Hello, and welcome back. If you have read part-1 of this series - then fantastic, continue with the article to fulfil your existential endeavours. However, if you have not and are struggling to understand what the heck is going on; then read Part 1 here, and hopefully that will add some context.
In part 1 we looked at death, specifically, the philosophical and psychological contributions on how, we as individuals, can leverage the anxiety created through death to increase our wellbeing. Now to expand on that, we will look at Yalom’s second theory of existentialism – that being: freedom.
Within the context of Yalom’s work, freedom is described in a way that is contrary to common thought. The word freedom, as we know it, has many embedded societal associations; such as political liberation, or that of a higher cognitive awareness. To be free, quite simply, is to be responsible for one’s actions, and ordinarily, these concepts have positive connotations. However, freedom, as described by Yalom, is a complete lack of external structure; resulting in feelings of extreme anxiety.
To help explain such anxiety the word “groundlessness” is used. Groundlessness is what one feels when one experiences the subjective feelings of existential freedom: the feelings of utter self-responsibility. Understandably most believe that self-responsibility is what society strives for: autonomy without challenge. However, Yalom believes that being entirely responsible for one’s life, actions, failures, suffering, feelings, and conduct perpetuate an innate sense of anxiety. Instead, we seek authority and structure – something “bigger” than us, because realising that we are responsible for ourselves and the world we create, can be overwhelming, thus leading to what he terms “responsibility avoidance”.
To help us better grasp this concept, the anxiety resulting from existential freedom is said to adopt a range of coping mechanisms (Smith, 2012). These include:
1. Denial of Responsibility: This is the act of one denying autonomous behaviour – that being, the act of controlling one’s own life. Denial of responsibility is akin to a refusal of accountability; attributing your actions as “unable to help it” or simply “passing on the blame” in an attempt to reflect a facade of innocence.
2. Compulsivity: Yalom describes this as the result of an “irresistible ego” – that is, ego as illustrated by Freud as a component of our personality responsible for conscious decision making. Such compulsive tendencies include; overeating, excessive spending, sexual addiction, gambling, crime, etc.
3. Displacement of responsibility: This is the complete avoidance of personal responsibility by redirecting the focus onto someone else, such as one’s parents, partner, a religious entity, an institution, or even a therapist.
4. Employment of defence mechanisms: This is an example of utilising unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with existential freedom anxiety. Such mechanisms include; deadening oneself to wishes and desires, remaining in unhealthy relationships or employment, denial of emotions, or internalising fatalistic worldviews (theories of the world ending, etc.).
In addition to Yalom’s explanation of responsibility avoidance, Abraham Maslow contributed to this concept, too, stating: “It is certainly true that many of us evade our constitutionally suggested vocations (call, destiny, task, mission). So often we run away from the responsibilities dictated (or rather suggested) by nature, by fate”(Maslow, 1971).
Although Yalom presented this theory, he was acutely aware of the difficulties attached to evidencing such claims. Particularly since freedom and responsibility avoidance and their effects on mental health have not been researched (Smith, 2012). Nevertheless, that is not to say that that is the case now. It has been many years since Yalom presented his theory, and the literature surrounding psychotherapy has increased exponentially (if anyone knows of any recent research into this area, I would love for you to get in contact).
When reviewing this theory, I found myself intrigued with some of its ideas. I mean let’s face it - there are examples of it in everyday life, you don’t have to go far to come across those that avoid responsibility. With that said, one counterargument to responsibility refusal could be the idea that - instead of people avoiding responsibility to avoid anxiety - they instead avoid it because “owning” up could have societal implications. We live in a world where everyone feels the need to maintain an idealistic lifestyle and to accept responsibility could risk having that image “tainted”. But hey, that’s my two-cents; if you agree or disagree, or have a theory of your own, comment below.
So that concludes part 2 of my 4 part series on existentialism. I am thoroughly enjoying writing these pieces and would love to connect with those with similar interests. If you would like to get a conversation going, please comment as I welcome others’ opinions!
As my parting gift I would like to leave you with the following quote by Erich Fromm:
“Can freedom become a burden, too heavy for man to bear, something he tries to escape from?”
Until next time..
Craig has a degree in psychology and is studying a Doctorate in Counselling Psychology and Psychotherapy. He also works as a Therapeutic Mental Health Worker and is an accredited Group Facilitator. Craig enjoys engaging in psychological topics and shares them on here in his website. You can get in touch with Craig via Twitter
Berry-Smith, S. F. (2012). Death, freedom, isolation and meaninglessness and the existential psychotherapy of Irvin D. Yalom (Doctoral dissertation, Auckland University of Technology).
Maslow, A. H. (1971). The farther reaches of human nature.