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How Does Self-Determination Impact Motivation?

Jessica Pontis, LCSW

Have there ever been times when your life has felt out of control? Where no matter what you do nothing seems to change and you begin to feel powerless over your own circumstances? If the answer to these questions is yes, then it may be worthwhile exploring the topic of self-determination, and how that impacts our ability to motivate ourselves to change.  Self-determination refers to the person’s feelings about the control that they have in their lives and their choices.  

People feel more motivated to act when they feel their efforts will be effective in creating the desired outcome.  If we are used to feeling like nothing we do is helpful, it is easy to feel discouraged and unmotivated because that would indicate that we feel we have limited self-determination.  This concept can be extended to many areas in life including work, parenting, health, and relationships. 

In order for an individual to feel they have control in their lives, and thus feel as though they have good self-determination, they need to feel solid in three distinct areas.  These areas include autonomy, competence, and connectedness. 

Autonomy refers to the idea that a person feels in control of their own behaviors and goals.  This means that someone needs to recognize that they are making all the calls in their own lives and feel like they are the captain of their own ships. When an individual feels like they are lacking in this area it may feel like someone else is calling the shots and setting goals for them, whether that be a boss, parent, or partner.  

Competence is the level of mastery someone feels they have in certain tasks or ability to learn new skills. If someone feels that they have the skills needed to succeed someone is much more likely to take action to make a change. If these criteria are not met, then someone may feel they lack the confidence to take the first step in making change, or will only begin the process of change-making after doing significant research or after receiving reassurance and validation from others.  

Connectedness indicates that a person would need to feel a sense of belongingness in order to create change, or would need to reflect on how their community would be impacted if they were to seek change.  A good example of how connectedness impacts self-determination is if someone is hesitant to address concerns around alcohol use because of what it would mean for their social life. Someone may feel less likely to engage in change if it means significantly disrupting their feelings of being in a community with others.

There are ways in which an individual can work to improve self-determination and connecting with a therapist can be a start to regaining feelings of control in your life.  One way of improving self-determination is to challenge the thoughts that tell you don’t’ have control over your actions or ability to make changes in your life. Additionally, it’s helpful to work on improving self-motivation, where you rely less and less on external rewards and punishments to feel comfortable taking actions for intrinsic benefits. These actions should be towards accomplishing your own goals and desired behaviors. This means that if you feel someone is setting goals for you and not taking your own desires into consideration, setting appropriate and healthy boundaries would be helpful. Also, take responsibility for your actions, both good and bad, so that it becomes easier to recognize the connection between your actions and how that impacts the environment around you.  

The road to feeling in control of your life and power can seem daunting at times.  If you feel that you would like to connect with someone to walk with you on this journey reach out to one of the licensed therapists with Symmetry Counseling.  You can reach out to us online at, or by calling us at (312) 578-9990 to set up an appointment.

Cherry, K. (2021, March 15). How does self-determination theory explain motivation? Verywell Mind. Retrieved

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