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Finding your freedom in everyday life

[ 10 ] February 13, 2012 |
an unlocked padlock

Image by pcullen on Flickr. Creative Commons license.

What would it be like to be totally confident that you’ll be ok, no matter what happens?

Frankly, I have no idea. But it sounds great! To me, that would be the ultimate freedom. Freedom from anxiety, freedom from worry, freedom from fear. I don’t know if anyone really achieves it in this lifetime, but we can work toward getting closer to it.

For most people, it’s hard enough to even achieve a more basic level of freedom of thought where we know ourselves and do what we would do. Instead, we do what we think our parents, our friends, our bosses, or society dictate.

As much as people say we love freedom, and as angry as we get when someone tries to take away our rights and choices, we often act as if it’s more of a burden than a pleasure. When your options are open and what you do is up to you, that’s a lot of responsibility, and a lot of thinking. Sometimes it’s easier to let others choose for you.

Or, we take the path of least resistance. Go to the school that offers the best financial package. Pick the major that comes easily to you, rather than the most interesting. Join a religion that will define the rules of living for you. Get married, buy a house, settle down. There are good reasons to do these things, but often, we just do them so we have one less thing to decide or think about. I’ve certainly done that myself. It’s easier to follow the expected path and do what “everybody” does than to think out what your ideal life would look like, and then have to figure out how to make it happen.

Even in the smaller picture, we create structures and rules for ourselves in all kinds of situations. It helps us feel safe. For example, do greenways really need to specify bike vs. pedestrian lanes? Where I live, the paved paths all have lines and pictures to indicate where people should walk and where they should bike. Heaven forbid we all had to figure that out for ourselves–anarchy would reign!

This need for structure pervades our lives, and most of the time, we don’t even notice it. When I quit my job, the most common advice I got was to create as much structure for myself as I could. Schedules, office hours, routines… most blog posts about working from home are adamant that you’ll do better if you dress up as if you were going to the office. One book I read actually advised me to put on a full face of makeup every day so that I’d feel professional.

Is it really our khakis and mascara that make us productive? Of course not. But apparently, for many people, the terror of going feral is too strong to allow them to concentrate, even if it’s just going feral in mild-mannered pajama pants kind of way.

When it comes down to it, we’re afraid our lives will fall apart. We may not like the way they are now, but we know we can handle it, so we cling to what we know, even if it’s not what we think we’d choose.

For me, it was also a fear of not being good enough that kept me far from freedom. I had all these rules for what a good person would do (many of them helpfully provided for me by religion). In my imagined world, good people do as much as they can to help others, and they get a selfless joy from doing so. When I tried to do that and it usually left me more frustrated and exhausted than joyful, I assumed something was wrong with me, so I tried harder.

I always tried to serve and please others. I strove to be humble, reliable, prepared, and probably any other Boy Scout virtue you can think of. In fact, I tried to be perfect.

What I learned is that seeking approval is the opposite of being free.

I began my journey toward freedom when I realized that it’s not a crime to take care of yourself. I used to think being selfish was the worst thing anyone could be, but selfishness gets a bad rap. No, I don’t recommend being greedy, stepping on others, or being a selfish jerk, just the healthy level of selfishness that says “put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.”

It starts there: with valuing yourself, taking care of yourself, and listening to yourself enough to know what you need and want.

Sometimes that’s the scariest part of all. I used to be so afraid of what might be inside my head, I did everything I could to avoid knowing myself, what I was like, or what I thought about my life. That’s the terror of freedom: when you know, then you’re responsible. You can choose not to act, not to go after what you want, but you can’t escape knowing it was a choice. Many times, we choose to stay oblivious instead.

Life is full of things we think we “should” and “have to” do, but if you look closely, most of them are artificial constraints that keep us from freedom. We see things this way in attempt to keep ourselves in check, or to keep from having to face the void of endless possibilities. But we could choose otherwise if we wanted. If you look at why you do what you do, there’s usually another way to achieve the same outcome, if that’s what you want.

For example, I always assumed I had to work full time at a regular desk job. That’s what adults do–who questions that? But one day, I was reading the university staff manual, and I discovered the option of cutting back to 80% of full time but keeping full benefits. I realized I’d still have enough money at that rate, and by working noon to 6 pm four days a week with one normal full-time day, I’d buy myself four mornings a week to use as I liked. To my amazement, my boss was fine with this plan. I felt like I’d bought my life back!

Later, I went even farther in the realm of the “impossible” by quitting altogether. Freedom can be pretty awesome once you get used to it!

Anyone can have freedom. It starts with knowing yourself and being yourself as fully as you can. The more congruent you are within yourself, the less you have to worry about what other people think of you. No secrets, no worries.

Someday, maybe we can even stop worrying what we think of ourselves. Being that free from judgment seems to be the key to ultimate freedom. If we can accept ourselves and life, no matter what happens, what is there to fear? That’s what I aspire to.

What does personal freedom mean to you? Please share in the comments!

This post is part of a series on personal freedom. Here are the other posts:

About Cara Stein: I'm a Breakthrough Coach and Creative Director On Demand. I'm also an idealist who has stopped trying to play it cool. I offer alignment, clarity, and unshakeable belief in yourself—and then I help you bring your vision to life with great sales copy and graphic design.

Comments (10)

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  1. Justin Mazza says:

    Hi Cara,
    I think that this is the freedom that we are all looking for in life. So many are stuck and don’t go for it in life because of the fear that they can’t handle it if things don’t turn out the way that they want it to.

    • Cara Stein says:

      Exactly, Justin! I recently realized that this is the main thing holding me back right now. Thanks for your insight!

  2. Mike Routen says:


    Great post! Isn’t it amazing how easy it is to cry, “I want more freedom!” yet it is so scary that many people won’t face the unknown that freedom would give them?

    Thanks for the terrific insight into freedom.

    • Cara Stein says:

      I know, right? And no matter how many times I’ve done it, I never seem to be aware in the moment when I’m doing it again.

      Thanks, Mike!

  3. […] Finding your freedom in everyday life – Cara Stein at 17,000 Days […]

  4. Tammy says:

    I think I must be unusual in that I always assume I will land on my feet. I dislike that free falling feeling when I’m uncertain where I will land, but I always have known that where ever it is will be okay.

    You made the best point with “seeking approval is the opposite of being free”. What an excellent turn of phrase! I spent so much of my life ignoring what I felt in the insane pursuit for external validation.

    My best decisions (and toughest) have been when I disregarded the voice in my head that was shouting, “But what will they say?” You have shown that often “they” will be in agreement.

    Thank you so much for this inspiring post!

    • Cara Stein says:

      Thanks, Tammy! Isn’t it funny how much we worry what other people will think? When I get down to the heart of my fears, 9 times out of 10, that’s what they boil down to, not death or catastrophe. I keep waiting to grow out of that, but it hasn’t happened so far. 😉 At least I’m getting better at ignoring those fears.

  5. Paige Burkes says:

    I spent a good chunk of my life doing what I thought I was supposed to do. Then, one day, I woke up and asked myself, “Is this all there is to life?” I certainly hoped the answer was no and I set out to find it. I left the “safe & secure” corporate job and took a 2 year “sabbatical” where I followed my intuition and passions and had the best time of my life. I’ve rejoined the corporate world (temporarily) but am doing it on my own terms. I’m a stay-at-home mom of 3 little ones while I’m the CFO of three start-up companies. Deciding what you want and how you want it and pursuing that, knowing it can happen – that’s freedom!

    • Cara Stein says:

      Paige, that’s so awesome! It sounds like we’re on similar paths, although I don’t have kids. Go you!

      Deciding what you want and how you want it and pursuing that, knowing it can happen – that’s freedom!


  6. […] Finding Your Freedom In Everyday Life by Cara Stein at 17,000 Days […]

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