Have you ever wondered why you feel better when you have control and can do things your way? Autonomy in psychology is all about being independent and having control over your life and your choices.
Autonomy isn’t just something that helps you feel empowered—it’s vital to your overall well-being. It can help motivate you, but it can also connect with your mental health.
What Is Autonomy In Psychology?
Autonomy in psychology is having the ability to control your choices and engage in self-directed behaviors. It is a vital human need that allows people freedom as well as responsibilty for their own actions.
Autonomy plays an essential role in the developmental process. Your children begin to acquire a sense of autonomy early in life. According to Erik Erikson, this begins in the autonomy vs shame and doubt stage of psychosocial development.
Autonomy is considered a vital part of psychological well-being. When people are autonomous, they can make decisions and choices that are right for their needs, preferences, and goals.
This can encompass everything from romantic relationships to career choices. Being able to make choices that align with our needs and goals helps us stay motivated, healthy, and happy in our lives.
Components of Autonomy
Researchers suggest two main components of autonomy in psychology: competence and authenticity.
Competence refers to a person’s ability to form goals and act upon them. To do this, people must be able to:
- Weigh their options
- Select their preferred options
- Create a plan to achieve their goals
- Utilize self-control while pursuing the goal
- Resist temptation
- Avoid distractions
Authenticity refers to how self-image relates to values, desires, commitments, and beliefs that help motivate people to pursue their goals and explain their decisions. Motivational states that a person agrees with are considered authentic, while those they would not agree with are deemed inauthentic.
Researchers note that ambivalence and inner conflict are perfectly normal and often play an important role in helping people experience autonomy. Part of autonomy is weighing many choices, even those that may be in conflict, and then making commitments based on motivations, goals, and preferences.
How Autonomy Contributes to Self-Determination
According to self-determination theory, people have three key psychological needs:
- Autonomy: Having autonomy means people have the freedom to take the actions that will bring them closer to their goals.
- Competence: This need focuses on the desire to control behaviors and environments.
- Relatedness: Autonomy is important for well-being, but so is relatedness. Where autonomy is all about having personal control over goals and behaviors, relatedness focuses on connecting with others. While these two needs are sometimes presented as opposing forces, it is important to recognize that they exist alongside one another and are both essential for mental health.
Autonomy and self-determination are closely connected concepts, and autonomy plays a significant role in fostering self-determination. Some ways that it can do this include:
Fostering control and independence:
- Autonomy refers to the ability to make independent decisions and have control over one’s own life.
- Autonomy allows individuals to make choices that align with their values, preferences, and personal goals, which is essential for self-determination.
Increasing personal agency:
- Autonomy empowers individuals to act as agents in their own lives. It gives them the sense that their actions and decisions impact their well-being and future.
- Personal agency, in turn, is a key component of self-determination, as it involves actively engaging in one’s own life and pursuing goals with a sense of efficacy.
Increasing intrinsic motivation:
- Autonomy supports intrinsic motivation, which refers to engaging in activities for the inherent satisfaction and enjoyment they provide.
- When individuals can choose their activities and pursue their interests, they are more likely to experience intrinsic motivation, enhancing their sense of self-determination.
Promoting psychological well-being:
- Autonomy is associated with greater psychological well-being. When individuals feel in control of their lives, they are more likely to experience positive emotions, satisfaction, and a sense of fulfillment.
- Positive psychological well-being is closely linked to self-determination, as individuals who feel emotionally and mentally well are better equipped to pursue their goals.
Improving skills and competence:
- Autonomy allows individuals to take responsibility for their actions and learn from their experiences.
- The process of making independent decisions and facing the consequences contributes to the development of skills and competence, which are vital aspects of self-determination.
Autonomous Behavior and Motivation
Self-determination theory also suggests that two different types of motivation drive people to act: intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation.
- Intrinsic motivation involves taking actions because behaviors bring satisfaction. The desire to engage in the behavior arises from within. For example, a person might pursue a hobby because they are passionate about it and they love doing it, not because they are hoping to earn money or other rewards.
- Extrinsic motivation involves engaging in behaviors to obtain some type of external reward or reinforcement. For example, going to work because you want to earn a paycheck is an example of extrinsically motivated behavior.
When it comes to autonomy, these motivational forces can either be autonomous or controlled.
Autonomous motivation involves engaging in an action because you agree with it and see the value in it. This can involve either intrinsic or extrinsic motivators; the key factor is whether it is something you have internalized and now personally endorse.
Controlled motivation involves doing things because you feel obligated or pressured into it. You don’t agree with it, you don’t want to do it, but you feel compelled or forced to conform by outside forces.
Examples of Autonomy In Psychology
Examples of autonomy in different areas of life include:
- Autonomy in motivation: Making choices about the type of hobbies or leisure activities you want to pursue
- Autonomy in decision-making: Making decisions independently without outside pressure
- Autonomy in education: Taking control of what and how you learn
- Autonomy in daily functioning: In mental health, autonomy involves taking action to manage aspects of daily living, managing activities, and self-care
- Autonomy in relationships: While relationships are often focused on relatedness, autonomy is also a key factor that involves being interdependent rather than dependent
The Benefits of Autonomy
Experiencing greater autonomy in your life has a wide variety of benefits:
- Autonomy improves authenticity: When people can make choices about their lives, they are more likely to feel that they are being their truest selves and living according to their beliefs and values.
- Personal growth: Autonomy also helps people learn and grow. Making choices, learning from these decisions, and applying this information to future decisions is an important part of building greater self-awareness.
- Motivation: People feel more motivated when they can control their lives.
Workplace autonomy helps people have greater job satisfaction. When people have greater autonomy, they tend to feel more satisfied in their work. According to the British Psychological Society, this is because autonomy helps people feel more responsible for the quality of their work. Because they have choice and control over decisions, they also feel a sense of pride and satisfaction with the outcomes.
Factors That Contribute to Autonomy
Your level of personal autonomy is influenced by how you were raised, your life experiences, and the culture in which you live.
There are a variety of individual factors that can impact how autonomous people feel in their lives. This can include things such as early childhood experiences, personality characteristics, self-awareness, self-efficacy, and locus of control can all play a part.
- Upbringing: How children are raised, including their caregiver’s parenting styles, can impact how people develop autonomy as they grow. According to Erik Erikson, this skill emerges during the autonomy vs. shame and doubt stage of psychosocial development.
- Self-awareness: People who have a stronger self-awareness are better able to recognize their own needs, wants, goals, and preferences. This allows them to act more autonomously in different areas of their life.
- Self-efficacy: Self-efficacy refers to how capable people feel about being able to manage different tasks in life. People with low self-efficacy are less likely to act independently, while those with high self-efficacy are likelier to believe they have the skills and knowledge to succeed.
- Mental illness: Having a mental health condition can also have an impact on autonomy. Such conditions may make it harder for people to function in different aspects of their lives, which affects their ability to engage in independent behaviors and pursue their goals.
Aspects of your life and your experiences can also play a role in how autonomous you feel in your life. For example, you are more likely to feel autonomous if you have the resources, freedom, and support to try new things and pursue different goals.
Living in poverty, lacking access to resources, lacking social support, or living in a repressive society can all affect a person’s ability to experience autonomy.
Cultural characteristics can also impact how autonomous people in a society feel. People from Western cultures place a heavy emphasis on individualism. This means that people from these cultures tend to see themselves as more independent and autonomous.
This can be good at times because it fosters self-reliance and self-confidence. It can also have downsides since it encourages self-blame and discourages people from seeking help when they need it.
People who are from collectivist cultures, on the other hand, tend to place a greater emphasis on community. However, this does not mean that people from these cultures are less autonomous. Instead, they may view autonomy more in how it allows them to take actions that support the well-being of their loved ones, communities, and societies.
What Happens When You Lack Autonomy
There are a variety of factors that can play a role in interfering with a person’s sense of autonomy. These include things such as:
- Mental illness
- Compulsive behaviors
- Social pressures
- Abusive relationships
- Unstable or dangerous environments
Lack of autonomy can also have a number of serious effects. It can be demotivating and demoralizing when you don’t feel like you have control over your choices or your life. Potential outcomes from feeling like you have no autonomy include:
- Fear, guilt, anger, and resentment
- Chronic stress
- Apathy, cynicism, and disengagement
- Lack of motivation
- Difficulty trusting others
Autonomy can also be threatened as people age and become unable to live independently, make decisions about their lives, and exert control over their environment. Lack of autonomy in the later years of a person’s life is connected to increased symptoms of cognitive decline and depression.
Autonomy In Psychotherapy
Autonomy also plays a crucial role in psychotherapy. When people feel empowered to make choices in their lives, they are more likely to take an active role in their treatment plan.
In a therapeutic context, autonomy is all about people feeling like they have the power to set goals and make choices when it comes to their healing journey. This means that therapy is more of a collaborative process in which the therapist and client work together as a team.
Fostering autonomy in therapy not only increases personal agency, it also helps people gain greater insight into their own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. This awareness serves as a foundation for people to acquire new coping skills that support long-term mental well-being.
How to Build Greater Autonomy
Strategies that can help you gain a greater sense of autonomy in your life include:
Learn More About Yourself
Spend time reflecting on your beliefs, values, and goals. What’s important to you? What do you hope to accomplish? Knowing yourself better can help you feel more active and involved in your own life.
Set short-term and long-term goals. Think about the strategies that you’ll use to achieve your aspirations.
Create and maintain boundaries to help strike a balance between your personal needs and other obligations.
Build a Sense of Self-Efficacy
Work on acquiring knowledge and skills. When you feel more competent and confident in your abilities, you’re more likely to engage in autonomous behavior.
Seek Supportive Relationships
Surround yourself with people who respect your independence but provide support, care, and love.
Be Open to New Experiences
Try to step outside your comfort zone once in a while. Having new experiences can foster greater competence and confidence.
Bergamin J, Luigjes J, Kiverstein J, Bockting CL, Denys D. Defining autonomy in psychiatry. Front Psychiatry. 2022;13:801415. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2022.801415
Hagger MS, Hardcastle SJ, Chater A, Mallett C, Pal S, Chatzisarantis NL. Autonomous and controlled motivational regulations for multiple health-related behaviors: between- and within-participants analyses. Health Psychol Behav Med. 2014;2(1):565-601. doi:10.1080/21642850.2014.912945
Keller H. Psychological autonomy and hierarchical relatedness as organizers of developmental pathways. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2016;371(1686):20150070. doi:10.1098/rstb.2015.0070
Legault L. The need for autonomy. In: Zeigler-Hill V, Shackelford TK, eds. Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences. Springer International Publishing; 2016:1-3. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-28099-8_1120-1
Sánchez-García S, García-Peña C, Ramírez-García E, Moreno-Tamayo K, Cantú-Quintanilla GR. Decreased autonomy in community-dwelling older adults. Clin Interv Aging. 2019;14:2041-2053. doi:10.2147/CIA.S225479
The British Psychological Society. Autonomy: A pillar of success. The Psychologist.
Kendra Cherry, MS.Ed., is an author, educator, and founder of Explore Psychology, an online psychology resource. She is a health writer and editor specializing in psychology, mental health, and wellness. She also writes for Verywell Mind and is the author of the Everything Psychology book (Adams Media).
Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.