The Desire For Autonomy

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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.

Next WeekThe Desire For Competence

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  • In a word—BRILLIANT! I couldn’t agree more because autonomy is VERY high on my list of values. It explains so much of why I’ve done what I have in my life (leaving academia, leaving group practice, starting my own practice & business ventures). It also pinpoints why I find parenting so hard at times. I very intentionally chose to have 4 children and love them dearly, but they HAVE clipped my wings! I think it’s important to recognize when we’re feeling a little “caged” and allow ourselves some controlled freedoms. Much like a dieter who severely restricts and then “binges” I think those of us with a strong autonomy streak need give ourselves opportunities to feel “free” to avoid self destructive behaviors. I combine my love of learning and my career with the desire to wander by attending conferences or other academic pursuits every month or two. I acknowledge my need to “get away,” know that I’ll “come back,” and learn something valuable in the process. In any situation I think self-awareness and the ability to exercise self-control usually result in one making the best choices given their own unique situation. Thanks you again for providing me with your writing a penetrating glimpse of the obvious! 😉

    Kara: Glad you liked it.


  • Thank you for exploring this topic. I often wonder why some people, like myself, have such strong needs for autonomy and freedom, and others (perhaps a majority of Americans) seem to have much less and prefer the feeling of security over freedom. To me, things like marriage (and sometimes all relationships), home ownership and having children all feels like bondage (I also don’t like debt, clutter or owning too much stuff). I have often felt like I have the soul of a gypsy or belong in some kind of nomadic culture. Settling down feels like death (I realize this feels comforting to others).

    I wonder what it must be like for inmates in prison. My guess is that they must work very hard at feeling free in their minds (The Oprah Network program, Super Soul Sunday, just had a documentary, called The Dharma Brothers, on meditation programs in prison—beautiful).

    I remember watching the miniseries, Roots, as a young child and feeling such intense emotions around the issue of slavery. No one in my family could understand why I (a 9-year-old white girl) couldn’t stop talking about it.

    Whether it is hardwired in our brain chemistry or whether it is an issue of the soul, freedom and autonomy seem to be at the core of who we are.

  • The drive for autonomy probably relates to the drive to be the alpha, to be in control. After a lifetime of zealously guarding my autonomy and enjoying being in charge and getting my way, I find myself with a health condition that has suddenly zapped me in many ways, compromised my ability to be autonomous, and left me to depend on the very person who has learned to enjoy me being independent, i.e., not someone to take care of. So I’m coming to feel that any lopsided system, in terms of dependence vs. independence, autonomy vs interdependence, that is out of balance, is more vulnerable to change and less strong, less resilient, than any dynamic system that embraces change and mutual give and take in a healthy way.

  • I remember that micro-compromises post. It was very eye-opening and one of my favorites. Another great one (as far as relationships go) was the one on Tone. Both those posts go a long way toward helping to keep peace/patience in a relationship.

  • Ah ha! Thanks for this. Now I see why my husband takes umbrage at almost any “suggestion” I make. I suspected that he felt I was trying to “control” him, and so have backed off, softened, and kept my mouth shut more of the time—found different words and attitudes. These tactics are helping, but your essay also helps by clarifying what’s going on, confirming that it’s real.

    I always find something interesting at “Happiness in This World.”


  • Hello, this is a great topic. I am sure that one of the reasons I have wrestled with motherhood so much is that my autonomy has been so compromised!! I have always been so independent. Having all four children at school now has helped with this a lot, as does remembering that I really did chose to have some (but not all!!) of the kids, and that everything is changing all the time.

    My husband works away from home a lot. This year he spends five weeks away in the Middle East and is then home for three to four weeks. This works for us as we are both pretty independent, there are lots of things I like about being on my own, even with all the kids to care for.

    The idea of re-seeing how things are, of realizing that I have many choices in all sorts of ways, does make a big difference.

  • I wonder how much resentment occurs in relationships or life in general because of a perceived loss of autonomy? I’m referring to those situations in which a person feels they “should” go somewhere or “should” do something because they think someone (a parent, spouse, society in general, etc.) expects it of them when in reality they probably don’t care. I’ve learned to step back when I feel I “have to” do something and decide if it’s really someone else’s expectation or is it just what I think they expect.

  • This is such a helpful post for me! Thought provoking! Reframing my thinking about my choices will go far in helping me see my compromises less as loss of autonomy and more as methods of enabling me to continue to choose my autonomous desire. Thank you!

  • […] with them. Finally, Radcliff argues that the welfare state increases a sense of agency, or autonomy, which studies suggest is crucial to […]