Potential Space

by Amber Trotter, Psy.D. 

On Freedom      

The more one thinks, the more dialectics emerge. Freedom presents a particularly slippery dichotomy of agency and acceptance, experimentation and discipline, structure and creativity. Psychoanalysis contains diverse theories of freedom, at times difficult to reconcile, while also neglecting political freedom.

Analytic theory has often been marshalled in support of determinism. A skilled detective, Freud traced symptomatic cues to their etiological origins, and by so doing, staunched a trend to indict mental patients for a lack of willpower. He traced psychopathology to repressive moral codes, sexual violations, and biological processes. One might say that analytic therapy loosens the shackles of freedom, exposing our lack of control, and thus problematizing the whole project of conscious choice. If there is a freedom in psychoanalysis, it is found through surrendering to the mystery of the unconscious and the wild unruliness of libidinal desire.

Yet Freud also championed free will. With effort, psychoanalysis teaches, we can become the authors of our own stories. We can choose to become a different kind of character. We can deconstruct our thoughts and feelings, reject implicit programing and irrational drives, and make alternative choices. Through analysis, we can change our neural circuitry, relational expectations, and even unconscious dynamics – we can intentionally alter our psychic DNA. 

To bridge this apparent contradiction, analytic theorists such as Stephen Mitchell have advanced a dialectical position: we can exercise freedom, but only within the context of culture, family, body, economy, our own past choices, and so on. Analysis helps patients develop a balanced sense of agency, acknowledging life’s many givens, while embracing what freedom we do possess. In keeping with the serenity prayer, we help patients to accept the things they cannot change, while fighting to change the things they can.

This feels right to me. Yet in the agency-within-acceptance paradigm, the things we cannot change too often implicitly includes society, culture, and politics. It can point towards a kind of resignation vis-à-vis the collective. In keeping with Freud’s wariness of the oppressive potential of civilization, it can seek to liberate the individual from society, while underwriting political disengagement.

Freedom in the contemporary United States is in a critical condition. From the Trump administration’s brazen warfare to the insidious incursions of surveillance capitalism, liberty is urgently and pervasively at stake.

In this context, we need to fight for every kind of freedom. The freedom of the body, of the mind, of movement, of possibility, of privacy. We need the freedom found through acceptance and surrender, and that found through attention to unconscious and libidinal processes. We need the freedom to narrate our own stories. We need the freedom of a subjectivity capable of critical reflection. 

The freedom to live in a better world, however, requires collective agency. I think about this when patients complain that they cannot quit their immiserating job and continue to live in this city. Or when they feel forced to return to work rather than freely choosing to stay home with a baby. Or stop taking BART after yet another incidence of transphobic violence. In such cases, analytic theories of freedom feel insufficient. Affirming particular patients’ limited agency while encouraging acceptance of reality feels hollow. It ignores the political. I want to find – or make – room within psychoanalysis for a collective theory of freedom that points patients and practitioners alike towards civic and political engagement.