Erich Fromm

Mechanisms of Escape from Freedom




These are passages from Chapter V of Fear from Freedom. Fromm explores and presents the psychological and social mechanisms that lead an individual to be afraid of freedom and to prefer to give it up. They appear as the tendency to be led by a "superior" power and/or to behave like a social automaton conforming to a role assigned to him by others or by circumstances. And there is also the drive to destructiveness (towards others or towards himself) when the feeling of powerlessness is overwhelming. In all those cases freedom to conduct his/her own personal and social life is nowhere to be seen.




The first mechanism of escape from freedom I am going to deal with is the tendency to give up the independence of one's own individual self and to fuse one's self with somebody or something outside oneself in order to acquire the strength which the individual self is lacking. Or, to put it in different words, to seek for new, “secondary bonds” as a substitute for the primary bonds which have been lost.

The more distinct forms of this mechanism are to be found in the striving for submission and domination, or, as we would rather put it, in the masochistic and sadistic strivings as they exist in varying degrees in normal and neurotic persons respectively. We shall first describe these tendencies and then try to show that both of them are an escape from an unbearable aloneness.

The most frequent forms in which masochistic strivings appear are feelings of inferiority, powerlessness, individual insignificance. The analysis of persons who are obsessed by these feelings shows that, while they consciously complain about these feelings and want to get rid of them, unconsciously some power within themselves drives them to feel inferior or insignificant. Their feelings are more than realizations of actual shortcomings and weaknesses (although they are usually rationalized as though they were); these persons show a tendency to belittle themselves, to make themselves weak, and not to master things. Quite regularly these people show a marked dependence on powers outside themselves, on other people, or institutions, or nature. They tend not to assert themselves, not to do what they want, but to submit to the factual or alleged orders of these outside forces. Often they are quite incapable of experiencing the feeling “I want” or “I am.” Life, as a whole, is felt by them as something overwhelmingly powerful, which they cannot master or control.

In the more extreme cases - and there are many - one finds besides these tendencies to belittle oneself and to submit to outside forces a tendency to hurt oneself and to make oneself suffer.

This tendency can assume various forms. We find that there are people who indulge in self-accusation and self-criticism which even their worst enemies would scarcely bring against them. There are others, such as certain compulsive neurotics, who tend to torture themselves with compulsory rites and thoughts. In a certain type of neurotic personality we find a tendency to become physically ill, and to wait, consciously or unconsciously, for an illness as if it were a gift of the gods. Often they incur accidents which would not have happened had there not been at work an unconscious tendency to incur them. These tendencies directed against themselves are often revealed in still less overt or dramatic forms. For instance, there are persons who are incapable of answering questions in an examination when the answers are very well known to them at the time of the examination and even afterwards. There are others who say things which antagonize those whom they love or on whom they are dependent, although actually they feel friendly towards them and did not intend to say those things. With such people, it almost seems as if they were following advice given them by an enemy to behave in such a way as to be most detrimental to themselves.

The masochistic trends are often felt as plainly pathological or irrational. More frequently they are rationalized. Masochistic dependency is conceived as love or loyalty, inferiority feelings as an adequate expression of actual shortcomings, and one's suffering as being entirely due to unchangeable circumstances.

Besides these masochistic trends, the very opposite of them, namely, sadistic tendencies, are regularly to be found in the same kind of characters. They vary in strength, are more or less conscious, yet they are never missing. We find three kinds of sadistic tendencies, more or less closely knit together. One is to make others dependent on oneself and to have absolute and unrestricted power over them, so as to make of them nothing but instruments, "clay in the potter's hand.” Another consists of the impulse not only to rule over others in this absolute fashion, but to exploit them, to use them, to steal from them, to disembowel them, and, so to speak, to incorporate anything eatable in them. This desire can refer to material things as well as to immaterial ones, such as the emotional or intellectual qualities a person has to offer. A third kind of sadistic tendency is the wish to make others suffer or to see them suffer. This suffering can be physical, but more often it is mental suffering. Its aim is to hurt actively, to humiliate, embarrass others, or to see them in embarrassing and humiliating situations.

Sadistic tendencies for obvious reasons are usually less conscious and more rationalized than the socially more harmless masochistic trends. Often they are entirely covered up by reaction formations of over-goodness or over-concern for others. Some of the most frequent rationalizations are the following: “I rule over you because I know what is best for you, and in your own interest you should follow me without opposition.” Or, “I am so wonderful and unique, that I have a right to expect that other people become dependent on me.” Another rationalization which often covers the exploiting tendencies is: “I have done so much for you, and now I am entitled to take from you what I want.” The more aggressive kind of sadistic impulses finds its most frequent rationalization in two forms: “I have been hurt by others and my wish to hurt them is nothing but retaliation,” or, “By striking first I am defending myself or my friends against the danger of being hurt.”


The annihilation of the individual self and the attempt to overcome thereby the unbearable feeling of powerlessness are only one side of the masochistic strivings. The other side is the attempt to become a part of a bigger and more powerful whole outside of oneself, to submerge and participate in it. This power can be a person, an institution, God, the nation, conscience, or a psychic compulsion. By becoming part of a power which is felt as unshakably strong, eternal, and glamorous, one participates in its strength and glory. One surrenders one's own self and renounces all strength and pride connected with it, one loses one's integrity as an individual and surrenders freedom; but one gains a new security and a new pride in the participation in the power in which one submerges. One gains also security against the torture of doubt. The masochistic person, whether his master is an authority outside himself or whether he has internalized the master as conscience or a psychic compulsion, is saved from making decisions, saved from the final responsibility for the fate of his self, and thereby saved from the doubt of what decision to make. He is also saved from the doubt of what the meaning of his life is or who “he” is. These questions are answered by the relationship to the power to which he has attached himself. The meaning of his life and the identity of his self are determined by the greater whole into which the self has submerged.

The masochistic bonds are fundamentally different from the primary bonds. The latter are those that exist before the process of individuation has reached its completion. The individual is still part of “his” natural and social world, he has not yet completely emerged from his surroundings. The primary bonds give him genuine security and the knowledge of where he belongs. The masochistic bonds are escape. The individual self has emerged, but it is unable to realize his freedom; it is overwhelmed by anxiety, doubt, and a feeling of powerlessness. The self attempts to find security in "secondary bonds," as we might call the masochistic bonds, but this attempt can never be successful. The emergence of the individual self cannot be reversed; consciously the individual can feel secure and as if he “belonged,” but basically he remains a powerless atom who suffers under the submergence of his self. He and the power to which he clings never become one, a basic antagonism remains and with it an impulse, even if it is not conscious at all, to overcome the masochistic dependence and to become free.


Frequently, and not only in the popular usage, sadomasochism is confounded with love. Masochistic phenomena, especially, are looked upon as expressions of love.
An attitude of complete self-denial for the sake of another person and the surrender of one's own rights and claims to another person have been praised as examples of "great love." It seems that there is no better proof for “love” than sacrifice and the readiness to give oneself up for the sake of the beloved person.
Actually, in these cases, “love” is essentially a masochistic yearning and rooted in the symbiotic need of the person involved. If we mean by love the passionate affirmation and active relatedness to the essence of a particular person, if we mean by it the union with another person on the basis of the independence and integrity of the two persons involved, then masochism and love are opposites. Love is based on equality and freedom. If it is based on subordination and loss of integrity of one partner, it is masochistic dependence, regardless of how the relationship is rationalized. Sadism also appears frequently under the disguise of love. To rule over another person, if one can claim that to rule him is for that person's own sake, frequently appears as an expression of love, but the essential factor is the enjoyment of domination.

At this point a question will have arisen in the mind of many a reader: Is not sadism, as we have described it here, identical with the craving for power? The answer to this question is that although the more destructive forms of sadism, in which the aim is to hurt and torture another person, are not identical with the wish for power, the latter is the most significant expression of sadism. The problem has gained added significance in the present day. Since Hobbes, one has seen in power the basic motive of human behaviour; the following centuries, however, gave increased weight to legal and moral factors which tended to curb power. With the rise of Fascism, the lust for power and the conviction of its right has reached new heights.

Millions are impressed by the victories of power and take it for the sign of strength. To be sure, power over people is an expression of superior strength in a purely material sense. If I have the power over another person to kill him, I am “stronger” than he is. But in a psychological sense, the lust for power is not rooted in strength but in weakness.
It is the expression of the inability of the individual self to stand alone and live. It is the desperate attempt to gain secondary strength where genuine strength is lacking.
The word “power” has a twofold meaning. One is the possession of power over somebody, the ability to dominate him; the other meaning is the possession of power to do something, to be able, to be potent. The latter meaning has nothing to do with domination; it expresses mastery in the sense of ability. If we speak of powerlessness we have this meaning in mind; we do not think of a person who is not able to dominate others, but of a person who is not able to do what he wants.

Thus power can mean one of two things, domination or potency. Far from being identical, these two qualities are mutually exclusive. Impotence, using the term not only with regard to the sexual sphere but to all spheres of human potentialities, results in the sadistic striving for domination; to the extent to which an individual is potent, that is, able to realize his potentialities on the basis of freedom and integrity of his self, he does not need to dominate and is lacking the lust for power. Power, in the sense of domination, is the perversion of potency, just as sexual sadism is the perversion of sexual love.



We have already mentioned that the sado-masochistic strivings have to be differentiated from destructiveness, although they are mostly blended with each other. Destructiveness is different since it aims not at active or passive symbiosis but at elimination of its object.
But it, too, is rooted in the unbearableness of individual powerlessness and isolation. I can escape the feeling of my own powerlessness in comparison with the world outside myself by destroying it. To be sure, if I succeed in removing it, I remain alone and isolated, but mine is a splendid isolation in which I cannot be crushed by the overwhelming power of the objects outside myself. The destruction of the world is the last, almost desperate attempt to save myself from being crushed by it. Sadism aims at incorporation of the object; destructiveness at its removal. Sadism tends to strengthen the atomized individual by the domination over others; destructiveness by the absence of any threat from the outside.

Any observer of personal relations in our social scene cannot fail to be impressed with the amount of destructiveness to be found everywhere. For the most part it is not conscious as such but is rationalized in various ways. As a matter of fact, there is virtually nothing that is not used as a rationalization for destructiveness. Love, duty, conscience, patriotism have been and are being used as disguises to destroy others or oneself. However, we must differentiate between two different kinds of destructive tendencies. There are destructive tendencies which result from a specific situation; as reaction to attacks on one's own or others' life and integrity, or on ideas which one is identified with. This kind of destructiveness is the natural and necessary concomitant of one’s affirmation of life.

The destructiveness here under discussion, however, is not this rational - or as one might call it “reactive" - hostility, but a constantly lingering tendency within a person which so to speak waits only for an opportunity to be expressed.
If there is no objective “reason” for the expression of destructiveness, we call the person mentally or emotionally sick (although the person himself will usually build up some sort of a rationalization). In most cases the destructive impulses, however, are rationalized in such a way that at least a few other people or a whole social group share in the rationalization and thus make it appear to be "realistic" to the member of such a group. But the objects of irrational destructiveness and the particular reasons for their being chosen are only of secondary importance; the destructive impulses are a passion within a person, and they always succeed in finding some object. If for any reason other persons cannot become the object of an individual’s destructiveness, his own self easily becomes the object. When this happens in a marked degree, physical illness is often the result and even suicide may be attempted.
We have assumed that destructiveness is an escape from the unbearable feeling of powerlessness, since it aims at the removal of all objects with which the individual has to compare himself. But in view of the tremendous role that destructive tendencies play in human behaviour, this interpretation does not seem to be a sufficient explanation; the very conditions of isolation and powerlessness are responsible for two other sources of destructiveness: anxiety and the thwarting of life.

Concerning the role of anxiety not much needs to be said.
Any threat against vital (material and emotional) interests creates anxiety, and destructive tendencies are the most common reaction to such anxiety. The threat can be circumscribed in a particular situation by particular persons. In such a case, the destructiveness is aroused towards these persons. It can also be a constant - though not necessarily conscious - anxiety springing from an equally constant feeling of being threatened by the world outside. This kind of constant anxiety results from the position of the isolated and powerless individual and is one other source of the reservoir of destructiveness that develops in him.

Another important outcome of the same basic situation is what I have just called the thwarting of life. The isolated and powerless individual is blocked in realizing his sensuous, emotional, and intellectual potentialities. He is lacking the inner security and spontaneity that are the conditions of such realization. This inner blockage is increased by cultural taboos on pleasure and happiness, like those that have run through the religion and mores of the middle class since the period of the Reformation. Nowadays, the external taboo has virtually vanished, but the inner blockage has remained strong in spite of the conscious approval of sensuous pleasure.


It would seem that the amount of destructiveness to be found in individuals is proportionate to the amount to which expansiveness of life is curtailed. By this we do not refer to individual frustrations of this or that instinctive desire but to the thwarting of the whole of life, the blockage of spontaneity of the growth and expression of man’s sensuous, emotional, and intellectual capacities. Life has an inner dynamism of its own; it tends to grow, to be expressed, to be lived. It seems that if this tendency is thwarted the energy directed towards life undergoes a process of decomposition and changes into energies directed towards destruction. In other words the drive for life and the drive for destruction are not mutually independent factors but are in a reversed interdependence.

The more the drive towards life is thwarted, the stronger is the drive towards destruction; the more life is realized, the less is the strength of destructiveness.
Destructiveness is the outcome of unlived life.
Those individual and social conditions that make for suppression of life produce the passion for destruction that forms, so to speak, the reservoir from which the particular hostile tendencies - either against others or against oneself - are nourished.


Automaton Conformity

In the mechanisms we have been discussing, the individual overcomes the feeling of insignificance in comparison with the overwhelming power of the world outside himself either by renouncing his individual integrity, or by destroying others so that the world ceases to be threatening.

Other mechanisms of escape are the withdrawal from the world so completely that it loses its threat (the picture we find in certain psychotic states), and the inflation of oneself psychologically to such an extent that the world outside becomes small in comparison. Although these mechanisms of escape are important for individual psychology, they are only of minor relevance culturally. I shall not, therefore, discuss them further here, but instead will turn to another mechanism of escape which is of the greatest social significance.

This particular mechanism is the solution that the majority of normal individuals find in modern society. To put it briefly, the individual ceases to be himself; he adopts entirely the kind of personality offered to him by cultural patterns; and he therefore becomes exactly as all others are and as they expect him to be. The discrepancy between “I” and the world disappears and with it the conscious fear of aloneness and powerlessness. This mechanism can be compared with the protective colouring some animals assume. They look so similar to their surroundings that they are hardly distinguishable from them. The person who gives up his individual self and becomes an automaton, identical with millions of other automatons around him, need not feel alone and anxious any more. But the price he pays, however, is high; it is the loss of his self.

The assumption that the "normal" way of overcoming aloneness is to become an automaton contradicts one of the most widespread ideas concerning man in our culture. The majority of us are supposed to be individuals who are free to think, feel, act as they please. To be sure this is not only the general opinion on the subject of modern individualism, but also each individual sincerely believes that he is “he” and that his thoughts, feelings, wishes are “his.” Yet, although there are true individuals among us, this belief is an illusion in most cases and a dangerous one for that matter, as it blocks the removal of those conditions that are responsible for this state of affairs.

We are dealing here with one of the most fundamental problems of psychology which can most quickly be opened up by a series of questions. What is the self? What is the nature of those acts that give only the illusion of being the person's own acts? What is spontaneity? What is an original mental act? Finally, what has all this to do with freedom?


Most people are convinced that as long as they are not overtly forced to do something by an outside power, their decisions are theirs, and that if they want something, it is they who want it. But this is one of the great illusions we have about ourselves.
A great number of our decisions are not really our own but are suggested to us from the outside; we have succeeded in persuading ourselves that it is we who have made the decision, whereas we have actually conformed with expectations of others, driven by the fear of isolation and by more direct threats to our life, freedom, and comfort.

It is a general assumption that most men marry voluntarily. Certainly there are those cases of men consciously marrying on the basis of a feeling of duty or obligation. There are cases in which a man marries because "he" really wants to. But there are also not a few cases in which a man (or a woman for that matter) consciously believes that he wants to marry a certain person while actually he finds himself caught in a sequence of events which leads to marriage and seems to block every escape. All the months leading up to his marriage he is firmly convinced that "he" wants to marry, and the first and rather belated indication that this may not be so is the fact that on the day of his marriage he suddenly gets panicky and feels an impulse to run away. If he is “sensible” this feeling lasts only for a few minutes, and he will answer the question whether it is his intention to marry with the unshakable conviction that it is.

We could go on quoting many more instances in daily life in which people seem to make decisions, seem to want something, but actually follow the internal or external pressure of "having" to want the thing they are going to do. As a matter of fact, in watching the phenomenon of human decisions, one is struck by the extent to which people are mistaken in taking as "their" decision what in effect is submission to convention, duty, or simple pressure. It almost seems that “original” decision is a comparatively rare phenomenon in a society which supposedly makes individual decision the cornerstone of its existence.


This substitution of pseudo acts for original acts of thinking, feeling, and willing, leads eventually to the replacement of the original self by a pseudo self. The original self is the self which is the originator of mental activities. The pseudo self is only an agent who actually represents the role a person is supposed to play but who does so under the name of the self. It is true that a person can play many roles and subjectively be convinced that he is “he” in each role. Actually he is in all these roles what he believes he is expected to be, and for many people, if not most, the original self is completely suffocated by the pseudo self. Sometimes in a dream, in phantasies, or when a person is drunk, some of the original self may appear, feelings and thoughts which the person has not experienced for years. Often they are bad ones which he has repressed because he is afraid or ashamed of them. Sometimes, however, they are the very best things in him, which he has repressed because of his fear of being ridiculed or attacked for having such feelings.


The automatization of the individual in modern society has increased the helplessness and insecurity of the average individual. Thus, he is ready to submit to new authorities which offer him security and relief from doubt.


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