Freedom From And The Freedom To...

Eric Fromm: "There is only one meaning of life: the act of living it."

July 4th: U.S.Independence Day,
July 14th: Bastille Day and freedom for the French people, the Magna Carta: The start of freedom for the United Kingdom:

All of these and more, are milestones in the development of freedom in the U.S and Western Europe. 

As we approach July 4 and July 14th, it is important to ponder what freedom really means. To help us along the way, we will look at one of the great psychologists of the twentieth century, Eric Fromm and his internationally renowned book, Escape From Freedom. In other words, we will explore freedom from a psychological rather than a political point of view.

Fromm differentiates between two types of freedom in the Western World:

1. "There is freedom from" such things as tyranny, dictatorship, authoritarianism and totalitarianism. This is external freedom. However,"inner freedom is also needed along with external "freedom from." Without inner freedom there is a strong tendency to conform, "fit in," blindly accept the advice of others, and allow ourselves to be influenced by advertising.

2. "Freedom to" is to truly be an individual. Someone who has inner freedom is able to achieve full realization of individual potentialities along with the ability to live actively and spontaneously. In living actively and spontaneously one does not attempt to fit in just for the sake of conformity.

So, why do people seek to "escape freedom?" The answer is that external freedom is often scary. The absence of authoritarian control can feel isolating. People can feel powerless, at the mercy of outside forces, and alienated from both self and others. Fromm states that not only do we have an innate desire for freedom but we also have a strong impulse towards submitting to authority. People submit when they experience too much anxiety.


Too much anxiety can result from being raised in a home where parental dominance rules the household. Children are never provided the opportunity to individuate by learning to speak for themselves without the fear of being scolded.

Child development carries with it a growing separateness from mother and father. In a healthy environment, this process of increasing separation is promoted by parents in ways that are appropriate and age specific. Two opposite styles of parenting interfere with individuation. The overly dominant and authoritarian set of parents constantly hover over the child, using punishment and verbal abuse to promote obedience. The overly permissive set of parents actually can be neglectful by not providing the appropriate structure to help children feel safe as they grow and develop.

During my many years of working in education and mental health I have been made aware of healthy families that promote individuality in their children. There are some features that characterize these types of families:

1. Dinner time conversation not only includes the children sitting around the table but also allows them to talk about their views and opinions on everything ranging from sports and school to current events and politics.

2. While growing up the children were given chores to do both inside and outside of the home. The type of chore depends on the age and developmental level of the youngster. However, the main point I am making is that appropriate chores can promote a sense of self confidence in a young person.

3. With the exception of an occasional family argument, everyone at home is free of verbal, physical and sexual abuse.

4. Children are allowed to ask questions that are answered by parents in ways that fit the age and cognitive level of a child. A five year old who asks where babies come from is not given an a lecture on sexual relations. That would confuse more than help.

It is important to note that some of us did not have the benefit of a healthy family life that promoted individuality. It is incorrect to believe that it is too late to grow and develop just because we are adult. To the contrary, growth, development and developing individuality are things that can and should go on throughout life.

For those of us who have difficulty thinking for ourselves, making decisions and knowing what we want, there is psychotherapy. In my opinion, experience and way of thinking, the ultimate purpose of psychotherapy is promote the growth of the self, the promotion of the self and the development of confidence in the self.

What are your opinions about freedom and its burdens? What were your experiences growing up? How are you raising your children? Are you engaged in the act of living your life?

Your comments and opinions are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD