Developing a thorough understanding of our strengths, weaknesses, needs and preferences, as well as the opportunities and barriers in our environments, is fundamental to self-determination. We need to take time to explore and get to know ourselves rather than just going through our routines on auto-pilot. It’s important to try lots of different things so that we can know what we really enjoy. Having a variety of experiences to draw from and knowledge of a wide array of options helps us make informed choices. Once we know our strengths, weaknesses, needs and preferences, making choices and establishing goals that are meaningful to us comes pretty easily. Having a thorough knowledge of our strengths and weaknesses helps us create realistic short-term goals and efficient plans to accomplish them. Finally, we need good decision-making skills to help us weigh the benefits and potential pitfalls of our potential goals and actions.
To be self-determined we need to believe in ourselves and know that we have the right to pursue what we desire. Self-acceptance is essential. Self-acceptance, like self-determination, requires an acceptance of the total self, even those characteristics we may regard as weaknesses. This is often one of the greatest challenges to becoming more self-determined as many of us know our faults all too well. We often spend precious time and energy trying to cover up or run away from things we don’t like in ourselves; we could be putting those same resources toward creating the life that we desire.
One way to move toward greater self-acceptance is to find and celebrate hidden strengths we have developed to compensate for or cope with weaknesses. For example, if one of my weaknesses is that I easily become angered, the power that weakness has over me may be diminished if I can understand how, in some situations, that “weakness” may serve me (e.g., anger may alert me to situations I believe are wrong, and motivate me to take action about it or maybe I have learned to develop more self-discipline to compensate for angering easily). The more we are able to accept our weaknesses, even though we don’t like them, it is more likely that the power of weaknesses over us will be minimized. We will also then increase our ability to take action aimed at correcting weaknesses if we choose to.
An important element of valuing ourselves is recognizing our rights and responsibilities. Believing in our right to pursue goals and be treated respectfully is key to self-determination. Equally important is the ability to assume responsibility for our actions. When we assume greater responsbility, personal control is typically increased as well.
When we value ourselves we take care of ourselves emotionally, mentally, and physically. It is hard to imagine successfully accomplishing, or even identifying, important goals if we’re overly tired, stressed, or otherwise physically, mentally, or emotionally unhealthy. Learning, and engaging in, healthy “self-care” provides us with the energy and means to know and pursue what’s most important to us.
Self-determination doesn’t happen by ourselves alone. We are social creatures and we need good relationships to be self-determined. Ryan and Deci (2000) identified relatedness as one of three psychological needs that needs to be met to foster increased self-determination. In our research to identify the personal characteristics associated with self-determination the most common response to our question “what helps you be self-determined?” was “friends and family”. Not surprisingly, the most frequent answer to our question “what gets in the way of your self-determination?” was the same: “friends and family”. Experiencing the warmth, security and sense of support that comes from creating and nurturing positive relationships in our lives is one of the most important elements that can advance our self-determination.