Let’s talk about what it takes to truly heal and find lasting joy. We are on core need number four out of five in today’s episode, just as a quick recap, the first three core needs are connection, attunement, and trust. And each of these core needs builds on the one before it.

What is autonomy?

Autonomy is expressing ourselves, exploring the world or having freedom to explore the world. And probably the most basic way of thinking about it, its independence and self determination. So if this core need of autonomy is not met, or not met consistently by a consistent caregiver, you can develop shame around your impulses for autonomy, self determination, or independence.

I want to talk a minute about how do we actually create autonomy in the first place in an ideal world. In an ideal world, with loving, kind, well regulated caregivers, the child now probably in the first age where they start to become more mobile, will have a desire. And then the mom or the dad, the caregiver, will put a limit in place, right? If the child is in an ideal world, the child would trust their caregiver, and would listen to their caregiver. For example, “I know you caregiver want what’s best for me, I trust you, you connect with me, you meet my needs.” And so then the child backs away from that limit. And as the child grows, their autonomy and freedom grows, their caregiver who truly wants what’s best for them, allows them to explore within the limits of what is safe and appropriate, right.

So we have a desire, a limit is either put in place or not. If the limit is not put in place, then the child goes and explores right, but always with the kind of safe base of the caregiver in place. And as soon as they reach sort of, okay, well, that’s far enough, then the caregiver puts a limit. And then they trust that limit, and their autonomy and freedom grows, because they get to experience more and more autonomy and freedom.

Autonomy in Practice

Now, if the caregiver puts a limit in place, and the child does not trust the caregiver, these other three means that we’ve already talked about connection, attunement, and trust. If those needs are not solidly in place, then the child will say, Who are you to give me limits? Right. So you can see how true autonomy is based on trust in the relationship. If the trust isn’t there, then any limits that are put in place will be questioned and pushed against. Now, it’s also very normal for us to push against our limits. But if the caregiver is safer, if they’re safe place, if they’re bigger and stronger, and wiser and also kind, then most likely, the child will trust and be happy to trust that limit. So if we don’t have this ideal in place, if we were not allowed to have autonomy, or if the trust the connection, the attunement, if those were not in place in a really solid way, then we will develop some coping mechanisms.

What if we don’t have a safe base?

You know, as a result, if we feel like we don’t have that safe base, then there are a couple different things that can happen. First of all, we can feel like anything is safe. I’m in charge. I’m gonna figure it out and the young, naive kids that we are, we just feel like everything is safe. That might be the direction we go. In which case we’re probably going to go toward some rebelliousness, some buffering, right? This is kids who probably get into drugs and alcohol because everything feels safe. And that they get to experiment and explore everything with no consequence.

On the other hand, we might feel like nothing is safe, right? This is what I see mostly with my clients. And this results in this toxic shame and perfectionism, keeping yourself small, not doing things that you really want to do, having social anxiety, seeing yourself only through other people’s eyes, preoccupied with what others will think. Will they get upset? Always wondering where the limits are and wanting to stay very far away from them, this could show up as imposter syndrome or never feeling qualified. And it could also show up as your self esteem being based on looks, performance or achievement. That one is my story, right?

I never felt safe with my caregivers, I had maybe too much autonomy, but it felt like nothing was safe. And so I learned to derive that safety from my achievement, not so much my looks, but really a lot in terms of achievement. If I achieve, if I do well, if I get the A’s, then then I’m safe, then I’m a good person.

Both instances, If everything feels safe and you feel like you can explore everything, or when nothing feels safe, are unhealthy boundaries. Either we will have no boundaries and let people walk all over us and tell us what we think and how we feel and all of that that’s probably the the person who feels like nothing is safe. Or if you feel like pretty much everything is safe, you’ll you’ll set the boundaries yourself, you might even you know have lots of boundaries in place, because you are trying to control the outer environment.

Quick Review

So, that is a quick overview of autonomy as a core need. Just as a review, it is based upon the first three core needs which are connection, attunement and trust. Trust is based upon connection and attunement and autonomy is very much based upon trust and filling that trust in the original caregiver situation. There’s a cycle that helps us grow our autonomy, we have a desire, a limit is put in place or not. And we trust the limit or not. And then slowly, the autonomy and freedom grows based on our skills and abilities. And we can feel shame over having wanting autonomy if that core need was not met, and that might look like it could look like rebelliousness and buffering with drugs and alcohol, or having really unhealthy boundaries. Or it could on the opposite end look like perfectionism and toxic shame keeping yourself small having social anxiety, feeling impostor syndrome, or basing your self esteem on looks, performance or achievements, and also not having healthy boundaries on the other end of the spectrum.

Journal Questions (Download Here)

  1. Reflect on a time that you stood up for yourself in a relationship and you were not rejected.
  2. What does shame for wanting to be independent look like in your life?