Understanding Personal Agency

agency handAgency is a philosophical term that refers to one’s ability to act in a given situation. When discussing the nature of free will and responsibility, it is important to be mindful of how much agency a person has. If there’s an electrical fault in your house and you’re alone, there might not be anything you can do about it. If you’re a trained electrician, there might be a great deal you could do to fix the problem. However, being knowledgeable about electronics might not be enough if your tools are at your workplace. Thus, agency depends on both having the knowledge and having the means. A person with electrical training and tools has full agency over the problem of the electrical fault, whereas a person with no training and no tools has no direct agency over their electrical problems. They will have to pay someone who does have agency in this situation to fix it. Despite sounding so simple, problems with agency account for a lot of drama in relationships. This article will discuss a healthy sense of agency and then compare it to unhealthy perceptions of agency such as hyper-agency and hypo-agency.

What is a healthy level of agency?  On a basic philosophical level, people produce three things: actions, thoughts, and feelings. Some of our actions are involuntary, such as vomiting and keeping our heart beating, while breathing and bowel movements are something we have some influence over, and we have almost total control over the movements of our limbs, except when unconscious or having a seizure. Thus, there is a spectrum ranging from no control, degrees of influence, to total control. I can influence my blinking, but I can’t stop myself from blinking entirely, while I have total control over whether or not I punch or stroke someone with my hand. So in terms of actions, most people correctly recognise we have control over our actions and hold us responsible for our actions: you did a good job raking those leaves, here’s $20. Recognising that you have agency over your voluntary actions is healthy.

When it comes to thoughts and feelings, though, it isn’t always so clear to most people, but it isn’t actually that much different to actions. Consider that when you speak, you are merely vocalising your thoughts. Since you can control exactly what words you say, you are demonstrating the ability to alter your thoughts, and not necessarily in a cynical or manipulative way either. When I am talking to a person who is physically injured, I might initially feel angry at them for acting irresponsibly enough to get injured, but I consider the broader implications of telling them off right now and instead choose to say soothing and compassionate words to them instead. Here I have recognised my thoughts and feelings, then responded to them by having different thoughts and feelings that are more helpful to the situation. In this way I am displaying agency over my thoughts, feelings, and actions all at once. Having this agency gives me a lot of options in any given situation and thus more control over my life. Recognising that you have agency over your thoughts and feelings is healthy.

A person who is calm has almost total control over their thoughts and feelings. They can plan things to do, meditate on a problem or a situation, choose a topic that evokes a particular emotion and then change that topic again at will and thereby change the emotion they were feeling. It is rare for a calm person to say or do something significantly inappropriate. However, emotions do have a volume setting. One can feel irritated, annoyed, frustrated, angry, and enraged: that’s all the same emotion, but each word describes a different volume setting. Who has the most agency over their thoughts and actions? The irritated person or the enraged person? A person who can’t control their own emotions (by turning the volume down on them) feels little to no agency over their own feelings and often their thoughts and actions, too. The biggest challenge to personal agency is exercising control over one’s emotions. Whenever you feel enraged, the best course of action is typically to take some deep breaths and find some space of your own to calm down in until you can think clearly again as this will maximise your control over the situation. Wise people make contingency plans so they are unlikely to become overly emotional. For example, this can be a simple as having a savings account; just knowing that one has savings for a rainy day helps maintain calmness.

Hyper-agency

Hyper-agency is when a person incorrectly believes they have control over another person‘s thoughts, feelings, and actions. When someone is crying, for instance, one might believe that one can cheer them up and certainly, sometimes when you tell a joke to a crying person, they will laugh. When this happens, one might conclude that one has the power to make a person feel happy. This belief can be intoxicating, especially for a person who feels miserable. The idea of being able to exert such control over another person to make them feel something leads to a false sense of power. The hunger for power is very strong in all animals. An animal that has control over its environment is the happiest of all as they can eat, sleep, and play whenever they want without fear or panic.

However, we can’t actually control another person’s feelings. Sometimes people will react the way we want them react, but sometimes they don’t. This all depends on what is happening inside of that person’s head, not what you’re saying or doing to them. I can give two women a massage: my girlfriend and a stranger on the train. While I am doing the exact same action to both women, they will react differently. But here’s the thing, while most of the time my girlfriend wants a massage, and most women don’t want to be touched by a stranger, sometimes my girlfriend won’t want a massage and sometimes a stranger on a train will respond positively to a massage. People are not predictable like a physical object is. That which has emotions is impossible to understand by the laws of physics alone.

It may be tempting to tell people whatever you think might alter their thoughts, feelings, and actions to suit your interests, particularly if you believe you have agency over that person, but this is an error in observation. A more careful observation is that the other person chose to respond to your words in the way you were hoping they would, but just because they chose to respond positively to you once or even a few times, does not mean they will continue to do so. Indeed, once one starts full blown lying to people in an effort to get the desired responses from them, it is only a matter of time before they point blank refuse to co-operate with you at all and it turns into a vicious power struggle.

People with hyper-agency typically don’t see their attempts to control other people as malicious. Instead they see themselves as just being caring. They might see themselves as a white knight if they’re male, or being a loving partner if they’re female. “I am controlling you because I care about you” is the excuse often used. When people tell me they have good intentions, I generally believe them. I think most people with hyper-agency genuinely do care about the person they’re trying to control, they just don’t have the knowledge or tools needed to show actual caring. Once they know how to care for someone and what to do to show that caring, then this desire to control others disappears. Of course, there are a handful of damaged people who enjoy hurting people and see these kinds of control games as fun just for the pain and hurt they cause others, but most people are not like this.

People with hyper-agency are typically burdened with a lot of irrational guilt and shame. They will blame themselves for things they have no control over. Often they will blame themselves for how other people treat them, letting their abusers off the hook with excuse-making, while ripping into themselves for not preventing problems when they may have had neither the knowledge nor the tools to prevent the problem in the first place.

Hypo-agency

Hypo-agency is when a person incorrectly believes they have little to no control over their thoughts, feelings, and actions. They see themselves as just a passenger in life and things happen to them. They are often unfulfilled, lonely people who feel miserable, weak, and trapped in a meaningless existence. They wait for other people to make decisions for them, to notice their problems, and to solve their problems. They avoid making decisions and taking any risks.  Typically resulting in their life passing them by, wasted on people and activities they don’t actually care about.

When a child is punished for initiative, asserting themselves, or for succeeding, this usually results in this kind of hypo-agency. Sometimes it is described as a learned helplessness. There are some aspects that can be attractive: if one doesn’t do anything, one can’t feel guilty for making the right decision. However, this is also a faulty observation: choosing not to do something is still making a decision and one is responsible for not acting and so this attempt to escape personal responsibility and guilt does not actually work when one starts feeling guilty for wasting one’s precious life.

The worst possible thing for a person who suffers from hypo-agency is for them to be attractive in some way. Attractive people, whether male or female, typically find no shortage of people willing to take responsibility for them. Typically, this is a person with hyper-agency who believes they can rescue this person who feels so helpless. The person with hypo-agency then might feel powerful in being powerless. The more infirm, pathetic, and needy they are, the more effort the person with hyper-agency will shower them with attempts to rescue and aid them. Thus, they are rewarded for being helpless, making a recovery undesirable because it means giving up on the care and attention of the person with hyper-agency.  For this reason, it is not uncommon for a person with hypo-agency to find themselves often sick and injured, yet mysteriously never seem to completely recover again just to maintain a degree of stability within a dysfunctional relationship.

What is usually necessary for the person with hypo-agency is to gain the knowledge that they are wasting their lives away by failing to assert themselves, and to gain the tools needed to take control of their lives.

Inverted agency

The picture gets more complicated because people are often a mixture of hyper and hypo agency depending on the situation they are in. Described thus far is a person who believes they have control over their lives and other people and a person who feels they have no control over their lives nor over other people. Both these people are half-right. But it is also common for people to be a mix of the two; indeed, a person may believe they have hypo-agency over their own lives while simultaneously believing they have hyper-agency over other people. This is a complete inversion of healthy agency and can present the greatest challenge for recovery.

This reversal of agency is typically a result of abuse. Abusive people want to exploit people and this exploitation depends on the victim of the abuse believing they have hypo-agency over their own lives (so they won’t rebel and leave the abusive relationship) while simultaneously believing they have hyper-agency over their abuser (so they will attend to the needs and desires of the abuser as a people pleaser). Because it is easier for anyone who has a misunderstanding of the nature of agency to fall victim to an abusive relationship, it is prudent for people to figure out clearly the proper and healthy view of agency before entering into a relationship to begin with or risk falling into such an unhealthy relationship.

Conclusion

The rule of thumb regarding the boundaries of personal responsibility is “that which you create, you own.” If you work hard, you own the fruits of your labour. If you speak, you own the words that you say. If you commit a crime, you are responsible for that crime. If you produce thoughts and feelings, you own those thoughts and feelings. So a healthy sense of agency is similar to responsibility. “I am responsible for my thoughts, feelings, and actions. I have agency over my thoughts, feelings, and actions.”  Of course lacking knowledge and tools will limit the amount of influence a person can exert over their thoughts, feelings, and actions.  Through philosophical therapy, one gains the knowledge and tools needed to increase the influence one has over one’s own thoughts and feelings and thus increase one’s agency overall.  You can’t deal with a panic attack if you don’t understand your feelings and you can’t have a harmonious relationship with someone if you don’t understand how relationships work.

A person with a health sense of agency believes they are responsible for their thoughts, feelings, and actions. They do not believe they are responsible for the thoughts, feelings, and actions of others, nor do they believe that other people have a controlling influence over their thoughts, feelings, and actions. Other people may influence their thoughts, feelings, and actions, but generally ultimate control resides with themselves. When a person uses force, lies, and threats to influence your agency, they are violating your boundaries in a serious way that, if tolerated will harm you deeply: typically by destroying your self-respect and self-confidence. These people’s harmful influence over your life needs to be removed so that you can be in control of your own life and this typically results in one feeling happy.

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