In the first few decades of her life, Janie is controlled by forces beyond herself, most notably her grandmother and Logan Killicks. Yet when Joe Starks comes along, she makes the choice to leave with him, & begin her life anew in a different town. This is the first step toward developing her own life. She seeks an experience of love and marriage according to her own definition, which does not involve being used solely as a wroker, rather than a life partner.
Yet she soon finds out that she is no better off, & in fact, she must separate her true self from her social self. She wears a mask for Jody and the other townspeople, and buries her own desires and thoughts deep in her mind. Yet when she reaches her breaking point, she willingly speaks her mind and lets Jody know exactly what life has been like for her. She regains control by telling him "Mah own mind had tuh be squeezed and crowded out tuh make room for yours in me." No longer will she allow this to go on: she is claiming herself in the here & now. After Jody dies, she has an inkling of independence, although she is still bound to his grocery store, as well as the town of Eatonville. The suitors begin to court, and she feels the pressure of being a single, wealthy woman in a small town.
Thus, when Tea-Cake comes along, and she feels a connection beyond that of either of her first 2 relationships, she chooses to leave with him. This leaves her open to all sorts of gossip and scandal in the town, but she doesn't care. Although at first her relationship with Tea-Cake may seem to counteract this new found independence, she finds in Tea-Cake an equal unlike any other. She is freed to be herself; "her soul crawled out from its hiding place." Indeed, when she is forced to kill Tea-Cake to save herself, her journey is complete. Although it took losing the person she loved most, she now realizes that she is the only person she needs, & she can live contentedly in her own skin.