Self-Determination Theory—And How to Use it On Yourself

You’re inherently good. You know this. I know this.

At your core, no matter what the external environment does to shape your shell and behavior, is a being that desires to behave in healthy, progress-fostering ways.

No matter what happened at that Denny’s bathroom at 4am on the Ohio turnpike. No matter the colossal dose of penicillin required to rectify the consequences of that bathroom, bottomless tango.

You’re a good person.

Edward Deci and Richard Ryan think so too. They’re University of Rochester researchers that developed Self-Determination Theory—a psychological precept concerned with intrinsic motivation. The exact definition, straight from, goes like this:

Self-determination theory is a theory of motivation. It is concerned with supporting our natural or intrinsic tendencies to behave in effective and healthy ways.  

Sooo…rather than implying that you’re a rat constantly pressing buttons and hoping for pellets, or that you’re a naughty child that needs the ever-present rod to shape your behavior, self-determination theory says, ‘Hey, you, you’re alright, you!’

Problem is, we’ve internalized a lot of bullshit. Most of our social systems are based on contingent, external rewards.

Do this and I’ll pay you.

Do this and I’ll give you attention.

Do this and I’ll appreciate you.

This system of external motivation and rewards shapes our inner thought processes and dialogue. While it’s functional, and in many ways practical, it also holds us back.

There’s a better way for us to talk to—and motivate—ourselves.

The solution is to coach ourselves using self-determination theory.

SDT’s Three Tenets

Its tenants are Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness. Autonomy means authentic self-direction. Competence is effectively navigating your environment and relatedness to yourself and others.

Using The Tenets


Remember when mentioned that we internalize our extrinsically motivated environment a bit more than we should? While doing this we form introjects, or internalized rules that don’t jive with our authentic selves. Think of all those times you talk yourself into doing something, or follow some kind of internalized paradigm while every part of your inner-being is screaming, “Hey! Tap the fucking breaks!” Or…maybe when we decide to do something, it just doesn’t feel right.

Or, on a deeper level, one of those times you uttered something that you’d learned from your environment, a belief system that’s been instilled in you for your entire life, but as soon as you say it aloud you have an epiphany that you don’t really believe that. It’s just been imprinted on you.

Your introjects are hitting you right in the stomach, stealing your self-autonomy and building resentment.

Consider this within the context of the fitness realm. There’s so much information guiding us in so many conflicting directions. We read, and hear, shit like this:

You have to be doing these types of workouts!

Eat this way!

If your poop doesn’t look like this, you’re doing it wrong!

We internalize these messages and they shape the context of our thoughts and actions. In reality—we take choice away from ourselves.

We have to work out and we have to eat this way and we have to do it this way.

What if you don’t fucking want to?

Self-autonomy, at least in the fitness sense, is as simple as giving yourself a choice. Telling yourself you have to do something is the first step towards resentment. Giving yourself a choice, however, and choosing to do something positive, is the first step towards growth. The action is the same, but the slight frame change is refreshing and mentally healthful.


It’s tough to take autonomous action when you don’t feel competent. Self-competence begins with understanding your current level and being ok with it.

Ever hear of the growth mindset? At its essence it states that we are all moldable clay in the process of molding ourselves. We are not finite. Nothing about us is finite—we are ever-able to be developed.

When we frame our thoughts with the growth mindset, we feel more competent. It’s a simple, constant self-affirmation.

I am where I am, I can handle what I can handle, consistent action will make me better.

It’s about leveling with yourself and understanding where you are in your journey. Whether you’re losing weight, getting stronger or learning the ukulele, you’ve made progress. Celebrate that shit. And understand that as you continue to make positive choices, you’ll continue to gain ground.


Remember that line from Fight Club?

“You’re not your fucking khakis.”

Well, you’re not.

Have you ever thought about how you relate to yourself? Trippy question…but really, how do you relate to yourself?

Are you hypercritical of yourself?

Do you give yourself a break every time something gets tough?

Do you refer to yourself in the third person?

Do you habitually call yourself Sexy? (If you don’t, start. There ain’t nothin’ better!)

In reality, we aren’t the hypercritical voice that lives in our heads, and we’re not the voice that takes it too easy on us. We’re not our jobs. We’re not our possessions. We are our mind’s relation to all of these things.

But how do we figure out how we authentically relate to chaotic swirl of life, relationships and responsibilities? We shut shit down for a bit.

Take time to limit distractions and just sit with yourself. Utilize periods of time during which you don’t listen to anyone’s advice. Just sit back, let the thoughts roll and see how YOU react to them.

Removing the external and relating to ourselves limits future introject formation. It cuts us deep to the core and pulls out our authentic selves. That, friends and family, is rad.

Go Forth You Intrinsically Motivated Human!

Give yourself a choice, understand that you’re a work in progress and spend some quiet time with you, yourself and you. You’ll rise and return as an autonomously competent and self-related phoenix.

Todd is a strength coach, manual therapist, writer, speaker, fly fisherman…well…he’s a dude that does a lot of things. He’s also the co-creator of Strength Faction. A coaching programmed designed to help fellow strength coaches and personal trainers kick ass.  Learn more at


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