I’m sitting and writing a test in physics. It’s a hard problem and I’m looking for a suitable equation in the formula book. Without a word, my teacher steps forward and slams the book in front of me. I look up in surprise (I was not aware that we were not allowed to use the book for this test) and see his back as he returns to his place in front of the class. Right at that moment, a clear decision was formed in my head – I’d had enough. It was my last day in high school.

I was 17 years old and I was studying the third and final year of the science program. During the last year I hadn’t been particularly committed to school work. I had become increasingly more involved in the punk scene and the anarchist movement in Stockholm. The contrast between my life at school and my life on evenings and weekends was enormous. I spent my time in squatted houses, among social activists and at punk gigs. It was like the difference between life and death. That day at school was the culmination of those two incompatible worlds. For me, it was an easy choice.

Our need for autonomy

To decide for ourselves, to make our own decisions and to meet our need for autonomy is very important. It is one of the strongest driving forces in human development and history. I believe that all conflicts, whether they occur between two persons or are manifested on a mass scale as war, are about our universal need for autonomy. As freedom-loving beings, we don’t like to be dominated by others. We see it in the three-year-old and in the acts in armed conflicts initiated by presidents.

Easily manipulated

The longing for autonomy is so strong that we are prepared to ignore both our own and other people’s needs in order to try to meet it. Most of us, as parents or other adults in connection with kids, have tried to get young children to do as we please. Sometimes we succeed by manipulatively telling a child what not to do: “You mustn’t put your toys back in the box”. However, this tactic often doesn’t last long. The child soon discovers that we are manipulating and is then more in contact with what they want and don’t want.

I can sometimes see the same phenomenon in adults. The need for autonomy is sometimes so strong that we don’t end up doing things we really want to do. Just because someone else tells us to do something, we chose to do something else. We would rather be in opposition and do something we don’t like, to try to fulfil our need for autonomy. In this way, we can sometimes become as easily manipulated as small children.

Irrational outcomes

In several contexts, I have found myself changing my position just to meet my need for autonomy. I remember a summer course in human ecology I participated in, which happened at the same time as the riots at the EU summit in Gothenburg in 2001. My imagination was that the course participants would be critical of the demonstrators who participated in the riots. So I had loaded up with an arsenal of arguments to defend the protesters against the police. When I arrived at the course, it turned out that the participants criticised the police and defended the protesters. What did I do? I immediately changed my point of view and started arguing against the protesters and their actions!

If we are not aware of our need for autonomy, it can take on irrational and destructive expressions. As I have written above, we are often prepared to give up other important needs in order to ensure that this need is met. And conversely, if we don’t act in a way that seeks to meet our need for autonomy, this will also tend to lead to dysfunctional behaviours and a disharmonious life.

Refilling the need for autonomy

Increasing my needs awareness in general is a way to balance the need for autonomy with both my other needs and the needs of other people. If I deliberately choose occasions when I can act and meet my need for autonomy, it will be constantly replenished. Then it will be easier to handle situations in which I do not have as great opportunities to influence what happens. Since I’m constantly having the need met in my everyday life, on these occasions I can  more easily accept that the need isn’t being met at the moment.

In relation to others, I can also ensure that their need for autonomy is taken into account. Regardless of age, people like to decide for themselves. When I’m in a position where I have more choice, I can try to leave as much decision making as possible to others. If I’m with people who for some reason are overwhelmed by too many choices, this may mean offering fewer choices, maybe just two. Sometimes it can actually be supportive to fulfil autonomy by completely making a decision for someone else.

How do you make sure you refuel your need for autonomy? How do you support others to meet their need for autonomy?

Leave a comment below or, if you are a Premium subscriber of “The Needs’ Year”, at the online platform: https://empathiceurope.com/online/courses/the-needs-year/modules/week-5/ 


Joachim Berggren (CNVC Certified Trainer)

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On 12 April at 11:00-11:45am CEST, you can participate in a Zoom Talk with me and Kirsten Kristensen. We will talk about the need for autonomy.

Sign up for the Needs’ Year and you will receive a link to Zoom.

If you read this afterwards, you can watch the recording when you become a premium subscriber. Check the details HERE.

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