An Action Model
for Self-Determination

Click on any section of the model for more information.

Field, S. and Hoffman, A. (2015). An Action Model for Self-Determination. Revised from “Development of Model for Self-Determination,” by S. Field and A. Hoffman, 1994, Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 17(2),. p. 165. (For permission to reprint, please contact sharon@tobeselfdetermined.com.)

Know Yourself and Your Context

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.

Value Yourself

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.

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.

Plan

In order to increase the likelihood for success in self-determination advance planning and preparation is necessary. We need to be able to take what we know about and value in ourselves and create an action plan. This involves setting long-term goals, breaking long-term goals into short-term goals, and breaking short-term goals into a series of steps that, when accomplished, will yield the desired result. In other words, we need to be able to see the BIG VISION and then create baby steps to get there.

Our plans are more likely to take us in a positive direction if we try to anticipate potential results of the actions we’re planning to take. One of the most frequently stated concerns about self-determination is that people, especially young people, may, in their efforts to be self-determined, engage in actions that are too risky. This concern can be partially alleviated by helping young people assume responsibility gradually, so that they begin by making the types of decisions that have less potential for negative impact before they start making decisions that carry a higher degree of risk.  Another way that potential negative effects can be minimized is by identifying the potential negative consequences of actions while we are still in the planning phase of the self-determination process. If we think there may be negative consequences to a planned action, then we can decide whether we want to modify or discard our original plan or if we want to go ahead with our plan as it stands and take the risks.

Creativity is often needed when we are planning for self-determination. Sometimes self-determination doesn’t  come easily; we may encounter significant challenges. Sometimes barriers can be broken down through persistence alone. However, being creative–“thinking outside the box”–can often help us discover unique strategies to get around barriers that persistence alone can’t overcome.

The final element in the planning component of the Self-Determination Action Model is visual rehearsal. We are more likely to be successful in our actions if we practice and imagine ourselves being successful as part of our preparation. Sports psychologists have long acknowledged the importance of athletes mentally rehearsing and imagining themselves succeeding before they compete. Rehearsal (actual physical practice, if possible, or, if not, in our imaginations) can help us become more comfortable with and confident about our planned actions.

Act

Without action, there can be no self-determination! We achieve outcomes by taking action. Furthermore, we develop increased self-awareness and confidence in ourselves as a result of taking action and reflecting on the outcomes of those actions. This increased knowledge and confidence contributes to an upward spiral of self-determination.  Taking action almost always involves some element of risk. Self-determination is advanced when we learn to take calculated risks. The preparation we make for action, especially anticipating and planning for the potential consequences of actions,  helps us minimize risk…..so does a sense of social support.

Being able to communicate effectively–speaking, listening, reading, and writing–contributes to our ability to take action toward our goals. Listening is especially important. It’s how we gain information to know where our supports, and our potential pitfalls, lie. It also contributes to building the positive relationships that are so important to increasing self-determination.

Communicating assertively is especially important for self-determination. Assertive communication is all about honestly stating our  wants, feelings, or beliefs in a way that does not deny the right of others to be respected or block their feelings, beliefs, or opinions. Assertive communication can be contrasted to passive communication (you don’t express your wants, feelings, or beliefs) and aggressive communication (saying what you want in a way that denies the right of others to be treated with respect or attempts to block others from expressing their feelings, beliefs, or opinions that may different from yours). By communicating assertively, we state our wants while at the same time contributing to the growth of positive relationships.

Another important aspect of the Act component is accessing resources and support. We rarely reach a goal all by ourselves. We typically need to access support or resources from others to get there.

Consistent with the need for strong communication and positive relationship skills are the abilities to negotiate and to resolve conflict and criticism. To foster self-determination over the long-term, we need to work toward our goals in a way that doesn’t infringe on the rights of others. We might be able to reach our goal one time by trampling over someone else, but if we want that person (or anyone else they know) to support us in our next effort we’ll likely be out of luck and our sense of self-determination will be short-lived.  Learning to use win-win negotiation strategies is recommended to increase the likelihood of getting what we want from a negotiation while still preserving positive relationships.

Despite our best efforts to build positive relationships while we’re working toward our goals, we will likely have times when our efforts to be self-determined result in conflict with, or criticism from, others. We need to learn to make conscious choices about when and how to address conflict.

Remember the little engine that could?  It’s a perfect example of maintaining persistence–and what it takes to be persistent–to reach our goals.  I think I can, I think I can, I know I can, I know I can……. are important words to remember. The ability to persevere in spite of obstacles is an essential element of ongoing self-determination.

Experience Outcomes and Learn

Along with the obvious benefit of achieving outcomes, the self-determination process helps us increase self-awareness, self-esteem, and skills (e.g., decision-making, communicating effectively, negotiating) that contribute to self-determination. One of the best ways to learn the knowledge, beliefs and skills of self-determination is to engage in the self-determination process and learn from what happens. Achieving the outcome we initially set out to attain isn’t necessary for the experience to lead to increased self-determination.  Any attempt we make toward self-determination provides opportunity to experience and learn from the outcomes that occur.

Our on-going ability to live self-determined is enhanced when we consciously and systematically reflect on our experiences. First, we need to compare the actual outcome of our efforts to the desired outcome. Did we like the outcomes we obtained from our efforts, whether or not it was what we set our to attain? Sometimes, when we reach a goal–even one we really wanted, we find that maybe it wasn’t such a great thing after all. Conversely, sometimes we experience a different outcome than we expected and we learn that it is better than what we hoped for. It’s all ok…..the experience adds to our self-awareness and can help us make more informed choices in our subsequent self-determination efforts.  We also need to compare our actual performance in pursuit of heightened self-determination to our desired performance. What worked for us—and what didn’t—-as we took action to achieve what we set out to do?

The adage “practice makes perfect” applies to self-determination-with one noted exception. Self-determination efforts will probably rarely be considered “perfect,” nor do they need to be perfect to be valuable. There are too many factors that affect self-determination(e.g., our own beliefs and actions, the actions of others, elements of the environments we’re in) for any single act of self-determination to be perfect. However, it is the process of self-determination—the evolution of becoming our unique selves and developing our individuality—that is important to all of us as human beings. That process helps us fulfill the psychological needs noted by Deci and Ryan for autonomy, competence and relatedness, which when met, lead to increased internal motivation. The process of living self-determined is enhanced through practice. In fact, it might be said that it is only through practice in applied settings that the individual attributes that contribute to self-determination are truly developed.