The Desire For Autonomy

The Desire For Autonomy

Psychology November 30, 2012 / By Alex Lickerman, MD
The Desire For Autonomy

Why our need to make choices freely is so crucial to our happiness

Why have people throughout history been willing to fight and even die for their freedom? From one perspective the answer is obvious: oppression causes suffering and we’re all hardwired to flee suffering. But recent research suggests an additional reason: we also seem to be hardwired to desire autonomy.

Autonomy can be defined as the ability to make choices according to one’s own free will. (Whether or not that will is free isn’t relevant here—only that it feels free.) If we feel coerced by even an internal pressure like guilt or shame—to say nothing of external pressures like other people—our feeling of autonomy vanishes.

It turns out that restrictions on our autonomy may lie at the heart of a great deal of our unhappiness. Studies show, for example, that one of the greatest sources of dissatisfaction among doctors isn’t having to deal with insurance companies or paperwork but lack of control over their daily schedules. (I’ve found this to be true: nothing distresses me more in the course of my work day than feeling hurried and unable to control how I spend my time.) I simply hate feeling forced to do things—even things I would want to do if I weren't being forced to do them.

In fact, I find this to be true in all areas of my life. If my wife, for instance, even tells me (as is sometimes her style) to do something I like—exercise, for example—I resent it and will actually want to resist doing it in order to preserve my sense of autonomy. If instead she asks me to do something—even make dinner—I feel free to say no, which frees me to make a reasoned choice unfettered by my need to preserve my autonomy. Studies show that even altruistic action (something shown to increase the well-being of those who take it in almost all instances) will fail to produce good feelings when it’s coerced.

All of which has recently led me to wonder how often relationships fail because of compromised autonomy—how often the microcompromises we must all make to keep our relationships healthy paradoxically sow the seeds of their destruction by compromising our sense of autonomy. In my own case, only in coming to view those microcompromises as gifts—as choices I make freely—did making them stop making me crazy.

In fact, recognizing my need for autonomy has measurably improved my ability to enjoy all of my relationships, helping me to realize that when I have a negative reaction that seems out of proportion it often means I’m feeling a compromised sense of autonomy. Identifying the cause of that then usually helps to prevent me from saying or doing something needlessly damaging. For once I recognize I’m actually reacting to a diminished sense of autonomy I’m able to realize that my reaction is my problem, not someone else’s. From there, reframing the situation in a way that enables me to preserve my sense of autonomy becomes easier. (For example, if I feel like I’m being coerced into doing something, I can tie my choice to do it or not to another choice about which I feel more autonomous—like continuing the relationship at all.)

Life of course often doesn’t permit autonomy. If we want to achieve certain things, we have to take certain action and often lose sight of the goals that force us to take it, focusing only on the action we feel compelled to take (e.g., if we want to be in a relationship we often have to choose our partner’s desires over our own). When we remind ourselves, however, of the reasons we’re doing something we don’t want to do—reasons that represent our autonomous desires—it becomes clear that we’ve voluntarily surrendered our autonomy in the name of our autonomous desires. We always, in fact, have the power to say no. We simply need to be prepared to live with the consequences of that choice. And when I remind myself of that, the choice to say yes feels more like my own.

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