The Healing Power of Autonomy: Attenuating Career Over-investment

By: Joshua Browne, M.P.S.

The Meme of Autonomy

The ability to pursue our own course is embedded as a meme or shared relic in western culture.  The concept of autonomy has been communicated in many cultural traditions throughout time, with its western cultural significance manifested in historical events, government structure, media productions and contemporary philosophy.  The founding document of the United States of America, the Declaration of Independence, can be characterized as a forceful assertion of the cultural tenet of individual sovereignty.  This value was so entrenched in the American cultural tradition, the idea of securing individual freedom was deemed worth reckless rebellion against the preeminent world military power, leading to the American Revolutionary War (Burger, 1988).  While the codification of individual liberty, as contained in the Bill of Rights, certainly reinforces its importance in American culture, there are likewise powerful psychological phenomena fueling the desire to be self-directed (Deci & Ryan, 2002; Peterson, 1999).

Autonomy and Health

While the scientific literature has consistently reinforced the positive correlation between autonomy and robust mental and physical health in various contexts (Achor, 2010; Budge, Carryer, & Wood, 2003), it is equally important to analyze its implications in practical settings, such as career pursuits.  For example, police officers operate in a profession characterized by rigid policy and legal regulation, coupled with ominous social, media and political scrutiny.  Although the external factors restricting officer autonomy are salient and important in the context of individual wellbeing, the internal factors influencing the police officer’s professional reality can be perceived as even more psychologically taxing.  A rigid legacy paramilitary structure expects obedience to department policy and supervisor directives, dictating the preponderance of the officer’s professional reality (Gilmartin, 2002).  These factors can be mitigated or aggravated by the employee’s relationship to their supervisory chain of command, with emphasis on first line supervisor/employee dynamics.  Additional professional roles in other fields, mirroring a similar low autonomy, high scrutiny structure, can be equally dangerous to the psyche, especially when the individual chooses to emphasize the professional role, while surrendering meaningful pursuits outside of the professional realm (Deci & Ryan, 2002).

Understanding the dynamics articulated above can help to predict the proliferation of cynicism, anger, and a host of psychological and physical health challenges, lurking where emotional over investment resides (Deci & Ryan, 2002).  This phenomenon is illustrated whenever a negative event transpires, such as failing to receive a pay raise, promotion or more routinely, any number of unpleasant interactions with a tyrannical supervisor.  Fortunately, there is a rather simple remedy to this spiral of frustration that can percolate, especially when a predictable unpleasant event occurs at work. 

“Resonating with our True Natures”

The answer was identified in the introductory paragraph, demonstrated in the historical commentary regarding the meme of autonomy.  Since our control of the culture, policies, procedures, laws and the general parameters of our professional roles can be limited, it is critical to assume responsibility to direct our own path outside of the work role, where its suffocating tentacles cannot reach.  Of course, this is not to say we cannot direct aspects of our professional roles, where our actions are not strictly defined, as substantial scientific research confirms this action will increase satisfaction at work (Achor, 2018; Spector, 1986).  However, anecdotal experience, scientific research, and common sense, tell us we will identify meaning when we pursue activities that “resonate with our true natures” (Pattakos & Dundon, 2017) outside of the professional realm.

The Healing Balm of Autonomy

When we choose to assume responsibility for our lives and accept the truth that our behavior possesses the power to dramatically alter our course and reality (Achor, 2018), the healing balm of autonomy will soothe our exhausted souls and provide an outlet for the anxiety that can sometimes become unbearable.  Although exercising autonomy will not magically eradicate all the negative aspects of our careers, it will dramatically moderate the anger, cynicism and anxiety that can insidiously wreak havoc in our lives.  As a career law enforcement professional, I can attest to the healing properties of realizing successes outside of my central career role, in the context of moderating the negative effects of over investment in my primary professional role.  If you remain skeptical that you can significantly alter the circumstances of your life by pursing ventures unique to your interests, talents, and personalized dreams, I invite you to take one step towards that one thing that refuses to vacate your wandering mind and calculate the positive consequences.

The Call to Action

This is the call to action, both for me and you: Stop procrastinating that thing you know you were designed to accomplish.  It is the idea that has been with you and me for years and refuses to be extinguished, the dream that will not depart our conscious and unconscious minds.  Although our reoccurring dream may not be completely defined, we have seen enough of it to know the direction to travel.  We know the next step.  When we take it, we will see the next one and each action will clarify our direction, as the path will be lighted just enough to move incrementally. 

As bonus material, if you need a humorous, yet profound kick start, please view the following all-time top 10 Ted Talk:

Sgt. Joshua Browne, M.P.S. is a police sergeant, adjunct professor within The George Washington University’s Master of Homeland Security Program, and founder of Heal the Badge Consulting.  He authors articles and provides training courses in the realms of emotional resilience and altering organizational culture towards wellness.  His efforts seek to realize the goal of fortifying law enforcement professionals, leaders and their families, by providing the necessary resilience tools for success within, outside and beyond the law enforcement career.  He also utilizes his law enforcement and academic experience, to lead individuals outside of the first responder community, towards reconciling their traumatic experiences and realizing the meaning and growth embedded therein.


Achor, S. (2010). The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology that Fuel Success and Performance at Work. New York, NY: Broadway Books.

Achor, S. (2018). Big Potential: How Transforming the Pursuit of Success Raises our Achievement, Happiness, and Well-being. New York, NY: Currency.

Budge, C., Carryer, J., & Wood, S. (2003). Health Correlates of Autonomy, Control, and Professional Relationships in the Nursing Work Environment. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 42, 260-268.

Burger, W. E. (1988). A Republic if you can Keep it. Presidential Studies Quarterly, 18(3), 467-473. Retrieved from

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2002). Handbook of Self-determination Research. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.

Gilmartin, K. M. (2002). Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement: A Guide for Officers and their Families. Tucson, AZ: E-S Press.

Pattakos, A., & Dundon, E. (2017). Prisoners of our Thoughts (3rd Rev ed.). Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Peterson, J. B. (1999). Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief. New York, NY: Routledge.Spector, P. E. (1986). Perceived Control by Employees: A Meta-analysis of Studies Concerning Autonomy and Participation at Work. Human Relations, 39, 1005-1016.

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