I recently gave a lecture on autonomy; afterward, several students wanted to talk about how they struggle to be autonomous. That’s not surprising, as emerging adults are working to develop autonomy.i It’s important to recognize that just because we’re 20 or 35, or 50 doesn’t mean we’ve developed autonomy.
Autonomy is the capacity of a rational individual to make an informed, un-coerced decision. Seems simple. But many struggle to eliminate the pressure, control, or manipulation exerted by society or others close to us.
Here’s an example: Molly was the oldest of three girls. Her parents praised her for her good choices and example to her siblings. She was a shining star in the family. However, as Molly got older and questioned family rules or wanted to make decisions for her own life, she was criticized and told she was a disappointment. Instead of defending her ideas and choices, she succumbed to the pressure of her parents and resentfully followed their guidelines for a “perfect life.”
This tension grew as Molly chose a boyfriend her parents didn’t approve of. She loved how he treated her, and the two of them occasionally talked about her parents’ controlling tendencies. Molly had to confront what she had known for some time, but she was afraid to cause turmoil in her family.
Therapist David Schnarch noted that the ability to sit with the discomfort of emotions facilitates the ability to create intimacy.ii Said another way, if we can’t tolerate disapproval of others or not receiving praise for everything we do, we are unlikely to be able to say what we really think or feel or stand up for our own values and decisions in life. Autonomous people realize they do not need to think what others think or feel what others feel.
A few ways to encourage autonomy are to allow for mistakes in your life and to understand that growth comes from constant small efforts, not dramatic one-time changes. Recognize that differences of opinion are normal and don’t need to lead to contention or distance. Instead, they can lead to greater understanding and intimacy.
Research reveals that autonomy is connected to positive mental health, social and academic achievement, and feelings of competence.iii
In the example, Molly will need to sit with the discomfort of not being the star child and instead recognize that she needs to develop the capacity to disagree with her parents, stand up for her own choices, and become an autonomous adult.
There is no need to be disagreeable as you develop autonomy, but you will have to tolerate a disruption in some of the previous patterns of interaction with others, and others will need time to adjust to your new levels of autonomy.
Autonomy and Sexual Mindfulness
Why is autonomy so essential for sexual relationships? As a larger society, we have appropriately been talking about sexual consent and what constitutes consent. While there are many definitions of consent, most would agree that a person must voluntarily agree to the proposal or desire of another. It is a meeting of the minds.
But what if you don’t know your mind? What if you are so easily swayed by people around you? Or, what if you feel pressured easily because you haven’t practiced being an autonomous person? Practicing autonomy is essential for making informed, knowledgeable decisions of consent.
Some recent research showed that when sexually active adolescents reported being more sexually mindful, they were more likely to endorse needing consent. Mindfulness and sexual mindfulness empower adolescents to maintain healthier boundaries, make more positive self-evaluations, and be more intentional in the sexual experiences they choose to have.iv
Slowing down thoughts creates more awareness, allowing us to examine whether we like a thing. Greater awareness is associated with autonomous motivation.v As a result, autonomous people feel more in control of their lives and report feeling they have “the good life.”vi
This attitude extends to sexual relationships as well. Mindful individuals report a heightened sense of sexual pleasure, sexual connection, and sexual harmony within the relationship.vii
Benefits of Autonomy and Sexual Mindfulness
When individuals take charge of their lives instead of succumbing to the pressure of friends, parents, or society, they feel empowered. In romantic relationships, autonomy means they listen to their partner to learn about their partner’s feelings and concerns and speak up for their own needs and concerns. They take responsibility for the consequences of their decisions and learn to apologize when they’re wrong.
Sexually mindful couples give each other space to sort through feelings and acknowledge the need to be patient and compassionate as each learns and grows.
During sex, mindful couples can be more accepting of differences in sexual preferences or timing. They can tune into the emotions that create connection, talk about how their body responds during sex and be more vulnerable about likes and dislikes.
During a sexual mindfulness class, some couples noted that “I think just the low-level arousal intimacy that she talked about, just being intimate without the goal of having sex, was a very positive thing for us.”viii Sexually mindful couples can take charge of their sexual experience and allow for the unexpected to happen by staying in the moment.
No matter your age, do a little self-evaluation and assess whether you need to increase your autonomy. By increasing autonomy and sexual mindfulness, you take charge of your life and sexual experiences. You may be surprised at the positive results.