Learning how to develop more agency can be particularly useful for people who are codependent or simply tend to be givers in relationships.
Giving is a great quality to have in successful relationships. When giving to your friends is healthiest, giving makes you feel good about yourself and your relationships. An unhealthy level of giving lends itself to feeling exhausted and resentful afterward. At the other end of the extreme, people who struggle with agency tend to show codependency on their friends. People can be hyper-accommodating in some situations that feel really good for them to give. Givers without boundaries, give so much that they lose their sense of self. Sometimes overgiving is an awareness issue. People struggle to draw boundaries when someone else is asking something of them to prioritize themselves. Other times, people are very aware of their people-pleasing tendencies and they need help with the strategies to assert themselves and create more agency.
Agency is having the ability to act for oneself or be the agent of your life. Agency includes the awareness and ability to act intentionally to determine the outcome of events. Acting in your own best interest helps you get what you want and increase self-esteem.
Communion is the shared interaction or exchange of decision making.
Agency and communion are not necessarily mutually exclusive. People are more complex than being able to say you either have agency or communion in any given interaction. However, achieving healthy relationships requires a balance between agency and communion. This tip will expand the two terms along a continuum to help people assess themselves in their friendships then apply it to other relationships in their lives.
Of course, friendships evolve at different phases of your life. What were meaningful friendships in high school or college tends to shift as people enter into significant relationships and/or start families?
Draw out a continuum
Assessment 1: As you read through examples of each point along the continuum, place a star next to the one that sounds like your level of agency, most of the time.
1 is you only being out for #1. YOU.
At this extreme, you assert your every need and give yourself permission to be selfish. You spend a lot of time alone. It’s just easier that way. It’s hard to get where others are coming from when they have different perspectives or needs from yours. Complete agency without communion looks like a narcissistic personality disorder. You struggle to have empathy for others and view their reality as the only right way. You tend to not notice if others have a problem with you as the conflict that is brought up is your friend’s problem, not yours.
You seek the personal relationships that are merely convenient for you. You let your friends know what you want to be doing when and invite them along. If they do not want to do what you have planned, you have not lost any sense of self and you are happy with or without them. If a conflict happens, you try to hear your friend’s side, but you generally feel like you are in the right and they are in the wrong. You feel comfortable letting them know how you really feel.
You take the lead on coordinating a lot of your social activities. You have great ideas and tend to be the glue that keeps your friend-group together. You sometimes wonder if anything would happen if you did not spearhead the planning process. You “take” more often than not and find yourself in friendships with mostly givers. You know how to compromise, especially if they vocalize what is really important to them, but in lighter situations, you tend to assert your wishes and get exactly what you want.
You feel in control of having the first and last say in plan making or conflict, but you really try to balance your own and your friend’s needs. If a conflict happens, you try to hear out other perspectives and resolve it together. You stay very sure of your perspective. You may even reject some of the experiences they have that go against how you see yourself. Their view of you does not change your level of self-worth nor decide the outcome of your interactions.
Truly meeting people in the middle. You both go halfway with each other’s needs. When making plans, both participants put out what they would like and negotiate how to move forward. You notice a real give and take in these friendships. If a conflict happens, either one of you can share your perspective and feel heard before collaboratively resolving the problem and moving forward.
You see yourself giving into another’s needs at little cost to your sense of self or level of energy it takes to give. You tend to go with the flow so it is best for you to wait until others share their opinions and then you will add yours if you care enough about the particular decision.
Ex: restaurant choice, a decision on plans to stay in vs. go out
At a level seven, you are a pretty laid-back friend. You default so quickly to ask other people what they would like to do that you do not even ask yourself the question. You rarely spearhead a particular plan, but find yourself going along with others’ plans whenever they invite you. When put on the spot, you feel very indecisive and struggle to get in touch with what your wants and needs are. You struggle in friendships where others expect you to be the assertive one.
Conflict happens between you and someone else which makes you very uncomfortable. You notice yourself giving in to their side of the experience just to move forward. You worry about how they perceive you while trying to resolve the conflict, as for how others feel about you feeds your entire self-worth.
You give so much that you feel drained by some friendships. You want to keep the peace so you give in to them by default. Some anxiety is building into resentment, but you do not know how to get out of it. You feel very stuck in the situation and a long way away from being able to speak up to them about your perspective.
You have a lot of friends and they count on you for a lot. Most of your identity is in your friendships. Communion without agency looks like codependency. You do not know, nor care what you want. You only default to the other person’s needs. You want the communion of the relationship so badly that you do not even ask yourself what you want anymore. It’s all about them and that makes you “happy” on the surface level, but if you were to check in with yourself honestly, you would find resentment and a lack of energy to take up any space.
Think of your 5 most important relationships. Give yourself a rating along the continuum of agency←-> communion for each of these 5 relationships.
- What do you notice about your friendships vs. different relationships?
- What is it about each of these people that contribute to you being the number you placed yourself at?
- How does this make you feel about your relationships? Yourself?
- Where would you like your relationships to be?
- What would be different if you got there?
- What would you have to risk to get to your overall ideal spot on the spectrum?
- How different is your ideal for friendships from an ideal significant other relationship?
- Relationships with your immediate family members?
- Extended family members?
- Your children?
Think of 3 role models you have for healthy friendship relationships.
- How would you rate each of them on the continuum?
- What skills do they have that you struggle with?
Rate yourself at work.
- How different is your agency at work versus personal relationships?
- Why do you think this difference exists?
- Where did you learn this level of agency in career settings?
- What benefits has this shown you?
- What has it cost you?
Now that you have assessed your general level of agency, the level of agency you have in your 5 closest relationships and how agent your role models are, think about what you can do with this information. The healthiest people are able to strike a balance between the two and exhibit more situational flexibility along the continuum.
- When are the situations you enjoy assuming more agency?
- Describe the times it is more helpful to prioritize communion
- What is one area of your life where you can try to grow towards the other end of the continuum?
- What do you imagine that will look like?
- How can you give yourself permission to respond differently to others?
- What do you imagine their reactions will be when they see you acting differently?
Learning about your approach to agency and communion can help you achieve more balance in your relationships. For some, this may be a simple exercise of awareness. For others, who have identified themselves on either side of the extreme, it may be time to confront the ways these tendencies get in your own way. Many find therapy to be beneficial to help you develop the agency or communion your relationships may need. Contact our therapists for a free consultation.