Personal Agency

In last week’s blog, I mentioned that I have ignored potentially dangerous behaviors in my work life and in personal relationships that I knew I should address. In my attempts to avoid upsetting anyone, I pretty much accepted whatever situations into which I wandered. For some reason, it never occurred to me that I had any power to improve any circumstances of my own life. It did not occur to me that I could leave a situation. It did not occur to me that I could draw boundaries. It did not occur to me that I could rewrite my own narrative.

Let me cite some examples to give you an idea of what I mean.

In my work life, the government paid me to serve the public. Because of the nature of my position, my customers were often not at their best.  I was an excellent employee, embracing the idea of service… to a fault. Most professionals with whom I worked lauded my level of professionalism, efficiency, accessibility, and genuine desire to help. I was proud of my approach to the job and I value that legacy. However, if I am honest, I think I behaved the way I did only partly because of kindness, empathy, professional pride and integrity. A good part of my super-performance was my desire to avoid conflict.

I did not consider whether a request was reasonable or even possible. I did not just go the extra mile. Sometimes, I traveled a marathon of extra miles while dragging the wreckage of my own sanity behind me. I contorted my physical, mental, and spiritual health into a raggedy tangle of anxiety in my attempts to do what other people wanted. 

I did not consider the demeanor and cooperation of the customer. Sometimes customers were flat out abusive, even in the face of my unbelievable efforts to give them what they wanted. I remember one person telling me that she hoped I would be cursed with seven years of tragedy. Another customer tore the eyes off my pet rock when I went to the photocopier.

It was not just customers, either. I somehow had this idea that if an employee- or especially a supervisor- asked me to do something, it must be something possible and I had to figure out a way to accomplish the task. I never thought about pushing back with the reasons why the requested action was impossible within the constraints of my set of circumstances.

Even in volunteer activities, I still felt that my own needs and wants were immaterial. If anyone else had any sort of expectation of me at all, I would subjugate even critical needs of my own.

What is incredibly weird about all of this is that others did offer me opportunities to make decisions that would be good for me- delegating more work, refusing the assignment, setting reasonable boundaries with customers, and developing a work-at-home schedule to minimize the stress of an ungodly commute. I somehow thought that taking advantage of any of these options would make me weak or lazy. I did not feel that my worth was sufficient to merit these sorts of adaptations.

In my personal relationships, it was even worse. When my husband left me, the break was not clean. I spent months waiting for him to decide if he was coming back. It never occurred to me that I could be the one to decide that he wasn’t. In another malignant relationship, which I was ending, I let the man continue to engage me by responding to his requests for assistance. It took something dramatic for me to finally stop entertaining contact with him. Sometimes, when one of these dangerous relationships ended, I would have nightmares that the man was attacking me with a knife. It was my dream, but my dream self did not think to grab the knife from the guy and turn the tables.

Even in good, healthy, loving relationships, I struggled to ask for even the smallest, most minimally intrusive adaptations to my needs and wants.  I couldn’t even tell people who clearly loved me and valued me that I wanted something from them.

I did not even initially connect the real me to my own blog. I imagined a “creative name” in order to write in anonymity and to avoid hurting anyone else’s feelings. It took me over two years of writing a weekly post to reveal my actual name and own up to who I truly am. 

For most of my life, I have been acting like I was couch-surfing on a life that didn’t belong to me. I lived quietly, timidly, non-intrusively. I did everything in my power to be as little trouble to anyone as possible because I believed my mere existence was more than sufficient inconvenience to the world. When I think about what I might have wanted or needed in the past, the phrase “beggars can’t be choosers” comes to mind. A person who is living on a friend’s couch really can’t be asking for a duvet. So, I didn’t ask. I simply accepted what came my way and was grateful for it.

A lot of the shift in my understanding of myself and my value and my ability to create happiness in my own life came about because of my life coaching with Todd Payne (Todd Payne (  I have been working with him for some time now and have learned that my pattern of existence has been to dismiss the possibility that I have any ability to change the circumstances of my own life. I have learned that it is important to at least consider my own needs and wants as a factor in making decisions… maybe even the first factor.  I have been learning that I have agency to consider those needs. I can make decisions that honor and fulfill them.  I have been learning that exerting my agency will increase my own happiness. I am also learning that exerting agency in my life will probably not lead to any huge disruption of anyone else’s life. In fact, it is quite possible that it may create happiness for others as well.

Over the past year or so, I have purposefully acted to create agency in my own life. For instance, I’ve come to terms with the toxicity in many of my past relationships. I now understand that I had every right to insist on changes or to leave. In beautiful, healthy relationships, I’ve come to understand that the relationship partners will not only agree to make changes to help me be happy. They will welcome the opportunity to do so. I have been making requests. These requests are not “demands.” In fact, I do not even see them as requests for particular changes or actions. They are requests to engage with me to see if there are ways we can both be happier and more satisfied. These conversations are bonding and fruitful. I have stood up for myself and my beliefs when others have attempted to bully me into acquiescence. I cut back on a big chunk of my volunteer activities because I realized they were eating me up more than they were feeding me.

My life is much happier and healthier now that I’ve clothed myself in some degree of self-determination. It is very grounding to understand that I often have the power to change my circumstances without causing the earth to spin off its axis. Even when I do not have the power to change my circumstances, I can almost always choose the way I frame and respond to them. As I cautiously begin taking actions and having conversations to be more self-determinate, I feel liberated… and the fall-out has not been nearly as profoundly negative as I thought it would be. Who knew that agency in one’s own life is such a crucial factor to mental health? When I say it like that, it seems obvious. Still, it was not obvious to me for nearly 65 years.

How do you reach the right balance between being self-determinate in meeting your own needs and being a loving, giving person who cares about others?  Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at

Have a self-determining day!

Terri/DORRY 😊