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Depression & Anxiety: Freedom Without Responsibility
John G. Messerly   Mar 1, 2015   The Meaning of Life  

Consider these two questions: 1) Are you responsible for being depressed or anxious? And 2) Should you feel guilty or ashamed of being depressed or anxious? Let’s consider the first question.

Here are four possibilities:

1) You’re not free, and thus you are not responsible for being depressed;
2) You’re free, and thus you are responsible for being depressed;
3) You’re not free, but you are still responsible for being depressed;
4) You’re free, but you are not responsible for being depressed.

​Consider the benefits and costs to each option:

  • The benefit of adopting #1 is that you don’t feel responsible for your situation; the cost is that you don’t feel free to change your situation.
  • The benefit of #2 is that you do feel free to change your situation; the cost is that you feel responsible for your situation.
  • This view only has costs; you don’t feel free to change your situation, and you do hold yourself responsible for your situation.
  • This view only has benefits; you feel free to change your situation, and you don’t feel responsible for your situation.

From a cost/benefit analysis you should choose #4. Why don’t people do this? Probably because they don’t think #4 makes sense. Most people think that either #1 or #2 is true. But #3 and #4 are possibilities too. We might live in a determined world where people should be held responsible (#3). Our mental states might be determined, but we are responsible for taking drugs or going to counseling to change those states. Or we might live in a free world where people shouldn’t be held responsible (#4). We might be free to choose our actions and mental states, but not be responsible for them because determinism is very strong.

I’m not saying which if any of these options best represents the state of the world, I’m just saying we don’t know which one is best. We can’t definitely answer the question, “Am I responsible for being depressed or anxious?” What we can say is that you might as well believe #4. To do this just accept that the past is determined, it is closed—you can’t affect it. But the future is not determined, it is open—you can affect it. (These claims could be wrong if backward causation is possible, or if fatalism is true. But almost no professional philosophers hold such views.) So it is easy to believe that we are free but not responsible.

Now consider the second question: Should you feel guilty for being depressed or anxious? Here an insight from Stoicism is invaluable—we can’t change the way some things are, but we can change our view of those things. Guilt and shame are attitudes toward reality that we can reject. So just say, “I will not feel guilt or shame.” Of course we can choose shame and guilt, and if we do we shouldn’t feel guilty about that either. But we can choose not to do this too. We can say, to hell with guilt! So go ahead and say it. To hell with guilt! Remember, guilt is something that other people or organizations use so that they can control you. Don’t let them manipulate you. Control your view of things.

Now suppose you try to change your attitude, but a week or a month or a year later you still feel guilty about being depressed. I say keep trying, but don’t feel guilty about feeling guilty. Remember, you’re only free, if at all, regarding your actions in the present! And the present recedes into the past instantaneously. So just keep telling yourself: “right now I’m free to try to reject guilt, and if I’m not successful I won’t feel guilty.”

But don’t try to hard either. Things take time, patience is a virtue. Relax, accept yourself, and let the guilt slowly recede. Remember that everything changes, and you will too. Go with the flow, change with the universe, and don’t fight too hard. Flow as peacefully as possible down the river of life.

In other words, don’t forget the Taoist concept of wu wei. Wu wei literally means “without action”, “without effort”, or “without control.” It also means “action without action” or “effortless doing” or “action that does not involve struggle or excessive effort.” This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t act or that the will is bad, but that we should place our will and actions in harmony with nature. And sometimes nature will take time to cure our ailments. Sometimes we just have to wait for things to pass. And all things will pass.

John G. Messerly is an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET. He received his PhD in philosophy from St. Louis University in 1992. His most recent book is The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Scientific, and Transhumanist Perspectives. He blogs daily on issues of philosophy, evolution, futurism and the meaning of life at his website:


No. The reason people don’t take #4 seriously is that just saying “You’re free” doesn’t tell me HOW to stop being depressed/anxious. Furthermore, semantic philosophical distinctions between “free” and “responsible” really don’t do anything to address the underlying emotional dynamics. What we need to know is how and to what extent it is possible IN PRACTICE to alter our moods. To the extent that it isn’t we had better accept them (and I really don’t give a damn whether you tell me I’m “free” or “responsible” or not), and we can use mindfulness techniques to help us do that. To the extent it is possible to alter our moods (again, IN PRACTICE, not from the perspective of philosophical argument), we need to know how, and whether there are side effects.

My own approach to this is to favour acceptance, and once I’ve accepted whatever mood I happen to be in I try to channel it as best I can into whatever I’m trying (or think I should be trying) to do at the time. If one has sufficient flexibility, one can also take one’s mood into consideration when deciding what to do. For example, mild depression is an excellent mood to be in if you want to take a cold hard look at uncomfortable realities and analyse them dispassionately. If you want to pitch a client on the other hand, better to be in a good mood.

By the way, there ARE ways one can alter one’s mood in the short term (like drinking coffee for example), but over-reliance on such methods can cause problems, which is why I tend to favour acceptance, at least as a default. For a self-help presentation of these ideas I thoroughly recommend The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris.

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