Kickstart your personal growth and overcome psychosomatic pain with SDT

Have you wanted to work on personal growth but given up because of frustrating setbacks or physical pain? Unfortunately this can start a vicious cycle. When you lose motivation, you’re less likely to achieve your personal growth goals, which leads to increased anxiety, depression, and can even lead to increased psychosomatic pain (i.e., back-aches, headaches, ulcers, and other stress-related pain). This in turn only further decreases your motivation, which makes you feel worse, and so on…. 

cycle of personal growth

So how can you kickstart your personal growth and start feeling better–emotionally and physically? This article will show you how to use Self Determination Theory to rebuild your motivation so you can reach your personal goals, tackle stress, and decrease psychosomatic pain like headaches and back pain. 

Specifically we will show you how to apply Self Determination Theory to begin your path to personal growth by regaining your sense of

  1. Autonomy (how you are in control of your own behavior)
  2. Relatedness (your social connection to other people), and
  3. Control/competence (your skills/abilities to accomplish your goals)

As always, this post is based on over 30 papers on personal growth, self determination theory, and intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, pulled from Humanistic Psychology.

self determination theory

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“Self Determination Theory” (SDT), personal growth, and psychosomatic pain

So what is the Self Determination Theory, and how is it linked to personal growth, and even psychosomatic pain? 


“Self Determination Theory” and personal growth

According to SDT, every one of us has three basic needs that we want to fulfill in order to achieve personal growth and to feel a sense of fulfillment in our lives. These three needs are a need for:

  • Autonomy (feeling control of your own behavior)
  • Competence (feeling confident of your capabilities),
  • Relatedness (feeling close to important others)

These three needs can be seen as the basic nutrients for the physical, psychological, and social health of humans. It is when these three needs are satisfied that we feel vital and motivated. We feel in control of our own actions and behaviors, feel capable of achieving valued goals, and experience a genuine connection with the people that we value. It is no surprise that fulfilling these basic needs is linked to an overall feeling of well-being. 

As you may have imagined, not being able to fulfill these needs leaves us frustrated and unmotivated. It can go so far that we only do things because some external pressure forces us. We can feel like we are not capable of achieving anything, and feel excluded by people who are important to us. Again it is not surprising that prolonged feelings of frustration are linked to an overall sense of negative well-being and psychosomatic pain like headaches, stomach aches, and back pain.

self determination and motivation

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Self Determination theory and Motivation

When it comes to motivation, we typically make a distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. 

Intrinsic motivation is defined as doing something just for its own sake. It is doing something because we enjoy doing it, and not because somebody is telling us to do it. As the name implies, it is motivation that comes from within us.

Extrinsic motivation on the other hand is motivation that comes from external forces. It  persuades us to do things that we would not do on our own accord. External motivators include rewards (such as money) and punishment (not getting fired). The key factor is that it does not come from within us. 

Unlike internal motivation, extrinsic motivation ceases to exist once the external force disappears.

So how does this tie back to the SDT? Well our perceived autonomy and competence affect how much we feel intrinsically motivated. What this means is that the more we feel in control over the situation, and the more competent we feel in our ability to successfully perform said action, the more motivated we are to keep doing the action. In turn we are more likely to reach our personal growth goals, feel less stress, and reduce our psychosomatic pain.

Control and Competence → Internal Motivation → Reach Personal Growth Goals → Less Stress → Less Psychosomatic Pain


Identify what is hindering your personal growth

There are a lot of things that can hinder your personal growth, or stop you from attaining  personal goals. Take a minute to reflect on which psychological need is getting in the way: autonomy, competence, or relatedness. Maybe you feel a lack of motivation because it is something that other people want you to do, although you know that it is good for you? Or you might feel that you are not capable of reaching your goal, or that you are all alone in your endeavour. 

It also can be a good idea to look at your basic needs of fulfillment/frustration, to determine which need could use some extra attention. A good way is through the Basic Needs Satisfaction and Frustration scale, based on work by Deci and Ryan (2000), Gagne (2003), and others. A newer version is the scale has also been developed to measure your needs satisfaction and frustration at work

Once you have targeted what need could do with a boost, you can take some steps into increasing your autonomy, competence, and/or relatedness.

autonomy and growth

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Steps to increase your sense of autonomy

Increasing autonomy in a situation may not always feel so straightforward when there is a strong external pressure that is trying to influence you into doing something. For instance, maybe you have a bad habit of being late. You often miss deadlines at school or work, and you always seem to be late when meeting with friends. You probably feel a lot of external pressure from your boss or others to be more on time, and may even have a personal growth goal to be more prompt.

But instead of doing it for them, refocus. Do it for yourself. Take ownership of the goal. Focus on the things that will benefit you, and why you believe you should do it.

Of course you may still have a lot of external pressure and motivation–maybe you’d like a promotion but will only get it if you meet your deadlines, or your friends complain every time you make them wait. If this is the case, turn the external pressure to your advantage by actively engaging the external goal in the attainment of your goal.  

For example, maybe your friends also have a bad habit of running late. In this case you could use one another to hold yourselves responsible. Maybe anyone who is late has to pay for drinks or has to wear a silly hat.  

competence and growth

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Steps to increase your sense of competence

If we want to increase our feelings of competence, it may first be a good idea to look at your current level of competence. What this means is that, when it comes to competence, we generally distinguish between 4 levels of competency, being:

  1. Unconscious incompetence
  2. Conscious incompetence
  3. Conscious competence
  4. Unconscious competence

For the sake of brevity, we will only be looking at the first two levels, and how to reach the third level.

The first level is unconscious incompetence. What this level means is that you are not aware that you are not competent. Say for instance that part of your job is writing sales pitches. But your boss always seems unimpressed with them and makes a lot of changes. You want to be good at your job, so this is very frustrating. You get annoyed with your boss thinking he is a micro-manager or doesn’t appreciate your hard work.

Of course it’s possible that your boss is unreasonable. But it’s also possible that you just aren’t that good at writing sales pitches. In reality you just might not possess a high level of competence. It is difficult, and can even be extremely frustrating, to make any progress here, as you are not aware of your limitation(s). It is all too often that we go on autopilot and become completely oblivious of what is actually happening.

So a good first step here is to take a step back and dissect your current situation. Be critical of all your strengths and weaknesses. This may sound easy, but as we all know, it can be easy to be blind of your own incompetence. So how can we sidestep this? We can do this using two techniques. 

  • First, take yourself out of the equation, and approach the situation as if you hired somebody else to do the work. Imagine this other person used your skills/approach/product. How would you react to the work? Would you be happy with the result? Can you recognize aspects that are in need of improvement? What would be needed to achieve better results? 
  • Second, ask a competent valued friend or colleague to play devil’s advocate. Let them tear down your approach, and scrutinize each step you take. It is important to not be defensive and actually take their criticism to heart. Know that it comes from a good place, and that it is vital to achieve personal growth. 
  • Third, consider whether you have received similar criticism or feedback from more than one person. Perhaps an old teacher also used to suggest you tighten up your writing skills, or an old friend once commented that you are sometimes disorganized. If so, that area especially is likely to be an area where you could improve.

After you’ve identified your incompetence, congratulations, you have moved up to the level of conscious incompetence. As the name suggests, it is at this level that you start to become aware of what you are currently lacking, and what needs to be done to become competent. Within the four levels, this will be the level that you will spend the most time on. To get past this level you must identify ways to improve your skills and then acquire those skills. 

Luckily, in this modern age of technology, almost everything we want to know is literally at our fingertips. A good way to learn a skill, therefore, starts off with a good search on the internet. Look for blogs, books, videos, or any websites that teach skills. Classes and coaching can also be good ways, especially when they provide supportive, individualized feedback. If you feel that your desired skills are more abstract, and that there are not really any good tutorials, or instructions to improve them, a good strategy is to mimic experts who are known to be good. Try to discern strategies that they use when approaching a problem, or complex situation. Listen to their podcasts, research into their background, or try to follow similar similar educational paths.

However you wish to approach it, If you choose to do it on your own, be systematic. A good way to do this is to set SMART goals, as discussed in more detail in this blog. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. So what does this mean? 

Specific. Be specific in setting your goal. For instance, “I want to be better at public speaking”, is not a good goal, as it is not clear what it means to be better in public speaking. “In my next presentation, I will not say “Uhm” more than five times”, on the other hand it is a clear, specific goal. We know exactly what we want to achieve.

Measurable. Clarify in advance how you will know when you have reached your goal. Just as in science it has to be something that is falsifiable (did I reach my goal, yes/no). Looking back at “I want to be better at public speaking”, it is not clear what needs to be done to determine whether you got better at public speaking. “In my next presentation, I will not say “Uhm” more than five times”, on the other hand, has very clear conditions on whether or not the goal has been reached.

Achievable. Goals shouldn’t feel too big or too far out. This comes down to subdividing a big goal, such as “being better at public speaking”, into smaller chunks, such “stop saying Uhm” or “use transitions between sections.” Smaller goals are easier to obtain. They help build your confidence along the way, and can serve as milestones towards your final goal.

Realistic. You should actually be able to achieve your goal. Evaluate your time and means. You probably will never be “the best public speaker in the whole company.” But you may be able to be an organized, effective speaker. Unrealistic goals set you up for failure, before you’ve started.

Timely. Put an actual (realistic) timeframe on your goal. It is easy to set up a goal, then abandon it because we did not set a timeframe or set too long of a timeframe. A timeframe doesn’t necessarily have to mean something like “in three months.” It can also be event based, such as “in my next presentation”. Look for what works best for you, and don’t be afraid to try new options.

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Steps to increase your feeling of relatedness

When trying to achieve something it may be easy to have tunnel vision and think that you are completely dependent on yourself. Be it because you think that nobody is capable of helping, or nobody is willing to help you, it can have great benefits to ask either way. 

Asking for help has two important benefits. First, it increases your actual resources in attaining your goal, be it in skills, additional manpower, or just mental support. Second, having more people involved in your cause will help you share your burden. It is no longer just you who is working to achieve your goal. Your network can help motivate you in times where your motivation may be wavering. These bursts of extrinsic motivation can help you persevere in times when your intrinsic motivation may be low.   

Here are a few ideas to increase your relatedness:

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help, in fear of what the other person might think of you. Research shows that they will likely be more inclined to like you if they’re able to help you. 
  • Conversely, volunteer in a charitable organization or just help a neighbor or old friend. In addition to connecting you with others, volunteering helps turn your focus outward to others, which decreases rumination and increases our own well-being.
  • Invite an old colleague to coffee, just to catch up. It’s easy to feel all alone, but chances are you have old friends or colleagues who feel similarly disconnected and would love to join you. 
  • Join a group hobby, team, or other organization that meets up regularly. From book clubs to bowling leagues, Synagogue prayer groups to political action orgs–choose something that you’re even slightly interested in and give it a fair shake. It’s a great way to connect with like-minded people (or just be proud you tried something new).
psychosomatic pain

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How Self Determination Theory relates to psychosomatic pain

Finally, increasing your autonomy, competence, and relatedness can help you cope with psychosomatic pain.

When it comes to psychosomatic pain, or chronic pain in general, you may feel that your pain has taken over your entire life. You may feel you have lost your autonomy, because you always feel like you have to take additional measures in order to prevent your pain. Or you may feel like you have lost your feeling of competence, as you may feel no longer able to focus or do certain activities. 

Psychosomatic pain may even lower your sense of relatedness, as you no longer engage in social activities due to a fear of experiencing pain, or even feel alone as people do not understand what you are experiencing.

In these cases, it may feel even more difficult to achieve your basic needs. 

To obtain personal growth despite psychosomatic pain, first accept that that pain will be part of your life. Specifically, pain acceptance means you give up the struggle against pain and learn to live life despite the pain

A mixed-methods study on the understanding of pain acceptance identifies 3 main features that constitute pain acceptance.

First, focus on other aspects of life to regain competence.  When your head is pounding or your stomach is sick, it’s easy to just pay attention to the pain. But the first core task of acceptance is to intentionally focus on aspects away from pain. Acceptance of pain lets you regain your sense of competence by refocusing on aspects of your life that are easier to control.  You can start small–perhaps get back into a hobby you used to be good at, or spend 15 minutes working on a personal goal.

Second, stop looking/waiting for a cure to build autonomy. Acknowledge that a cure for chronic pain is very unlikely, and chronic pain may last the rest of your life. Acknowledging this puts autonomy back to yourself, as your happiness is no longer dependent on waiting for an external source. Instead you can make choices about what you want your life to look like. 

Of course you may have to change certain aspects of your life–maybe you will have to avoid certain exercises or foods that exacerbate your pain. The important distinction here is that you accommodate your life to keep doing most of the things you like to do despite your pain.

Third, recognize that accepting is not giving up. Maybe the most important task of acceptance is to acknowledge that accepting your pain is in no way a sign of inferiority, or a sign of weakness. It is not the end of any meaningful life, but rather the beginning of a life that is in your control. 

Learning to accept your pain will not be an easy feat. But you are not alone. And luckily there are some tips from people who learned to come to terms with their pain.

  1. Take control, acknowledge that pain has changed your life, but don’t surrender to your pain. Accepting pain does not mean disability and hopelessness, rather a first step to control the pain in your life. 
  2. Live day to day, means to accept that life with pain means uncertainty, and that uncertainty means to live unplanned, day to day.
  3. Acknowledge your limitations, don’t try to overcome your pain, but adapt your social and personal goals to be more achievable in a life with pain.
  4. Empowerment, be resourceful. Focus on what is pleasurable in life, not on aspects of life in which pain dominates.
  5. Accept an evolving self, accept that a change in self is needed in order to then learn to live with pain. Life is not meaningless now, it is just different.
  6. There is more to life than pain, don’t let the pain define who you are. Focus on the other aspects of life
  7. Do not fight battles that cannot be won, pain is simply a fact of life. Fighting a battle that cannot be won makes no sense and one should live life regardless


Recap on how to use SDT to kickstart your personal growth and overcome psychosomatic pain

Personal growth goals can be difficult to attain when we don’t feel competent, in control, or connected. And when we can’t reach our goals, we feel stress, which can exacerbate our psychosomatic pain (headaches, fatigue, back pain, etc.). And when you are feeling psychosomatic pain, it’s even harder to feel competent, in control, and connected…and the cycle continues….  

Self Determination Theory (SDT) can help break the cycle. SDT explains the importance of tackling and enhancing your sense of competence, autonomy, and social connection. Addressing these basic needs helps boost your intrinsic motivation and helps you persevere in attaining important personal growth goals.

We can increase our sense of:

  • Autonomy by refocusing our attention, and taking ownership of our goal.
  • Competence by identifying our actual level of skills, and improving them using SMART goals.
  • Relatedness by actively engaging your social network to share your burden and support you.

When it comes to psychosomatic pain specifically, accepting your pain is crucial for regaining your sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. This means you should:

  • Focus on other aspects of life to regain competence. Re-engage with things you enjoy and are good at.
  • Stop looking/waiting for a cure to build autonomy. Put your energy towards things you can actually control.
  • Recognize that accepting is not giving up. Rather, you are setting yourself up for a new fruitful life.

Remember that personal growth is not an easy task, and it can be even tougher when you are dealing with psychosomatic pain. This will take time to achieve, but it is very much worth the effort.