Where is your power center? Is it in you or in other people or circumstances? Paradoxically, controlling people often believe that they don’t have control over their lives or even themselves.

Control is important to co-dependents. Many attempt to control what they can’t (other people) rather than controlling what they can (themselves, their feelings, and their actions). Without realizing it, they’re controlled by others, their addictions, fear, and guilt.

People who control their lives and destinies are happier and more successful. Rather than feeling like a victim of others or fate, they are motivated from within and believe that their efforts generate results, for better or worse. Both belief and experience enable them to function autonomously.

This article explores autonomy, locus of control, and self-efficacy as important factors in motivation and offers suggestions to help you feel a greater sense of control.


The word “autonomy” comes from the combination of the Latin words for self and law. It means that you govern your own life and that you endorse your actions. You may still be influenced by outside factors, but all things considered, your behavior reflects your choice. (There are philosophical and sociological debates about free will and self-determination which are beyond the scope of this article.)

Across cultures, autonomy is a fundamental human need. People who experience autonomy report higher levels of psychological health and social functioning. They have an increased sense of well-being and self-esteem. When you value yourself, you’re more able to claim your autonomy. It’s a feeling of both separateness and wholeness that permits you to feel separate when in a relationship and complete when on your own. You feel independent and are able to say no to pressure from others. Your actions are determined by your beliefs, needs, and values, which give you more control over thoughts and emotions. It’s the opposite of being a rebel or people-pleaser. A rebel’s thoughts and actions aren’t autonomous. They’re an oppositional reaction to an outside authority and thereby they become controlled by it. Actually, autonomy allows you to listen to someone non-defensively and modify your views to incorporate new information.

When you lack autonomy, you’re more controlled by what others do, think, and feel, and adapt accordingly. You react to and worry about someone else’s expectations and reactions and defer to their opinion. You might have difficulty making decisions and taking action on your own. Instead, you’re easily influenced by or seek out others’ opinions. This tendency both stems from and reinforces low self-esteem. Lack of autonomy and self-esteem can cause many symptoms, such as:

  • stress
  • addiction
  • domestic violence
  • emotional abuse
  • communication problems
  • worry and anxiety
  • guilt, and
  • anger

Development of Will

Individuation, the process of becoming a separate individual psychologically and cognitively, begins in infancy and continues into adulthood. A baby must first feel safe with its mother and caretakers. Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson believed that basic trust or mistrust takes hold in the first 18 months of development and is dependent on consistent comfort and fulfillment of an infant’s basic needs. If caregivers are emotionally unavailable, rejecting, or inconsistent, the child won’t have a sense of safety in the world.

Erikson said, “Doubt is the brother of shame.” In the second stage, up until the age of 3, a child learns self-control, beginning with controlling its bodily elimination. Here’s where a child begins to exercise choice by saying no and expressing its wants and preferences. This builds confidence and a sense of independence. If these natural developments aren’t supported, a toddler will feel inadequate and doubtful. Imagine if your choices were continually ignored or denied by an authority figure who is your entire world. You’d start to doubt yourself and soon feel ashamed.

Because of dysfunctional parenting, codependents often lack intrinsic motivation and a sense of agency. Their connection to those inner resources hasn’t been developed. Although they may be competent – and many do not feel confident or competent in a variety of areas even if they actually are – they have difficulty motivating themselves, unless there is an external deadline, reward, support, or competition. The most effective and enduring motivation comes from within. But if you grew up in an authoritarian, chaotic, neglectful, or controlled environment, it’s doubtful that you received support and encouragement. Both those, along with the freedom to experiment and explore your innate urges and preferences, are needed to allow intrinsic motivation to develop naturally. Sometimes, parents are more permissive with toddlers and then squelch their independent strivings as adolescents.

Women and Autonomy

Women suffer more from lack of agency due to cultural, developmental, and societal influences. One reason is that girls don’t have to separate from their mothers to become women. According to Carol Gilligan, femininity is defined by attachment, and feminine gender identity is threatened by separation. On the other hand, since boys must separate from their mothers and identify with their fathers to become men, their gender identity is threatened by intimacy. (In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development, 1993, pp. 7-8). Additionally, boys are encouraged to be more aggressive and autonomous, and girls are protected and stay more attached to their parents.

Often women complain that they do great when they’re alone, but as soon as they’re in a relationship or in the presence of their partner, they lose themselves. Some give up their hobbies, friends, career, and creative pursuits. They have trouble transitioning from an intimate weekend to the office, or they can’t articulate opinions about things in front of their partner or an authority figure.

Locus of Control

Beliefs also affect your actions and determine whether you have a passive or active stance toward your life. If you’ve learned from experience that your voice or actions don’t have an impact, you develop a sense of futility – a “what’s the use” attitude. You start to talk yourself out of taking action. This reflects a belief that your “locus of control” is external – that you’re controlled by outside forces or fate. You feel powerless to achieve your goals and influence your life.

On the other hand, with an internal locus of control, you believe that if you prepare and work hard, you can achieve results. You’re more self-determined and take responsibility for your actions, feelings, and meeting your needs. You don’t blame others or outside circumstances for failures and success. You mobilize resources to achieve your desires and don’t wait for signs, circumstances, or direction from others.


Self-efficacy, a belief in one’s competence, also is important for motivation. The knowledge that your efforts will be effective is learned through risk-taking and experience. As you master new skills or experience unfamiliar environments and experiences, you gain confidence, self-efficacy, courage, and motivation to change. People who doubt that they’re able to accomplish something generally won’t try.


Development of self-esteem is fundamental to autonomy. Discover your wants, needs, and passions. Practice self-expression, self-acceptance, and setting boundaries (being able to say no). Take risks, including interpersonal risks, to enhance your competence, autonomy, and effectiveness. This in turn raises self-esteem and provides motivation to take more risks.

Think about your intentions and goals and why they’re important. Get support and learn what’s required to accomplish your goals. “Codependency for Dummies” provides steps and exercises to become autonomous.