What is agency?

For the purpose of this post agency is, in general terms, akin to sovereignty. Individuation (or differentiation) is the path to agency.

I think agency is one of the common drives of being human. As we evolve, we seek agency and communion (as Ken Wilber says). In other words, we seek to be fully ourselves while staying connected to each other and all that is. (I explored some of this dynamic in my post on acceptance).

My own definition of agency:

Agency is conscious selfishness. When I am practicing conscious agency, I am a healthy, mature, individuated, integrated adult who puts my own needs/wants above everyone else’s in the service of the collective. I am the author of my own life. I am congruent in mind, body, heart, spirit and I land in my personal integrity. I put my own self-care, self-love, and desire above all else, so that I am more available and resourced to be of genuine service to others (with zero strings attached).

My integral friend Robert MacNaughton, who turned me on to the term agency, defines it a bit differently as

 “Being an agent and voice for something that you want to have happen.  Agency is the capacity to take action. According to the Quakers, it’s a sin to be moved and not speak (just as it is to speak when not moved).  Having agency is speaking or acting when you’re moved; to bring something novel instead of waiting for someone else to do it; to make an impact on your world.”

In our culture agency gets pathologized as “selfishness” or self-centeredness. Perhaps we need to make a distinction between conscious selfishness and ego selfishness.

The cost of non-agency

When individuals lack agency or sovereignty, they tend to have a co-dependent relationship style, (which is most of this culture). When we are co-dependent, we tend toward being a follower. We are vulnerable to marketing of all kinds. We tend to let others tell us what our values are, what we want, and even what we need. This might be the overly “nice guy” or the “compliant” woman.

For example, as teenagers move toward agency or healthy differentiation (a normal and healthy drive), they are vulnerable to allowing themselves to get sucked into everyone else’s value system. Religion, a gang, a fraternity, or the military are good examples. The smart teenagers rebel against all of that, yet often struggle to own their divine agency.

Normal & “Healthy” Agency

There are two specific times in our human development when we grow, in a healthy way, toward having more agency: 1) At 2-3 years old as a child more firmly establishes their sense of autonomy, self, and separateness from the caregiver. And 2) During adolescence. Teens have an intrinsic drive toward being their own person.

These two normal developmental stages are typically called differentiation or individuation. A lot of children fail to complete these stages in a healthy way for a variety of reasons, and thus, end up subscribing to others wants and desires instead of their own. They end up as very disempowered adults.

The disempowered adult could be the privileged person who had/has parents who are still paying for aspects of his/her life well into their 30’s and beyond thus this person can’t manage his/her own money alone. Or it can be a person who doesn’t know what an adult relationship looks like because they’ve never been in one. A non-agentic adult can also be the co-dependent enabler/rescuer type thinking that they are “just helping out” when in reality they are giving to get.

These examples point to the reality in life, that growing up is hard for most of us. The good news is that there is a new agency life-stage happening in today’s society within a very small community of people—people who do deep inner work on themselves.

Conscious Agency

As we work on ourselves, we begin to see we have choice about how we are reacting to life. We realize we don’t have to be victims to our circumstances. As this realization comes online, it awakens the drive toward agency yet again. We see, that if we take the steering wheel in our lives and consciously choose to participate in all aspects of our life, we feel more empowered and less like a victim.  This is most common in folks in their late 20’s and on up. For me, my agency in some departments kicked in around 29. It’s good news for all of us who, for whatever reason, have failed at normal “healthy” agency.

If agency is our natural drive, then it supports my view that one of our fundamental human tasks is to become fully who we are. This is true for me. It’s my karma and my dharma to be completely me. It has been a ten-year journey that continues to this day. I want agency in all areas of my life and its slowly happening. When I am in my agentic self, I am free to move about my family and community in ways that invite others to do the same. I’m an entrepreneur (common for highly agentic people), which allows me to create whatever schedule I want so I can be with my family. And, my children have an adult model that isn’t caught up in care-taking or caring what other’s think. My kids see an embodied, empowered adult male who is willing to be true to himself; a man who actually cares not only about his own needs/wants, but is equally caring about others being true to theirs.

The agency shadow–Egoic agency

Historically we have been a very agency-based culture, which I highly value. However, our historical agency has been on someone’ else’s terms with little regard to the impact on “other.” To me this is the shadow or unhealthy expression of agency. It’s typically seen as the overly masculine, “selfish” male archetype that bulldozes and takes for personal gain.

This type of “agentic” leader wants his/her community and culture to have no agency. A compliant culture that follows rules and orders based on what the corporations want them to do works to support the leader’s egoic drive. Our country is a good example where leaders disempower and stifle the collective agency.

Remember this scene in the Matrix:


This photo speaks to the power of a cultural machine that oppresses people’s agency while purporting to support it.

Would it even be possible to have everyone in their agency? Probably not. But for the brave few, to practice conscious agency not only supports personal integrity, but it also inspires community agency.

If we start to take this agency stuff seriously, we begin to make it a higher priority to be true to ourselves than to have others like us or maintain some status-quo relationship with them. Ironically, in my experience, this allows us to serve (even more) from a heart-centered place of personal integrity and genuine compassion.






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