Most of my life, people told me that I was too hard on myself. I seemed to have always wanted to be someone that I wasn’t. I recall wanting to be strong and tough, to be a man when I was still a boy. Much of the shame surrounding aspects of my childhood pertains to the belief that I should have said and done things differently, that, simply, I should have been better. And most of my clients who struggle with distorted self conceptions share my personal sentiment.
When we conceive of mental health, the initial thought is one of agency. We think of the well-adjusted as those in possession of themselves, physically and emotionally. The concept of free will, in its purest form, refers to the human ability to choose, regardless of one’s circumstances. The thinking goes: If I will myself hard enough, I can always make good choices. For ages, psychotherapists worked to instill this idea in their patients, helping them to consider themselves as more than just victims. And, when perceived in that light, free will seems like a good thing. I mean, it’s hard to imagine someone preferring to live in a deterministic universe, wherein their choices, needs, and efforts are wholly ineffectual. Yet, few stop to consider the significant downside of accepting free will. What if free will is not as emancipating as we believe?
When you ask someone to conjure up determinism, often they’ll tell you about a mechanical universe, in which humans operate like clocks. The environment is analogized to a clockmaker, an invisible hand that engenders everything we are. In this universe, we might as well give up, as doing so would be just as inconsequential as its alternative. People often cringe at the idea, so they hastily opt to accept free will instead. And, honestly, between these two, I would prefer the latter, too. But, when you carefully consider them, you realize that they’re both equally problematic.
On the surface, free will appears superior. However, it’s nothing more than a Trojan horse. Because, shame, the feeling that you’re wholly awful, is founded in the idea of pure freedom. When I was a kid growing up in a chaotic household, I “chose” not to stand up to my stepfather, watching idly as he ruled through intimidation. I was terrified and ashamed, wondering why I wasn’t just less of a coward. As some point, late into my teenage years, I finally spoke up. After another episode of him storming around the apartment and breaking more of my belongings, I yelled at him and told him to fuck off. Unfortunately, that was the highlight of my bravery, as once he picked a fight, I immediately backed down. And I held onto that kid’s self-image for the majority of my life. I so badly wanted to be a hero, failing to realize that my size and strength wouldn’t allow it.
In one respect, free will could have helped me see that I had the ability to train and become stronger (which I eventually did), that at some distant point, I could finally supersede my stepdad. But, in another, it caused me to blame myself for not being tougher in the first place. In therapy, I learned that there was no way a scrawny child could have ever defeated a much older and stronger bully. In fact, the bully only preyed on those who were much weaker. I finally asked myself: How could it have gone differently? And that freed me in a way that a sense of agency, or free will, couldn’t. In understanding my inevitable constraints, I let-go of the belief that I should have tried harder to protect my mom, or, even worse, that I should have hit him. Fundamentally, I was as strong as I could be.
I don’t possess the wisdom to know whether free will actually exists. But, I can speak of its practical limitations. In understanding the unlikelihood of having done otherwise, I drew myself closer to self-acceptance. Could I have attacked my dad? Maybe. But, what good would that have done? I’m now sure that, at the time, I reasoned in the same way. A person tends to flee or freeze in danger when he knows that he’s outmatched. My decisions made sense when perceived in their proper contexts. And, reviewing it now, I can only imagine a kid attacking an adult when he’s completely given up or if he’s at least someone detached from reality.
Agency will always have a place in therapy, especially when the patient understands that good decisions are mostly products of their environments. (It’s challenging to imagine a solely non-supportive environment giving rise to an emotionally healthy human.) However, determinism is also a prominent and permanent fixture. Even though the universe may not be completely robotic, our genes and environments make certain thoughts, feelings, and choices more and less likely. And that knowledge can help us unlock our stifling, emotional shackles.