Autonomy can be defined as the part of you who gives, authors or creates your own law. This is what the Ancient Greek translation of the term suggests. It represents an important feature of the adult mind where the authority moves from out there, outside of you in the culture, leadership and experts whom presumably have more information and experience than you do to a fallible yet more trustable inner authority. Power shifts from outside of you to inside of you. When you begin to establish, author and create your own laws, ideologies and methodologies for directing yourself in the world, you are participating with autonomy.
This is a highly coveted ability for many adults as most can easily recall the pains of adolescence and early adulthood where an often unquestioned authority governed their actions in the world. Perhaps it was a teacher, coach, romantic partner or boss who, knowingly or unknowingly, governed your action and conduct in the world. When these are the only two basic reference points available, the only informed reasonable decision is to preserve inner directing autonomy at all costs.Why regress back into less functional and less complex ways of being in the world? It just doesn't make sense.
When I invite clients to be suspicious of their own autonomy, I am not encouraging them to return back to an unexamined alignment with an external authority. I am inviting them to step forward into a postautonomous
way of functioning. This postautonomous move comes after autonomous functioning, it involves a more complex and thus more powerful way of functioning beyond autonomy. Suspicion of autonomy is a way for you to develop and cultivate greater developmental distance from the autonomy that likely captivates your larger power and authority as a human being. It is not a way to revert back to your less engaged ways of relating with power and authority. Nope, suspicion of autonomy is a vehicle that develops more power, more free functioning and greater authority.
For those of you who are getting all excited to have more power, more freedom and greater authority where this all resides inside of you, stop right there. This is the delusion of "more" that commonly shows up as a substitute for the legitimate development of you. Getting autonomy to be bigger is another "distortion of more" as I define it and explore in The Elegant Self
. More power, greater influence and dramatic leaps forward in freedom do not belong to your autonomous self. They only show up in your postautonomous self.
Here are a couple core features of autonomy to brighten your suspicion.1. The Preservation of Distinctness
Autonomy is in many ways a consolidation of a sense of self that is in juxtaposition to everything else. What makes you different? How are you distinct from those around you? What separates you from your surrounding culture? Autonomy naturally is invested in clarifying and articulating these boundaries. I like to think of this activity as the preservation of distinctness.
This preservation is worthy of your suspicion because distinctness breeds limitedness. If you are sincerely interested in more power, greater influence and a broader freedom commanding a larger authority you need to go beyond your distinctness to become permeable. Your subjectivity needs to be more interpenetrating with the surrounding environment, culture and relationships present. Greater permeability means more information flow. More information flow means more capacity for power and influence.
For those of you worried about becoming overly influenced by your surroundings as you loosen your defense of distinctness, you're headed in the wrong direction. Over conformity is a function of the preautonomous self, not the postautonomous self. I'm not pointing you toward the loss of your distinctness, I am just suggesting a loss of the exclusive identification with your distinctness. It's just too limited. Postautonomous functioning includes your distinctness, but is not longer limited to this way of functioning. 2. Inner Directing Governance
You likely know this part of your autonomy really well. It is your agenda. Your schedule. Your value systems and ideology discerning what to do next and how best to do it. It is your best efforts to solve the problems you are presently facing personally and professionally. It is the inner directing authority within you that presses your will outward into your life and inward within yourself as you advocate for inner and outer change.
Being inner directed is an essential feature of adulthood. You cannot lose this functioning and remain an adult by most measures of psychological maturity. You can however lose your identification with this inner directing faculty. This enables you to retain an authority residing inside of you; however, it also frees you up to participate with larger, broader currents of aliveness that ultimately do not belong to you.
Elegance is one central facet of this postautonomous will. It is not something that can be possessed but only participated with. Sometimes it's originating source stems from deep within you. A within so profound its roots reach beyond you. Other times the originating source flowers up in your environment, culture or relationships. Sometimes it's a mixture of inner and outer life that coalesces into a force that is unwaveringly powerful. Participate with this and you'll know the kind of power and influence I point you toward.
That said, you simply will not be able to participate with this beauty or power if you are consumed by your own private autonomous agenda. Identify with your ideological drives and autonomous effort and the deeper currents of life sweep past you. This perhaps is one of the great tragedies of development, the most significant is always reserved for the most refined. As such, most adults misdirect themselves and the generations that follow. If our developmental tests are at all accurate, it is safe to assume most adults remain blind to the larger significance that surrounds them and is desperately needed.
Next time you see yourself resting exclusively upon your inner directing faculties or you see your autonomy working diligently to preserve distinctness, watch them like a hawk does its prey. Study your autonomy's movements. Assess whether it is an intentional act of your postautonomous will or if it is merely the function of habits in motion. Sometimes these are highly skillful responses in the world, other times your autonomous functioning is but a foolish gestures in the face of ultimate strategies for the advancement of humanity.
Author, The Elegant Self
& Strength To Awaken