I think this is a question that many people struggle with from time to time. The apparent conflict lies in thinking in terms of being autonomous/ independent versus connected as if these are two opposite ends of a continuum. If you also see them that way I invite you to take a different perspective – considering them as two different dimensions rather than being the polar opposites of the same dimension.
Being autonomous or independent – the third fundamental need we have – relates to the way we develop ourselves with a vision and goals we set to reach that vision. It is the almost the method/attitude with which we create our roadmap to who we want to be and how we want our lives to be like.
How you create that vision can either take an independent/autonomous form with you tapping into your unique being, your desires and dreams – in a way very similar to tapping into your ideal-self. Or you could create a vision more in line with the expectations of others (e.g., family, friends, colleagues) and the norms of the groups you belong to (e.g., the company you work for, the society you live in) without too much reference to your unique potential. This latter way is parallel to emphasizing your ought-self when you create that vision. (see blogpost on 2009-02-26 for more on ideal and ought selves)
Being connected relates to having close and intimate relationships marked by stability, emotional concern and continuation into the foreseeable future. That is quite a different dimension than what I’ve described above. Having those relationships does not mean you are not independent anymore. On the contrary, those relationships support you in the journey to your vision.
In other words, being autonomous or independent is a relatively within-person quality; whereas being connected is an interpersonal quality.
When you consider this way of looking at them it becomes clear that they are complementary rather than conflicting. In fact, our research findings show exactly that too. People who are both autonomous and connected experience higher levels of well-being compared to those who fall short in either or both of those qualities. They are less prone to depression; emotionally more stable; and enjoy higher levels of self-esteem and life-satisfaction.
Then it is not a good idea to pit autonomy against connectedness, but rather encourage both. But why are we sometimes tempted to think one would come at the expense of the other?
I think that comes from an assumption we make: “to be connected I need to incorporate other people’s expectations and desires into the vision I create for myself”. And I believe this assumption is partly sustained by the desire to fit in. It is important to become aware of that belief and to question if that is indeed a valid assumption. I invite you to do that with an open mind…
Imamoglu, E. O. (2003). Individuation and relatedness: Not opposing, but distinct and complementary. Genetic, Social, and General Psychology Monographs, 129, 367–402. Social Psychology, 142, 333–351.
Kurt, A. (2002). Autonomy and relatedness: A comparison of Canadians and Turks. Paper Presented at the Annual Convention of Canadian Psychological Association; June 2002,