Do you ever feel like your life is just one big series of obligations? You have to go to work, have to exercise, have to cook dinner, or volunteer, or grocery shop. While, yes, many of these things need to happen in order for us to live well, a problem arises when we feel like everything is obligatory, nothing freely chosen.
A recent study done by researchers at Texas A&M calculated the effects of belief in free will on a person’s sense of self—with some surprising results. It turns out that having a low sense of free will can have some pretty damaging effects on your self-perception. Participants who felt like they had less free will when deliberating between two choices evaluated themselves negatively on self-awareness, alienation, and authenticity.
Interestingly enough, past research supports this finding; in a study called Prosocial Benefits of Feeling Free, decreasing someone’s sense of free will was associated with an increase in negative behaviors such as aggression and decreased willingness to help others.
The Texas A&M researchers believe this happens because people feel alienated from themselves when they think their choices are because of social influence or other external causes. This sense of alienation is also associated with an increased risk of anxiety and depression. On the other hand, lead author Elizabeth Seto reports that feeling like you have control over your actions increases self-esteem and a sense of meaning in your life, and you become closer to your true or “core” self.
So, how do we put this into practice?
To exercise your free will, setting clear boundaries is necessary, especially if you’re a people pleaser. People pleasers take it upon themselves to be “nice” and take care of others first because they feel like it’s their job to do so, even when it isn’t. Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend, the authors of Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life, call these people “compliants” or “avoidants.” Compliants say yes to the bad, while avoidants say no to the good. And as the title of the book suggests, the best thing to do is learn how to set healthy emotional boundaries so that we know how to keep the bad out and let the good in.
According to the authors, one key to setting boundaries is learning how to say no. Because as much as you want to, there’s no way that you can do absolutely every little thing that comes your way. Learning to say no will not only help increase your sense of self, but it’ll also save you from burnout. Prioritizing what’s most important to you helps you regain belief in your free will and your power to exercise it.
If setting boundaries leaves you with a little extra time on your hands, that’s OK. Part of being in control of your life is embracing leisure and practicing self-care. Do something that you want to do for once. Whether that’s taking a trip or sleeping in on a Saturday morning, you’re sure to feel more of who you truly are in the long run.
If facing an overloaded schedule means not feeling like yourself, you’re better off embracing the gift of your free will and taking that break.
Photo Credit: Jess Hunter Photography