During my years of working to support self-determination, I often wonderedCovid Isolation about the degree to which any of us, are ever self-determined. At times, this has felt to be a bit of an existential crisis. I’ve spent my whole career examining how we can support individuals to be self-determined. What if it doesn’t exist? The Pandemic gave me an opportunity to examine this question in more depth. Below is some of my writing from this time of isolation and uncertainty. My thinking about this is still a work in progress. I would love to hear your thoughts. You can submit them through the comments section below or email me at sharon@beselfdetermination.com

April 2020

I am not feeling very self-determined these days. This prompted me to think about whether or not self-determination is even remotely possible when it’s now a challenge to feel in control of even the most basic tasks, like getting groceries or finding a way to go to the bathroom, if God forbid, we leave the house. Although we are now experiencing intense barriers to our movement and actions by a demon outside our control, the reality is that we all experience restrictions on our actions by factors outside our control on a regular basis. Some of us (the elderly, those with disabilities, members of minority groups) experience more restrictions on our actions from outside influences than others. However, all of us, whether we’re part of an underrepresented group or not, confront barriers to self-determination that aren’t of our own making every day. This leads us to a question:

Are any of us ever  self-determined?

If we think of self-determination as being able to do whatever we want, whenever we want, the answer to that question is clearly “No.” However, a closer look at Self-Determination Theory (Ryan and Deci, 2000) and the Action Model for Self-Determination (Field & Hoffman, 1992, 2016), leads to a different, more nuanced, conclusion.

Self-determination Theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000) asserts that self-determination and intrinsic motivation are increased when our innate psychological needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness are met. The degree to which these needs are satisfied occurs on a continuum; It’s not an either/or, zero sum game. At a time when one of my biggest choices of the day seems to be whether we should have happy hour in the living room, the dining room or on the patio, I can’t say that my need for autonomy is totally fulfilled right now, but it’s not entirely unfulfilled either. Bottom line, at the moment, the degree to which my need for autonomy is met is—shall we say?—below average. What about my psychological need to perceive myself as competent? Once again, if my biggest choice during the day is where we have happy hour, does it increase my sense of competence if I make a good decision about that? Not so much. Two strikes against psychological needs being met. Let’s move on to relatedness. I love the three people I am living with in this Groundhog Day existence and I trust that it is bringing us all closer to each other. For friends and family I’m not living with, we’re staying connected by screens, more than we were before actually. I am grateful for all of these people, but, as a result of the limitations  Covid has created, my sense of satisfaction from relationships overall has taken a hit too. The increase in barriers and the decrease in supports in my environment as a result of Covid have clearly affected my self-determination in a negative manner. However, how I assess, plan and act within those environmental limitations determines if I maximize or minimize my degree of self-determination within the contextual boundaries.

This interplay between barriers and supports in our environments  and our actions that increase, or decrease, self-determination happens to all of us, all of the time, whether we’re in a pandemic  or not. Contextual supports and barriers to self-determination change on a daily basis. Our ability to assess and take action within those constraints and supports determines whether our self-determination is maximized or minimized. We are social beings living in context with others and those others (including both those who are near and dear to us and those who are far away [I’m looking at you presidents, governors, congresspersons and public health experts]) have an impact, both positive and negative, on our ability to pursue what we want every day of our lives. None of us are ever totally self-determined. However, all of us are almost always, to some degree, self-determined. Working within the barriers and opportunities available to us, we have the ability to maximize or minimize the degree to which we are creating the lives we want.

The Action Model for Self-Determination  (Field & Hoffman, 1992;2016) is another tool that can help illuminate the interaction between contextual variables and individual actions that affect self-determination. The Action Model was developed by researchers at Wayne State University after interviewing hundreds of people and asking them questions like “how does a self-determined person act?”, “what helps, or hinders, you in being self-determined?” and  “what is self-determination?” After analyzing the interview responses, we concluded that whether or not one experiences a sense of self-determination is affected both by environmental factors (e.g. opportunities for choice, support from others) and specific knowledge, beliefs and skills of the individual. The individual factors are organized according to five categories:

  • know yourself and your context,
  • value yourself,
  • plan,
  • act,
  • experience outcomes and learn.

According to the model, individuals contribute to, or limit, their self-determination by their choices and actions. The context in which individuals are choosing and acting also has an effect on that person’s self-determination. So, once again, is anyone completely self-determined? No. Does everyone have an impact on the degree to which they do, or do not, experience self-determination? Yes.

The Covid experience provides us with a vivid example of how detrimental some environments can be to our ability to be self-determined.  This may help explain why self-determination has often been a topic talked about more within oppressed groups than among those who are privileged. Marginalized groups have lived with more environmental barriers to their self-determination. They have often experienced the pain associated with limits to self-determination more acutely. However, we learned through the Pandemic that even within the confines of shelter-in-place that severely limit environmental supports for the key needs of autonomy, relatedness and competence, we can make choices that lead to increased, albeit limited, self-determination. The environmental constraints on self-determination still cause pain. They decrease our motivation and keep us from being who we want to be in the world.

This open-eyed, full catastrophe view is a sharp contrast to what I call the Empowerment Porn or Toxic Positivity that is abundant in our culture.

       “You can be anything you want to be!!”

       “The sky’s the limit!”

       “If you can dream it, you can achieve it.”

We are sending the wrong message—to ourselves and others–when we indulge these platitudes. If we believe this and our dreams don’t come true, we’re only left with disappointment and ourselves to blame. That’s not what self-determination is about. These beliefs suggest that we have total control over what happens to us and we don’t.  Self-determination is about understanding and loving ourselves, being astute about opportunities and supports available to us and seeing just how far we can go within the limits and supports of the contexts in which we find ourselves. Just maybe, we can make some changes in the environments we find ourselves in as well.

As a replacement to these platitudes, I suggest we consider:

Explore and dream. Try new things, Find the opportunities available to you and identify the barriers you see to getting what you want. Examine those barriers to see if there are ways you can get around them or knock them down. Establish goals and give them your best shot one baby step at a time. Relish your successes and learn from both your successes and your mistakes. Will you get everything you want? Probably not, but you never know how far you can go until you try. If you do this, you will be more self-determined, and you will increase your ability to be more self-determined throughout your lifetime.

This is true for all of us. It’s as true when we’re stuck at home in the middle of a pandemic as it is when the sky is sunny and it’s smooth sailing. If we can take this perspective, self-determination can become reality every day of our lives.




Covid Isolation

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  1. Sharon – Thank you for sharing your perspective from the Time of COVID, which will continue to be true as the impact of the pandemic plays out for who knows how long. You offered more realistic ways to plan, dream, and be self-determined in contrast to unrealistic platitudes. As someone who works with teenagers and college students, this reframing is very important. Not everyone is going be becoming a millionaire by creating their own YouTube channel, right?!

    Your post will keep me thinking, too, about the developmental process of agency. Those of us who are adults have so much history (hopefully) of personal accomplishments to draw upon when the world suddenly limits our desire to pursue new goals. Due to their age, a lot of young people have yet to experience a great deal of agency, success, or control over their lives. I wonder how COVID will impact their maturing ability to draw upon a foundation of agency to dream about a better future, create goals, and enact plans to get there?

    • David,
      Thank you for sharing your thoughtful perspective. Your discussion about young people often not having as many past accomplishments to rely on made me think about one of the key things we have learned about self-determination. Self-determination and self-efficacy–a belief in our agency–are built by taking action and having experiences that lead to self-determination. Thoughts alone are insufficient to become more self-determined. It may be more challenging to help young people take action and have an effect on their futures when options are limited, but it is possible. In fact, our experience and research tells us that it is the only way to build self-determination and agency.

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