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Denying freedom when you say you can’t change

Denying freedom when you say you can’t change

How to change things after committing to a course of action

Are you denying your freedom when you say you can’t change certain things in your life once you have committed to them?


Imagine a person who has signed up to complete a four-year degree course. After two years, he realises that he is neither enjoying the subject material or potential ways in which it could be used in later employment. He finds himself in a dilemma. He discusses this with friends and academics who highlight the costs of leaving the programme in terms of time, money and opportunity. He then argues with himself over what he would gain if only he completed the programme, even if against his better judgement. He tries to explain this to his parents who criticise him for not honouring his commitments and wasting the money they contributed to his studies. How does this person make a decision without an objective rightness of what is best for him?

When we consider changing things which have previously committed to, anxiety arises as we ponder ways in which we can be true to our desires and yet not self-critical or overwhelmed with concerns over lost opportunities. In this, we are subject to the Commitment Myth – the unquestioned assumption that it is impossible to change certain things in our lives once we have committed to them.

In the above and similar examples, the person involved is often caught in the grip of intolerable anxiety as they face the decision of either changing in line with some internal sense of rightness or continuing with the status quo. Some examples might appear more difficult and subject to greater social pressures. What about the person who wants to leave their partner and children or the person who promised their aged parent they would look after them for the rest of their lives?

Embracing our freedom to create ourselves as we might want gives rise to enormous anxiety since we alone must take responsibility for our choices and not point to others or external social pressures for not doing so. Martin Heidegger talks about the ‘Call of Conscience’ which arises when we deny our freedom to choose, live inauthentically and are subject to existential guilt.

Self-Reflection Exercise

Think of an example from your own life when you were faced with the decision to make changes to something which you had previously committed to. Try to pinpoint the sources of the anxiety and how you overcame the dilemma.

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