, until that is, I point out in ways they don't apply this philosophy. For instance, when they state how a spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend etc. stifles them in one-way or the other. My general responses are:

Why did you give this person power over you?

What does personal freedom mean for you in this situation?

That therein is the hard part: it is relatively easy to agree that we want to be free to "do our own thing," it is another issue altogether to believe that I am responsible to make "my own thing" happen.

Ergo, I often find that common neuroses such as depression or anxiety occur when we have given our personal freedom over to someone else. The depressed person says, "My heart is broken since she left me," or the anxious person, "My life will be miserable if such and such happens." As often is the case, depression regrets the past; anxiety fears the future. Both imply that I have yielded my choices and responsibility at some point to someone else or something else.

A client feared an IRS audit. The anxiety medications relieved the "butterflies" in his stomach somewhat, but didn't take away the dread of getting that letter from the IRS. In all fairness, he had engaged in some questionable business practices that could very well draw the IRS' attention. When we discussed his options, we looked for actions he took take to protect him if an audit did happen. Reviewing his options he then chose a top-notch certified public accountant to consult on his finances and prevent a possible audit. By choosing to delegate this portion of his business to a professional he had relieved himself of unnecessary worry. The solution sounds simple but those of you who have experienced genuine anxiety know how it cripples us from pursuing realistic solutions to our problems.

A thirty-something attractive woman came to me, deeply distressed and grieving over her husband who had left her for another woman two years prior. She had sunk into a deep depression as a result of the break up of the marriage. She gained weight, dressed sloppy, and looked like she needed more sleep (which in fact she did). She had been through several therapists, all focusing on essentially 2 premises:

I. It is okay to feel pain (I agree with this).

II. Change the way you think to change your life (I agree with this in priniciple).

But I add a third premise:

III. One has to act on their awakening to autonomy and begin creating a fulfilling life. Unless I take freedom-oriented actions I will never be free. In therapy, it is the client's job to learn a way of thinking and doing that will result in firing me as their therapist. As an autonomous human they need to learn how to function on their own. If I work myself "out of a job," with a client I have succeeded.

I validated the pain she felt, told her that her grief and a sense of heartbreak were understandable human emotions. However, after several sessions of listening to her words and tears I finally asked her, "So what do you think of the woman your former husband is living with?"

Her reply: "I think she's a f------ cheap whore!"

"Hmm," I answered, "I got the impression that you thought very highly of her."

"How could you ever say that?" she demanded.

"Well, you have given her and your ex-husband control of your happiness and in essence, your life. Why would you allow a "cheap whore" to dictate your well being? From what you said she and your ex have an enjoyable life yet you are miserable. I don't think she's going to send your husband back to you. And frankly I don't think she gives a damn whether you are happy or not. In fact, she may likely feel good that you feel so bad. Who is more capable of helping you live a life of happiness and meaning—you or her?"

Needless to say, we had several sessions until this woman began realizing that she had in fact allowed someone else to control her happiness. It was not a mere "thinking" differently; it involved conscious steps of exercising her autonomy. So, when she awakened to her own individual power, she started dressing and behaving in more positive and attractive ways, took responsibility for her self-care by losing weight and exercising. She started coming to the sessions not as a defeated woman but as an empowered person who could stand on her own two feet. It wasn't long that men began asking her out.

She eventually married a man much more successful than her first husband and one who respected who she was and what she was becoming. More important though, she firmly believes she possesses the keys to her own happiness. She no longer needs me as a therapist-this process taught her how to be her own best therapist.

Acting on my sense of personal freedom and responsibility does not mean everything always works out as in my previous examples. There are no guarantees in this life. Nor is it always an easy path to take. It often means several sessions with clients to help them understand that they DO have the power over their destiny and making excuses otherwise only keeps them in their mental bondage. It means that when I allow someone else to have power over me that I chose a path of "sub-humanness"

For yet another client, gaining a libertarian mindset meant choosing how he would face his final days due to an untreatable cancer. At one session I asked him to read the book, Tuesdays With Morrie. At a later session after he had read this powerful little book we explored the question, "How can I maintain my freedom up to my final moments. I believe in his own way he achieved that in many respects as Morrie had. He took deliberate actions to control his final days, even writing down his funeral service.

Or it can be as simple as assuming responsibility to communicate my needs and wants to my spouse or partner rather than assume he or she can read my mind, a frequent mistake of people in relationships.

As a psychologist I cannot ignore my own value system. That value system is immersed in libertarian ideology. It is a philosophy that says humanity, as the highest form of life on the planet can only be truly happy when authentically free.

Liberation Psychology says I don't blame others for my failures. I fail not because mommy didn't breast-feed me. I fail because, in the final analysis, I choose to fail. So, I am responsible as a free moral agent, to act on my own behalf to achieve happiness. Therefore, I am equally responsible for my lack of happiness, my success, or my failure.

When clients thank me for helping them I refuse the thanks. Why? I want them to understand that they made the conscious choice to pay money to see me; the deliberate choices to change, and the willingness to accept responsibility for whatever those changes led to. I don't want them thanking me for their sense of success, as I will not take responsibility for that nor is it my responsibility if they fail. It is completely up to the client. People choose to succeed; people choose to fail.

Several clients have "fired" me when I denied their requests to sign a form stating they should receive disability welfare from the state due to their mental condition. I often remind these clients that dependency and happiness are mutually exclusive. The moment I expect the state to care for me is the moment I have surrendered my freedom. As an adult, to go through life, as a "ward" of the state will always imply that I cannot become all I am destined to be.

More often than not we need "mental enemas" to rid ourselves of the contemporary lie that the state, Madison Avenue, or "the right person," is necessary for us to be happy. The modern myth is this: dependency equals happiness. Listen to many contemporary love songs and you hear an underlying message: "I will surrender all my identity to you if you will only love me." I call it "relational welfare." It states, happiness is impossible unless you love me. Therefore, I yield my success to the dictates of someone else. Happiness and emotional slavery don't co-exist.

In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand's "John Galt," states:

Man has been called a rational being, but rationality is a matter of choice—and the alternative his nature offers him is: rational being or suicidal animal. Man has to be man—by choice; he has to hold his life as a value—by choice; he has to learn to sustain it—by choice; he has to discover the values it requires and practice his virtues—by choice.

When I can accept that I am a being of choice I have realized the means to be and remain happy. In fact, I have helped others, by relieving them of that responsibility.

To surrender my identity, an identity of a free self-sustaining, rationale human subjects me to emotional pain. If I see my past as proof that the universe is against me or fear that the universe will not care for me in the future I have upset my emotional equilibrium.

We were destined to be free and cannot be healthy until we fulfill our destiny.

Audie Gaddis is the Coordinator of Psychological Services at a regional hospital in Harrisonburg, Virginia. His clinical focus is on psychological testing, consultation, and therapy. He is currently doing post-doc work in Neuropsychology.


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