The Definition of Freedom (According to a Psychologist)

What is freedom?

Today, in America, we celebrate Independence Day. Yet, even in the land of the free, our definitions of freedom differ dramatically. A historian might focus on the rebellion of thirteen little colonies against a great imperial power. A conservative American might focus on the right to bear arms. A progressive American might focus on freedom of speech. And, on the Fourth of July, some Americans might simply focus on a day free from work and free for fireworks.

What is freedom?

freedom

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When I asked my seven-year-old daughter that question, she said, “Freedom is being out in the world for your life.” For a little girl who needs permission to go outside to play, freedom is the right to roam.

In contrast, when I asked my thirteen-year-old son for the definition of freedom, he replied, “Freedom is getting to be unique together.” In middle school, there is immense pressure to conform in order to be cool. So, to simply be himself, along with every other unique soul, is the definition of freedom.

What is freedom?

Apparently, your definition of freedom depends upon who you are—your age and your political persuasion and, probably, your personality and your faith and your fears and your wounds. Indeed, there may be as many definitions of freedom as there are people. So, for what it’s worth, here’s this psychologist’s definition of freedom:

Freedom is accepting that, usually, the freedom we fantasize about does not exist.

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A Therapist Explains Why We’re All So Ticked Off in Social Media

Parenting fail alert.

A couple of weeks ago, on a Sunday night, my thirteen-year-old son Aidan forgot to finish his chores. I’d relocated some plants in the yard, and I’d asked him to water them. He didn’t. I immediately decided his work ethic was lacking—probably because of YouTube—so I told him he was grounded from his phone.

He got angry.

I sent him to his room.

Because when my kids are sad I want to hold them, and when my kids are scared I want to encourage them, but when my kids are angry I want to punish them. I don’t want to listen to it; I want to squash it.

When they get angry, I get angry right back.

anger

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This is natural: our brains are wired to experience anger as a threat, so we reflexively return the threat. And then some. Not to mention, we tend to think of sorrow and fear as relatively harmless emotions—if they do damage, it is only to the person feeling them—but we tend to think of anger as an unhealthy emotion. Bad. Destructive. Most of us have been wounded by someone’s anger, and we want to put an end to the wounding.

So we send anger to its room.

And yet.

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The Kind of Trophy Every Kid Should Receive

These days, every kid gets a trophy.

A lot of people don’t like that.

And I understand. Trophies are about performance. They are meant to honor hierarchy, to differentiate winners from losers. And they’re supposed to prepare our kids for a dog-eat-dog world, where simply showing up isn’t the same as working your way up. Like I said, I get it.

So, why do we keep doing it?

self-esteem

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In Loveable, I tell this story:

…when the other team scored against us, I sprinted for midfield. I was waiting for my team when they arrived, and gave high-fives all around, as if we had scored the goal. Because when a bunch of six-year-olds fail and then look to you, they’re never wondering how they did; they’re always wondering who they are. They’re not wondering who gets the biggest trophy; they’re wondering who gets the biggest hug.

Trophies are like golden hugs.

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The Art of Being Alive in a Broken World

grief

I heard a wail coming from the back entryway.

When I got there, the scene quite simply broke my heart.

My nine-year-old son Quinn was on his knees on the floor with his backpack in front of him. The same backpack in which he transports a thick file-folder of his personal artwork to school every day—drawings, paintings, and writings he’d been working on for months. And this very same backpack was dripping.

There was water everywhere.

While inserting a water bottle into his backpack, the lid had flipped open and thirty-two ounces of water had poured over everything he’d created. Quinn had fallen to his knees in anguish. His cheeks glistened.

I know it’s just nine-year-old coloring and crafts, but I could feel the grief of it. After all, we can all recall some of our own losses, some of our own heartbreak and anguish, some of our own broken beauty.

Balloons pop.

Ice cream falls off the cone.

Sometimes, the dog really does eat our homework.

And lovers leave us and disease disables us and jobs get lost and houses burn down and violence explodes and accidents happen.

And age happens. Even if everything goes perfectly—and you live long and you prosper—the end is always drawing closer. Our bodies are frail and finite. Eventually, death opens up a big water bottle and pours out grief upon the life we’ve created.

Eventually, no matter what, there will be water everywhere.

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Of Course You Are an Imposter!

impostor syndrome

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Several months ago, I recorded a promotional video for Loveable.

It was a solo project. I spent hours scripting it, rehearsing it, and then finally setting up sound and video in my therapy office. Finally, I spent several hours recording it.

I wanted it to look just right. After all, Loveable is written in a fatherly voice, so in the video I wanted to emphasize my expertise as a professional—you know, balance out all that touchy-feely stuff. When I finished filming the final lines, I dismantled all the equipment, put it away, and patted myself on the back. Until I looked down. And discovered my zipper was down.

Through the entire shoot, in every scene, my zipper was down.

The whole point of the video was to assure everyone I have it all together, and I couldn’t even remember one of the most basic elements of putting oneself together. I scrambled to review the video and, thankfully, you cannot tell in the video that the proverbial barn door was open.

But that’s actually my point.

We go around pretending like we have it all together, and the problem isn’t that we fail to do so; the problem is that most of the time we succeed.

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This Is What Therapy Cannot Do for You (Says the Therapist)

“How does this work?”

It’s the first question many therapy clients ask. Those who don’t are probably just being polite. And it should be the first question. When I go to a medical doctor, I want to know what they’re doing and how it will heal my body. It’s totally reasonable to wonder the same thing about how therapy will heal your mind and your heart. So, I’m always happy to answer the question. But before I do, I have to ask another question of my own:

What does “work” mean?

therapy

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In other words, what do you expect healing to look like? What will it feel like to “get better?” Because if we haven’t clarified what therapy can and cannot do for you, we can’t be clear about how it works. So, most therapy begins in an unexpected way.

Most good therapy begins by dashing some of our good hopes.

For instance…

Therapy cannot eliminate sadness from your life.

Nothing can. Because sorrow is an integral part of being human. Sadness is a sign we’ve cherished something or someone—that we’ve longed for something unattained and been disappointed, or attained something for which we’ve longed and been grieved by the loss of it. It comes and it goes—this is normal—so therapy cannot make it go away for good. But therapy can help us to stop fighting our sadness, to start feeling our sadness, and to discover that true freedom is not the absence of darkness but the confidence that we can walk through our darkness and into the light. Even if, one day, we have to walk through our darkness again.

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Chase Your Dreams, but Chase Them for the Right Reasons (A Commencement Address)

Keynote speech delivered on April 26, 2017, at the Dixon High School 65th Annual Scholastic Honors Banquet coordinated by the Kiwanis Club of Dixon…

graduation speech

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Students, twenty-two years ago this spring, I too was on the brink of graduating from Dixon High School, and I too was invited to attend this honors banquet. And do you know what I remember most about the speaker that night? Nothing. I can’t remember a single thing about the speech. I have only two memories of the night: trying to appear confident amongst a bunch of strange adults, and trying not to spill food on my dad’s tie. So, if you’re a little nervous or feeling a little clumsy, you’re doing just fine. That’s how you’re supposed to feel on a night like this. If you’re not feeling a little nervous and awkward, come talk to me afterward. I want to check your pulse.

So, twenty-two years ago, I was in your position, feeling nervous and awkward, with graduation coming into view. My future was uncertain, but there was one thing about which I was totally certain. I wanted to get out of this town. I wanted to do something that mattered, and deep down, I wanted to be someone that mattered.

And, though you come from a relatively small town, you have good reason to believe great things are possible. After all, our little town has produced some larger than life figures, such as Charles Walgreen, DHS Class of 1889, who started the wildly successful Walgreens company. And of course, Ronald Reagan, DHS Class of 1928, who became a film star and went on to become the 40th President of the United States. If you’re looking for reason to believe that your wildest dreams might actually come true after you depart Dixon for college and destinations beyond, look no further than the Gipper. Not to mention the countless men and women who have graduated from DHS and gone on to shape our world in ways that are much less visible, much more ordinary, but just as important and valuable.

Speaking of which, here’s a slightly lesser known story about another DHS graduate. He graduated, oh, approximately twenty-two years ago, and legend has it that, despite his best efforts, he returned home after his senior Kiwanis banquet with dark splotch on his father’s tie that smelled suspiciously of salad dressing. Approximately four months after he sat nervous and awkward, not really listening to the speaker up front, he departed Dixon for the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Pulling out of the driveway, his car packed with clothes and towels and a thirteen-inch TV/VCR combo that had cost him most of his graduation money—and his stomach packed with a nauseous feeling—he thought to himself, “Why did I decide to go to college? This is terrifying. If I wasn’t doing this, I could still be in bed right now.” High school graduation, it turns out, had not perfected his confidence. It won’t perfect yours, either. I’m sorry to be the bearer of this bad news.

I’m assuming you’ve figured out who I’m talking about, so I’ll switch back to speaking in the first person now.

Growing up here in Dixon, I thought something magical would happen when I left. I thought when my Friday nights included something more than pining for the same girls that had been rejecting me since the fourth grade, and cruising up and down Galena Avenue listening to Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg and trying to feel tough, that something would change inside of me. I left for the University of Illinois thinking I’d find that magical thing there.

And I did find many, many good things at the U of I. I made a number of good, lifelong friends. I was mentored by smart and caring professors. I figured out that I wanted to be a psychologist. And, once again, I graduated with honors.

But, as they say, wherever you go, there you are.

On the day of my college graduation, I still wondered if I was good enough. I was still haunted by loneliness and a desire to be truly seen. And I still felt like I needed to do something great in order to matter in the grand scheme of things. So, I did what we all do: I kept searching for the next potential solution to these nagging problems. More specifically, I figured if the bachelor’s degree didn’t fix all my self-doubt, maybe a doctoral degree would do it! And I figured I wasn’t far enough from Dixon, so I chose to go to graduate school in Pennsylvania, at Penn State University.

Perhaps youve heard this popular definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. It turns out, in this way, were all a little crazy. Over and over again, we look for outside solutions to the problems inside of us.

You see, I hoped high school graduation would be a solution to my self-doubt and insecurity. Then I hoped college graduation would solve the problem. Then I hoped becoming a doctor would solve the problem. Somewhere in the middle of grad school, it became clear that wasn’t doing the trick either, so I quickly married the woman I was in love with, thinking that perhaps marriage would be the solution.

Nope.

I love her to death, and she is the best thing that has ever happened to me, but no woman or man has the power to remove our self-doubt. I wondered if becoming a dad would do the trick. Again, my kids are the best gifts I have ever received, but becoming a parent can’t fix our self-doubt and insecurity, either. It just creates more questions and more decisions to be uncertain about.

Then, seventeen years after I graduated from DHS, while I was working as a psychologist in the Chicago suburbs, I decided to start a blog. It began as a way to market my services to potential therapy clients, but then something interesting started to happen: I realized I loved writing. In fact, I realized I’d always been passionate about writing, but I’d never actually done any real writing, because, really, who can make a living as a writer? Within two years, though, two of my blog posts had gone viral and, on an ordinary Thursday afternoon, my office phone rang. I picked it up, and on the other end of the line was a producer from NBC. She told me she wanted my daughter and I to come on the TODAY Show.

Finally, the solution I had been searching for presented itself.

The ultimate affirmation of my writing and therefore my worth. A national television audience and all of the attention that comes with that. And some absolute certainty that I was doing something that mattered. After all my searching, I had finally found the solution to my self-doubt and insecurity. Now, I would love myself, feel loved, and make a difference in the world by doing what I love.

The end. Just kidding.

That’s not the end, is it? Because appearing on the TODAY Show wasn’t the outer solution to my inner problems, either. Sure, I basked in the glow of it for a couple of weeks afterward, and it did eventually lead to the publication of my first book, Loveable, one month ago. But gradually, in the weeks after the show, my self-doubt and insecurity came creeping back in. During those weeks, I finally had to face a truth I’d been telling others for years but avoiding myself. I’m here to share that truth with you tonight. Here it is:

The solutions you are searching for do not exist.

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The 3 Things I Was Afraid to Write About This Week (Or, How to Truly Live)

purpose

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This week, I experienced writer’s block for the first time.

I sat down—multiple times—to write my weekly blog post, and I couldn’t bring myself to start typing. I panicked—multiple times—but then I decided to follow my own advice and take a breath or two.

A few breaths in, I realized, I did have words inside of me. Plenty of them. But the words inside of me were simply refusing to exit through my fingertips, as they usually do. There wasn’t an absence of words; there was an abundance of stubborn words.

No, not stubborn words, scared words.

For instance, I wanted to write a blog post about the month of March in our family, in which my son acted in his first community theater play and my wife ran for the school board and I published my first book. I wanted to write about how success is unrelated to ticket sales or book sales or vote counts. Success is about making our true self our lived self, regardless of who shows up to applaud.

But the truth is, my son’s show was sold out, my wife won her election, and my book debuted as a #1 New Release on Amazon, and I feared people would think me arrogant to speak so publicly of my family’s good fortune.

I wanted to write another post about grief and how our anticipation of death—and loss in general—usually takes the form of anxiety. I wanted to write about how we defend against that anxiety by becoming angry and becoming certain we know how to solve the mess of life (please see Facebook). We need to quit resisting our inevitable losses and, instead, grieve our losses ahead of time, so we can get on with truly living.

But I feared no one would want to read something so morbid over their Wednesday morning coffee.

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This is the Difference Between Growing Old and Growing Up

childhood

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We’re scrambling out the door for school.

It’s the first day back after the winter break and my third-grade son Quinn is lamenting what awaits him. “Ms. Palmer says we’re going to have to write everything in cursive this semester. I don’t want to do that!”

I look at him and say, “Well, buddy, you love art, and writing in cursive is like turning your handwriting into art. So just try to make your writing beautiful.” He looks at me as if I’m crazy and says, “Your handwriting isn’t beautiful.”

Which is when my seventh-grade son Aidan breezes through the room and nonchalantly offers this on his way past: “That’s because he’s an adult, Quinn; he traded beauty for functionality a long time ago.”

Ouch.

For most of the world, the age of majority—the age at which adulthood legal begins and childhood legally ends—is eighteen. But oftentimes childhood ends way earlier than that. Because the dividing line between childhood and adulthood isn’t a legal distinction.

The dividing line between childhood and adulthood is an unfortunate trade.

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Dear Daughter, You Don’t Need to Act Like a Man to Become a Strong Woman

Dear Little One,

Last week, we arrived at the theater early and, before a movie about beauty and beasts, we saw a preview for a movie about men and machines. We came for a story about love and we got a preview about war. I’m okay with that—it’s the world we live in and I’m used to it.

What I’m not okay with is the young girl we saw in the preview.

feminism

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She looked directly into the camera, covered in sweat and dirt, and she said, “Some kids used to tease me…they’d say, ‘You run like a girl, you throw like a girl, you fight like a girl.’ Fight like a girl? Yeah, I fight like a girl. Don’t you?” Then, for the rest of the preview, she exuberantly participated in the blowing up and destruction of everything.

I felt like that little girl had punched me in the gut, too.

Because I looked over at you—seven-years-old, eyes wide behind 3-D glasses, already wondering what it means to be a girl—watching the not-so-subtle message that to be a strong girl, you have to fight like the most violent of men.

Little One, as your father, I want you to know, this was not a message about how to become a strong woman; it was a message about how to become an extinct woman. This was the message of a war-riddled and violence-obsessed hyper-masculine culture, hell-bent on victory, knowing that the only way to have victory over your womanhood is to erase it.

After all, what is the most effective way to eliminate the other? It’s to make them exactly like you.

Don’t fall for it.  

We have enough ego-driven, angry, aggressive, and violent men on this planet. We don’t need you to become one too, just so you can prove to those very same men that you are a “strong girl.”

No, Little One, the way to become a strong girl is to resist your assimilation into the worst elements of masculinity. The way to be a strong girl is to grow into the best and strongest parts of your femininity.

To be a strong woman, you don’t have to push others down; you simply refuse to be pushed around yourself.

To be a strong woman, you don’t have to relish aggression; you simply resist it.

To be a strong woman, you don’t have to use violence; you just need to use your voice, steadfastly, resolutely, and unceasingly.

But most importantly, you don’t become a strong woman by acting like a man; you become a strong woman by acting like yourself. 

At the center of you is your soul, your heart, your truest self. It is the least tangible part of you, yet the most indestructible part of you. It is the least violent part of you, yet the part of you from which you will fight most resiliently.

You don’t have to be like a man, you only have to be like you.

You won’t become your truest, strongest you by struggling violently against others. You will become your truest, strongest you by struggling to love the world in the very specific, very unique, perhaps ordinary, but always beautiful way that only you can love it.

Little One, if we all loved the world with that kind of beauty, the beasts wouldn’t stand a chance.

Peace to you,

Daddy

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Loveable is available in paperback, digital, and audio and can be purchased wherever books are sold, so you can also purchase it at your favorite bookseller.