Self-Determination Theory

“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.”
~ Albert Camus

Self-determination is the innate desire to flourish that is embedded within each of us. Self-determination is about feeling equipped to make our own choices so that we feel a sense of control over our own lives. Our well-being is deeply connected to our sense of self-determination.

Our role in peer support is to create the right conditions for others to deepen their sense of self-determination. As supporters, we walk alongside others, but we never fix or save.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci are the creators of Self-Determination Theory. In their paper Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being (2000), they talk about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation:

Extrinsic Motivation

The root of the word Extrinsic is external.

This is when people are motivated by something outside of themselves, usually in the form of a reward or punishment. This motivation can come from increased money or reward, general success, good grades, or even fame. Punishment, embarrassment, or public scorn can also serve as extrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic Motivation

The root of the word Intrinsic is internal.

This is motivation that is born out of purpose, meaning, and/or pure enjoyment. It means people are motivated by something within themselves. People can be intrinsically motivated by the pleasure of learning, their own interests, the desire to make an impact on the world, enjoyment, and basic life satisfaction. Doing things willingly.

Lasting change always comes through intrinsic motivation.

That’s not to say that extrinsic motivation doesn’t have its place. Often it does. We all find ourselves motivated extrinsically at times. However, that kind of motivation has limits. The scales need to tip in the direction of intrinsic motivation to make a lasting difference in our lives.

For example

Someone might choose a career simply because it pays well (extrinsic motivation). If they don’t have much attachment to the job itself (intrinsic motivation), over time they can feel dissatisfied and unfulfilled.

Someone else might find a career they love, and they find purpose in the role (intrinsic motivation). The purpose is a motivator. If they have some autonomy in their workplace and an active role, their intrinsic motivation will continue to grow. At some point they might choose to increase their skill level within their field, so they can get paid more (extrinsic motivation).

For Reflection

  • List five more examples of extrinsic motivation:
  • List five more examples of intrinsic motivation:
  • Consider your own motivation. When have you been motivated extrinsically? Describe. Did the change stick? If it did, can you observe some intrinsic motivation involved?
  • Counter that with a time when you were intrinsically motivated. What motivated you? Why? Did the change stick? Were there elements of external motivation present as well?

Self-Determination Theory – The Three Parts

self-determination theory. human beings have 3 basic needs, competence, autonomy and relatedness

Let’s explore more about Ryan & Deci’s self-determination theory.

Have you ever said, or heard someone say, “How can I motivate that person?”

The answer is that you can’t motivate anyone. Not really.

Anything you can do is rooted in extrinsic motivation–basically offering a reward or a punishment, and that doesn’t support self-determination or real deep-seated change.

However, we CAN create an ecology that supports someone to develop their own self-determination. Creating this ecology is one of the most important things we can do when we support others! All lasting change must be intrinsically motivated. In other words, all change must come from within.

As a supporter you cannot make change happen in someone else’s life. You can, however, work intentionally to create conditions that will encourage someone to find their inner motivation.

The Self-Determination theory says that humans have three basic needs–Competence, Autonomy, and Relatedness. In other words, we need to have mastery and skills, autonomy, and connection.


As human beings, we all need to feel effective, competent, and well-trained. We must have regular opportunities to continue our growth and learning.

  • We need to have and work towards small and large goals.
  • We need to be constantly learning and practicing new skills
  • When we feel like we have skills and competency, we are more likely to take risks, and reach towards goals
  • We thrive when we feel a sense of mastery
  • When we feel competent, our capacity for risk-taking and dealing with uncertainty increases
  • It is essential that we have a sense of control within our own lives
  • Feeling competent fuels our sense of purpose
  • Competence encourages curiosity

Consider your own experience of competence. How has learning a new skill supported your motivation towards meeting a new goal?


People need autonomy over their goals, choices, and behaviours.They need a sense of independence and relative freedom. When a person feels a sense of autonomy, they are able to take initiative and have the tools to self-regulate.

  • We need to have autonomy over our own choices, big or small
  • When we have a sense of autonomy, we are better prepared to take personal responsibility for our life, and give up blaming others
  • We can get out of auto-pilot and choose to be intentional
  • When we have a sense of autonomy, we are able to notice what choices and actions are life-giving and supportive, and which aren’t

Consider your own experience of autonomy. Have you noticed your ability to make your own choices impacting your motivation? Do you notice how your choices impact your sense of well-being?


We all have a deep-seated need for belonging. When we feel connected to others, we are more apt to feel engaged and motivated. We all have a need to both give and receive support. It is harder to access our self-determination without that connection to a social group.

  • Respect and genuine caring are important aspects of our belonging
  • Inclusive environments that encourage diversity are essential
  • Feelings of connection and relatedness are broken down by criticism, ostracizing, and cliques
  • We need social and community connections and support systems

Consider your own experience of relatedness. Have you noticed that when you are connected with others, that you have a greater sense of motivation? Have you noticed your motivation decrease, as you feel lonely and isolated?

Media Attributions


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Post-Secondary Peer Support Training Curriculum Copyright © 2022 by Jenn Cusick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book