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What is Autonomy?

Updated: Nov 27, 2020

Autonomy can be defined as the ability to make choices according to our own free will rather than having them made for us. Autonomy is about understanding and acting on our own values and interests and despite the influence of outside factors, behaving in a way that reflects our choice.


We are not born autonomous, autonomy is something that we develop as we mature throughout childhood and adolescence. Dependency is an important aspect of our early years, however, to support our developing sense of self, we need to experience separation. This separation or emerging autonomy enables us to explore and acquire new skills, supports independent and critical thinking and inspires confidence.


Across cultures, autonomy is a fundamental human need. Autonomy supports our ability to reason, to appreciate different points of view, and to debate with others. Autonomy enables us to have more control over our thoughts and emotions which in turn supports us to feel independent and able to say no to outside pressures.


People who experience autonomy report higher levels of psychological health, satisfaction and social functioning. Autonomous people have an increased sense of wellbeing and self-esteem and a well-developed understanding of what matters to them.

Research suggests that restrictions on our autonomy may lie at the heart of a great deal of our unhappiness. If we feel coerced by internal pressure such as guilt or shame or external pressure from others, our sense of autonomy vanishes and can reinforce feelings of low self-esteem. When we lack autonomy, we are more likely to react to and worry about others expectations and reactions and defer to their opinion, in the absence of our own.


Some social circumstances can help us to be more autonomous, and others can undermine autonomy. Having the opportunity to consider meaningful alternatives to our actions and ways of thinking through shared dialogue and personal interaction can support us to reconsider our values. By contrast, oppressive social attitudes, rigid social hierarchies and lack of meaningful choices make it more difficult to develop autonomy.


In addition to the psychological benefits, embracing autonomy in our work whether that be as a student or employee, can boost motivation, support creative thinking and enable us to perform and complete tasks. In this context, identifying a sense of option and choice allows us to engage in activities in a meaningful way rather than acting on something purely because we are following an order.

Of course, life doesn't always permit autonomy. If we want to achieve certain things, we have to take certain actions sometimes in opposition to our own desires. However, understanding why we are voluntarily surrendering our autonomy can help. We always have the power to say no. We just need to be prepared to live with the consequences of that choice. When you remind yourself of that, the choice to say yes feels more like your own.



Steve Race

Manager - Student Wellbeing Service



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