No one knows more about self-motivation that the authors of self-determination theory. Based on the assumption that we have an innate tendency for personal growth toward psychological integration, the self-determination theory of Ryan and Deci proposed that all behavior can be understood as lying along a continuum of external regulation, or heteronomy and true self-regulation, or autonomy (2008).

Ryan and Deci distinguish varying degrees of external motivation based on the level of autonomy present while engaging in the desired behavior. On one end, there is the external regulation of behavior where rewards are used purely to control behavior, and compliance occurs to avoid consequences and is defined as one where there is no autonomy present.

They explain that while external regulation, as in the form of rewards, can control behavior, it does not constitute motivation per se.

In all human affairs there is always an end in view—of pleasure, or honor, or advantage.

Polybius, 125 B.C

We can also be motivated by the avoidance of guilt and by the need to build self-esteem. This form of self-regulation of behavior is characterized by low autonomy and a language of “I should” and “I have to.”

When we are motivated by the contingencies related to our self-esteem and impose pressures on ourselves for fear of shame or failure, we are said to have introjected regulation. This form of regulation, while more effective than external motivation, remains ambivalent and unstable because it is accompanied by inner conflict, tension, and negative emotions (Ryan & Deci, 2008).

These are closely related to what is known in wellbeing research as prevention focus orientation, where emotional regulation is driven by security needs and avoidance (Kahneman, Diner, & Schwartz, 1999).

When we consciously accept behavior as important, and when we truly value the outcome, this provides strong incentives and leads to identification. This more self-determined form of regulation is particularly important when it comes to the maintenance of behaviors that involve activities that are not inherently interesting or enjoyable.

When we identify with the regulation AND coordinate with other core values and believes, we are said to have the most autonomous form of extrinsic motivation – integrated regulation. This form of regulation occurs when those values become a part of the self and become congruent with one’s sense of identity.

That leads to the most positive and enduring outcomes of external motivation because a person has archived full autonomy (Reeve, 2018).

This form of regulation is very much like intrinsic motivation because we engage in the behavior willingly. It is entirely self-determined, but unlike intrinsic motivation, it does not have to involve activities that are enjoyable or interesting. This is particularly important to behavioral change in clinical settings where the level of internalization and integration for non-intrinsically motivated behavior is required.

It is never too late to be what you might have been.

George Eliot

When it comes to self-motivation in behavioral change, the autonomy versus control orientation can also play a role in maintaining behavioral change over time. Autonomy-oriented individuals generally succeed in maintaining their long-term changes in behavior (e.g., weight loss, smoking cessation), whereas control-oriented individuals generally fail to maintain such behavior change over time.

Autonomy causality orientation is closely linked to prevention focus orientation, where emotional regulation is driven by the possibility of positive outcomes and approach motivation (Kahneman, Diner, & Schwartz, 1999).