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Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom—Here’s How Mastery Can Help

In a little known book called Fear of Freedom, first published in 1942, the philosopher Erich Fromm argues that humans long for both independence and individuation on the one hand, and belonging and community on the other.

The modern person, Fromm writes, is free from the constraints of what he calls a “pre-individualistic” society. Most of us no longer live in small bands, tribes, or other organizations where roles and responsibilities are rigidly defined and constrained. While these pre-individualistic societies drastically limited what we could become, they also gave us a sense of security; we had a place within a greater whole. Today, we’ve largely escaped the binds of pre-individualistic societies. We are, in many ways, more free than ever. This is largely a good thing, but it doesn’t come without costs, many of which are hidden.

The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote that “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” With great freedom and great choice comes great anxiety. We don’t want to be bound to certain formal structures and ways of living, but we also don’t want to be alone in a vast sea of possibilities. We want to be both our unique, individualized, and actualized selves and belong to a community that allows us to drop the weight of being alone in the universe. We want to have endless possibilities and make every decision on our own—that is, until having endless possibilities and making every decision on our own becomes too stressful.

When you think about freedom in philosophical terms, too little is no good, but neither is too much. What most of us want deep down inside is to marry freedom and individualization with obligation and belonging.

To help us further explore the paradox of freedom, and how we can resolve it, we’ll shift from philosophy to psychology. Self-determination theory, or SDT for short, is arguably psychology’s most durable, robust, and accurate framework for human flourishing. Developed by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan in 1985, it posits that humans thrive when three basic psychological needs are met:

  1. Autonomy: a sense of freedom and control over one’s life.
  2. Mastery: tangible progress in meaningful activities that can be traced back to oneself.
  3. Belonging: being part of a community and feeling connection.

SDT mirrors philosophy’s non-dual view of freedom: we want autonomy (to be individuals and to control our own destinies) and we want belonging (to be part of a whole even if that means certain constraints). We are like the teenager who wants nothing more than to rebel against and leave the family unit, but also needs the family unit more than ever.

Where does mastery, the other rung of SDT, fit in? I am going to argue that it helps soften the tension between autonomy and belonging.

When you are pursuing a goal and making progress you feel like a solid individual. But if you pursue mastery alone, it can be quite fragile. Loneliness, emptiness, and anxiety creep in. Perhaps the best way to pursue mastery is in a community. This allows you to be both a strong individual and connected to others; it allows you to self-actualize and not feel the weight of the world on your own two shoulders.

Two profound examples come from world-class running: Shalane Flanagan, arguably the best American distance runner of the past few decades, saw both her performance and mental health improve when she transitioned from training largely alone to training in a group. Not only did she experience more joy and win the biggest marathon in her career (New York City), but the women with whom she trained also had major breakthroughs. The New York Times coined this “The Shalane Effect.”

There is also the greatest distance runner to ever live, period: Eliud Kipchoge. When asked what keeps him going, fulfilled, and happy in his arduous training, his answer was simple: the community of runners with whom he trains in Kenya.

As I’m writing this, it occurred to me it’s exactly what Steve, Chris, and I try to do here at the Growth Equation. Writing is about as individualized and autonomous as you can get. It’s a big ego boost and it affords a great sense of mastery—which is precisely why it’s become so important for me to to do it as part of a community. Going at it alone would be harder, less enjoyable, and more angst provoking.

If philosophy says we want to be both actualized individuals and deeply connected, then psychology says pursuing mastery in a group helps us to bridge the gap.

The writer Erik Barker calls this “communal independence.” We want to be independent, but not too much; and we want to be bound to community, but not too much. Our work is to find the middle way.

Brad

(For three deeply related posts: The Power of Constraints to Protect Against Existential Distress, Discipline is Freedom—Which Means Constraints Are Too, and The Truth About Quiet Quitting.)

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