Au·ton·o·my- Definitely Not the Definition In the Dictionary.

Blindfolded race-car rides and the 3 control traps.

Read time: 7 minutes (again)

Art by: Natasha McGillion

As discussed in my last article, there is an extreme importance on autonomy if we want to learn how to better “deal with people.” Whether you’re a coach, a parent, a teacher, or a manager, understanding the power of autonomy and autonomy support can make you and those around you thrive. And when people thrive, they’re naturally motivated.

“Autonomy” is one of those words that I would always glance over in books. I’d just let it pass and try to get the gist of what the author was saying by the surrounding context. It was one of those words that, even though I looked it up in the dictionary several times, the definition didn’t stick. It wasn’t until I read an 800 page psychology textbook that I fully understood what autonomy really is. Now, I’ll attempt to explain it in less than that.

In the dictionary, the definition of autonomy is “the right or condition of self-government.” What does that even mean? What’s a self-government? There are no stupid questions, right dad?

Autonomy is confusing because it has a couple of simultaneous meanings, it basically has an offence and a defence side to it. It is both the feeling that you as a person are in control of whatever circumstance you’re in (offence,) and also the desire to not feel controlled (defence.)

It’s like everybody has an “autonomy magnet” that has two poles, one side attracts and has a strong sense of “pull” (the need for control), and the other side repels (the desire to not feel controlled,) depending on the situation. When these two forces are in balance we feel autonomous, which is a crucial element to positive mental health. But when our magnet comes close to somebody else’s and the “need for control sides” are facing each other, it’s a repulsive force that causes imbalance. This imbalance causes resentment, anger, and frustration.

Feeling like you’re in control is actually a very important survival mechanism, because when you feel like you’re in control of your environment, you can rest, relax and recover. It’s only when you feel like you’re NOT in control, or BEING controlled, that you feel stressed, anxious, fearful, upset, and frustrated. We constantly live in one of these two states, fight or flight, or rest and relaxation. And these two different states determine what mood we’re in and how we act towards people. It’s when we start to sense we’re losing control, that we grasp at any type of control we can, which throws us into fight or flight. So before we can learn how to use the power of autonomy and autonomy support to our advantage, we need to focus on the importance of the “feeling of control.”

Let’s imagine three scenarios in which there are varying levels of control, and try to imagine how we’d feel in all of these situations.

Imagine a friend of yours blindfolds you, puts airpods in your ears and starts blasting Nickelback. He then wraps you up tight in a blanket, tapes it up, and puts you in the passenger seat of a race-car and buckles you up. All you can hear is the glorious voice of Chad Kroeger, all you can see is the static and floaties in your eyes that usually go unnoticed. You can’t move and it’s pretty safe to say you’re uncomfortable. All of a sudden, the race-car starts driving around the track. You’re thrown around every seemlingly endless corner, not even able to brace yourself. Your body senses that it’s moving, but without confirmation from your other senses, your brain can’t process what’s happening and therefore throws you into panic mode. You’re out of control, the only thing you can do is wait for this wild ride to end. (This experience is obviously the only way anybody could end up disliking Nickelback.)

Now imagine what that same race-car experience would feel like if you were just casually wearing a t-shirt and helmet. You’re able to see, you can hear the roar of the engine as it accelerates. There’s a connection between what you can see, hear and feel. You can project what might happen in front of you and therefore prepare and brace yourself. The corners that originally felt like 1260 degree turns were actually only 90 degrees. In this case, you could feel like you’re in control, just enough to know you’re safe. And if your mind determines that you’re safe, it may even let you have some fun. On the other hand, if it’s your first time in such a powerful car, it might just scare the shit out of you.

Now, imagine driving the car yourself. Even with minimal experience, you could take the corners at your own speed, brake a little earlier than you have to, accelerate at your own pace. You’re in complete control. You feel comfortable, even if your time around the track is 10X slower than Lewis Hamilton’s.

Control = Comfort

But, why does being in control make us feel so comfortable?

We don’t only like being in control, we need to feel like we’re in control. As I mentioned earlier, the feeling of control is a survival mechanism. It’s an internal “be more prepared for the future tool.” If you can take control of your environment, you can potentially make it safer and therefore survive longer. It’s the difference between being proactive vs. being unprepared for a potentially dangerous situation.

If you lived in the forest, there would be plenty of things that could harm you. Bugs… predators… weather…. So your internal “be more prepared for the future tool” tries to find anything it can to control in order to give you the best chances at survival.

You can build a shelter, you can keep your area clean in order to spot critters a bit better. You can clear an area of brush so you can hear and spot predators from further away. You can endlessly explore your surroundings and create an escape plan. These are not all 100% effective, but they are definitely more effective that just waiting around and seeing what happens. You have a plan for potential harm, so you can rest a little bit easier.

Comfort = Rest, relaxation, healing.

This need for control creates three main “traps” that we can easily fall victim to.The first being the need for everything to be controlled, right now. There are many more possibilities in the future than you could ever prepare for, therefore you’ll never win that battle. This trap is setting you up for a lot of anxiety, and seems to be the basis for OCD. There are endless modifications you can do to your forest shelter, but it’s better off for us to think of this as a continuous goal, rather than something that needs to happen right now. This is why on the first day of university I was always so overwhelmed, I saw EVERYTHING that had to get done over the year, all at once. What I didn’t see was the curriculum gently falling into place over the course of 8 months.

Second, there are also situations that we care about, where we have absolutely NO CONTROL. Rather than accepting this fact, we attempt to create an illusion of feeling in control. In these cases, we do some pretty weird things. Think of the sports fanatic and his odd pre-game superstitions. Tom Brady and the Patriots didn’t lose today because your mom washed your jersey. Nor did the opposing team score because you didn’t take a sip of your beer during the commercial break.

Last but not least, and I’d say most importantly, sometimes in attempt to feel as though we’re in control of our own lives, we take away the “feeling of control” from somebody else’s life. We unintentionally throw the blindfold on them, airpods in their ears, chuck them into the car that we’re driving and hope that they like Nickelback too. The worst part is that we’re usually unaware that we’re doing this. But, as Robert Greene states in his newest book The Laws of Human Nature, “It is only in our awareness that we can start to think of progress.” (503) The majority of the time that we unintentionally “attempt to control” somebody is when we’re trying to motivate somebody, which happens a lot in a leadership position of any kind.

Maybe you’re an expert drummer, and you’re trying to teach a student the basics. It’s obvious to you that you’ve reached expert level because you practised for at least an hour a day growing up. It’s also obvious to you that your student hasn’t been practising at all, so your job is to motivate them to do so.

You think it’s a good idea to warn them that “If you don’t practise for at least an hour a day, you won’t get any good.” But the simple use of language (using the words HAVE TO) in an ultimatum has been shown to be enough of an attempt at control for the student to lose interest.

Or you may attempt a reward such as “If you practise an hour a day, you’ll win a new pair of drum sticks.” Rewards are a slippery slope, because your student’s brain is wired to take shortcuts, and is going to do anything it takes to get the reward as easily as possible. This unintentionally motivates the child to cheat and lie. What you’re motivating the student to do is get a reward, not enjoy the drums.

Telling your student what to do, or attempting to get a result from them by putting a reward on the line, is an attempt at control in your life… in your car. And as soon as you attempt to control, by consequence, your student will feel controlled and your “autonomy magnets” are now out of sync. When we feel controlled, our autonomy magnet flips to defence mode (the desire to not feel controlled.) This flip causes us to lose interest. Because the one thing we CAN control in that moment is if we enjoy what we’re being told to do or not. And we’re not going to enjoy something that we’re told to enjoy… fuck that! We must find our own path, much like the bull in the last article.

Whether you have staff, sons, daughters, students, or athletes, you must consciously be aware that everyone needs to drive their own car and pick their own music. They have their own environment where they need to use their own “be more prepared for the future tool.” If they don’t, just like you’d probably feel a deep resentment towards Nickelback after the blindfolded race-car ride, they may just resent you and the activity your attempting to teach them.

So what is the proper way to motivate somebody?

The answer to this important question is simple in theory, difficult to explain, and even more difficult to execute properly. The answer is the polar opposite of control, it’s what psychologist Edward L. Deci in his book “Why We Do What We Do” calls autonomy support. It has to do with building trust, and what motivates everybody on an individual level. Basically, you need to make sure your autonomy magnets are in line with those that you try to motivate.

In my next article, I’ll explain the best ways for us to be autonomy supportive leaders. I know we always want all of the answers right away, and I’m quite aware that this article sort of ends on a cliff hanger, but autonomy support is such an important topic that it deserves an article of it’s own. (Hint… that last statement was an attempt to be autonomy supportive to you readers.)

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