Two Types of Freedom


In our day-to-day lives we tend to be unaware of the fact that there are two totally different types of freedom. As we shall see, for very practical reasons it is important that we don’t confuse the two, but because of the lack of awareness around this (which is a socially-conditioned lack of awareness) it is actually almost inevitable that we will get confused. One example of when it would be very helpful to know the difference between the two types of freedom is when we fall victim to anxiety.  Having a clear understanding of this is essential in order for us to become free from anxiety – otherwise, we’re just stumbling around in the dark. Otherwise, we’re just going around in tight circles.


So what are these two types of freedom, and how does knowing about them help us?  The first type of freedom, we could say, is the freedom to act out the rule. This basically means ‘the freedom to do what the rule is telling you to do’. The second type of freedom is the freedom to question the rule. We could also explain this by saying it is ‘the freedom we have from the rule’. A good way to illustrate this idea is by thinking about drinking. Suppose you know someone who has a problem with their drinking, and one day you confront them about the fact. “Problem?” they say, “The only drink problem I have is that I can’t get any.” Now, what this person is saying is that if only they had the freedom to drink as much as they wanted to drink, then there wouldn’t be a problem.


Needless to say, when we have some sort of over-riding need, this is the way we tend to look at things. We are under pressure, and all we want to do is relieve the pressure, as soon as we possibly can. We don’t look any further than this. Of course, for those of us who are not being pressurized by a need (in this case the need to drink) the flaw in the reasoning is easy to spot. It is so obvious that it’s funny.  We can see very clearly that the answer is to deal with the need, not to figure out a better way to meet it! We can see that we would be far better off with the freedom not to have to obey the rule, rather than the so-called ‘freedom’ to successfully obey it. With perspective this is as obvious as anything ever could be; without perspective however we just won’t get it at all…


In general, we can say that when we are ‘driven by a need’ (when we have no perspective on what is happening) our automatic reaction is to put all our resources into acting out the need. This means that I have to get better at controlling my environment so that it delivers what I want. In the example of the drinker who says the only drink problem he has is that he can’t get any, his automatic reaction is to maximize his effectiveness in obtaining alcohol. In general terms, we ‘act out the rule’ by trying to increase the efficiency of our goal-orientated behaviour.  We try to be more in control of what happens, in other words.


Now, on the face of it, this seems like a good thing. Improved efficiency, an increased feeling of ‘being in control’, getting to be ‘the one who calls the shots’, etc all sounds very positive and commendable. However, as in the example of the frustrated drinker, what we don’t see is that there is no need to do what we are trying to do in the first place! There is no need to control, no need to stay on top of things’. All we are doing here is making things worse. It is our goal that is the problem, not the fact that we aren’t efficient enough at achieving it. This example shows that the freedom to enact the rule isn’t freedom at all really; it is in fact ‘the freedom to carry on being a slave to the rules’, which is actually the antithesis of freedom.


So far what we have said may appear to make perfectly good sense, but where is the connection to anxiety? Well, we can see the relevance by working out what the ‘need’ is in anxiety. What is it that we are trying to do when we are anxious? The answer to this question is simple – we are trying to obtain security. Another way to put this is to say that when I am afflicted with anxiety, my natural reaction is to try to maximize my efficiency at eradicating all risks. Basically, I do my utmost to try to gain control over my situation. What is more, when I am caught up in the struggle to stay in control, this seems very much to me to be the right thing to do.  My only problem, I say, is that I can’t control enough! This is where we can see the connection to the story of the frustrated drinker: the drinker’s problem is that he or she has an over-riding need to drink, and the anxiety-sufferer’s problem is that he or she has an over-riding need to control. In both of these cases control is NOT the answer, no matter what we might think. We can say that controlling is not the answer to anxiety for at least two reasons:

Controlling is not the answer to anxiety because it is totally and utterly impossible to totally eradicate risk, and this means that we end up driving ourselves up the wall ‘trying to succeed at an impossible task’. The problem with impossible tasks is of course that we can’t ever win, and so if I absolutely insist on winning (if I say that it is utterly unacceptable if I don’t win) then the one thing that is sure is that I am going to have a really bad time. There is no way anything good is going to come out of this – it is an infallible recipe for interminable suffering and misery!


Another reason why control is not the answer to anxiety because anxiety is the inevitable side effect of trying to control fear, which is the same thing as ‘fighting fear’ or ‘running away from fear’.  The attempt to control fear is fear, and so there is on way this is going to get us anywhere. Thinking that controlling fear or controlling anxiety is a helpful thing to do is utterly nonsensical – after all, as Alan Watts says in The Wisdom of Insecurity,

Running away from fear is fear; fighting pain is pain; trying to be brave is being scared.


The reason we try to control fear is of course because we are afraid of it, and a very good definition of anxiety is ‘fear of fear’ – it is the normal state of affairs to be afraid of fear but normally we manage to stay unconscious of the fact that we are afraid because of the illusion that we have of being ‘in control’. In anxiety however this illusion (and it only ever is an illusion) starts to wear thin, it starts to get holes in it, and we can see that our attempt to fix things so that we’re not aware of the underlying fear isn’t really working any more. We could say therefore that anxiety is what happens when our comfort zone of ‘thinking that we’re not afraid’ starts to fail us, and the truth of our underlying existential terror starts to manifest itself, despite all our attempts to keep on hiding from it.This way of looking at things (which is of course not the usual way!) means that when are suffering from anxiety this means that we’re simply not able to fool ourselves into thinking we aren’t fundamentally afraid, whereas the rest of us are. The rest of us aren’t suffering from anxiety because we are able – for the most part – to ‘stay successfully in control’, which is only another way of talking about fear anyway!!!


In anxiety we are trying to stay in control because this assuages the feeling of insecurity we have about everything, but more we try to control the more this emphasizes that we actually can’t. This is a vicious circle because the more our latent insecurity is accentuated by our attempts to bury it (by our attempts to ‘reinstate the comfort zone of apparent control’) the more desperately we try to bury it, the more desperately we try to get back in control. Or we could say that the more we try to stay in control the greater our fear of ‘not being in control’ gets. The more we run from fear, the worse it gets, and the worse it gets, the more we try to run to run from it, and this is anxiety in a nutshell.


This way of understanding anxiety doesn’t immediately make sense because – as we’ve implied – when we aren’t anxious we don’t see that we have successfully ‘buried our latent existential insecurity’. We’ve buried it too well for that! We also don’t see that we are so very hooked on control, because there is more to control than just the obvious (or ‘gross’) manifestations of control such as checking up on everything the whole time, or planning ahead the whole time, or never leaving anything to chance, and so on. Even when I think I’m relaxing I’m still controlling stuff because – unbeknownst to me – I’m still maintaining my view of the world. I might think I’m ‘relaxed’ (or ‘chilling out’) but I’m not because I’m still maintaining my beliefs about the world, my conditioned perceptions of the world. I have a particular picture of what reality is in my head (along with a picture of who I am and who you are) and this super-familiar and super-unchallenging picture stays with me even when I imagine that I am perfectly relaxed. I don’t think I’m doing anything, therefore, but I am – I’m controlling my perceptions of reality so that they fit in with my very narrow and very superficial understanding of what I think reality is (or ought to be).


If I was genuinely relaxed then I wouldn’t be ‘doing’ anything. If I was relaxed then I wouldn’t be maintaining anything, I wouldn’t be controlling anything. But such ‘deep’ states of relaxation are all but unknown to us – we don’t know what it feels like to be in the world without controlling our perceptions of the world so that they fit in with our unexamined assumptions (which is to say, our conditioning). ‘Relaxation’ for us doesn’t letting go of ‘letting go of ourselves and our picture of the world’, it means something else, something much more superficial. What we call relaxation isn’t freedom from control at all, but merely ‘the ability to control with ease’. For this reason (because we are controlling the whole time without knowing we are doing so) anxiety is there for all of us – maybe it isn’t ‘centre-stage,’ but it’s never too far off….


We can also apply the idea of ‘the two types of freedom’ to social anxiety, which is somewhat easier to understand, even though it is just another way of talking about the same thing. In social anxiety – we could say – the need that we try to satisfy is the need to be accepted by the people around us, which is the need to fit in. We could also say that it is our over-riding need to not be negatively evaluated by others, not to be seen as strange or foolish by others. Now it is actually misleading to say this because all of us (or very nearly all of us) have this need, but it just so happens most of us are able to satisfy it!


Most of us can, in other words, pass ourselves off as ‘being normal’ (i.e. we can ‘fit in’) without any noticeable effort, and this means that we don’t even notice that this is an issue there, that there is a potential problem there. We don’t know that we are ‘unconsciously controlling ourselves so as to fit into the social matrix’ – if someone told us that we were then we almost certainly wouldn’t believe them! If someone told us that there is a social game going on the whole time (or almost the whole time) and that we’re playing this game without realizing that we are then this probably wouldn’t make any sense to us. We rarely realize that there are very strict ‘rules’ that have to be followed in everyday social interaction, no matter how casual that interaction might seem.


This is very far from being the case when we’re suffering from social anxiety however – in this case we’re very aware indeed that there we have to control ourselves in order to fit in to the social matrix! We’re very aware indeed that there is a game being played, that we are having difficulties playing correctly. We’re very aware indeed that there are unspoken ‘rules’ that need to be obeyed if are not to stand out. No one needs to bring this to our attention! We are only too aware that there is this unacknowledged ‘pressure to play the game’ going on, and it’s only when we don’t have to interact socially – when we’re either on our own or with a close friend or family member – that we don’t have to struggle to (unsuccessfully) obey the game-rules.


In social anxiety, it could be said, the freedom I am trying to obtain is ‘the freedom to be accepted by people’, and yet – even though I don’t generally see it – this actually equals the freedom not to be true to myself. ‘The freedom to fit in’ is not the same thing as ‘the freedom to be the way that I actually am’, very obviously. In fact the one is the antithesis of the other. For this reason it is not ‘freedom’ at all that we are talking about here, but just another form of slavery. Only it is a form of slavery that seems very attractive, very desirable when I’m not able to fit in to the group. I want to be like everybody else for the simple (and very persuasive) reason that I want the acute mental suffering that I am going through to come to an end! If I stopped to think about it however (if the constant unremitting pressure allowed me to stop and think about it) I would realize that true freedom is ‘the freedom to be myself without worrying about how I might appear to others’. It just happens to be the case that none of us are aware of this radical type of freedom because we’re making do with the other type of freedom – which is the freedom to be accepted by people (i.e. the freedom to ‘fit in’).


With regard to anxiety in general, therefore, we could say the following:

True freedom is not the freedom to be able to ‘totally control our fear’, but ‘the freedom to be able to look the fear in the face and see it for what it is, once and for all’.


In conclusion, then, we can say that ‘the freedom to control’ is really only being a slave to our fears, because it is only our fears that make us want to control.  The freedom to control successfully isn’t anywhere near as great as it is made out to be. Controlling isn’t anywhere near as great as it’s made out to be, therefore. The need to control is a prison – what sort of freedom is it if we always have to be on the look out to guard against something that we have decided we can’t allow? ‘Freedom from control’, on the other hand, is genuine freedom because we no longer have to do anything. The difference here is that when we do act, then that action arises out of inner peace, and not out of fear, not out of compulsion. It arises out of freedom, not out of an inability to do otherwise…