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  • Writer's pictureDeric Hollings

Personal Agency

 

Defining terms

 

Socio-politically speaking, the term “agency” may have different meanings. According to one source, “Personal agency refers to ‘the sense that I am the one who is causing or generating an action,” and, “A person with a sense of personal agency perceives himself/herself as the subject influencing his/her own actions and life circumstances.”

 

Regarding my approach to Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), I relate this type of agency to personal responsibility and accountability—collectively, personal ownership. In this way, responsibility is what I’m obligated or need to do and accountability is the consequence of action or inaction regarding responsibility.

 

Unlike demandingness—which uses should, must, or ought-type narratives and derivatives thereof (e.g., I need to be safe)—healthy personal responsibility relates to actions taken by oneself which are in alignment with one’s interests and goals. Noteworthy, these matters don’t require the actions of other people or things in order to be fulfilled.

 

As an example, if I helpfully believe, “I shouldn’t walk around outside without clothing when the temperature is below freezing, because I’m the only person obligated to attend to my safety, and I don’t want to die,” I’m the sole person held accountable for my actions. As a matter of personal ownership, I have agency for what I wear in this regard.

 

According to a separate source, “Self-agency, also known as the phenomenal will, is the sense that actions are self-generated.” Given the foundation outlined in this post thus far, I’m the only person who is responsible and accountable for my self-generated actions.

 

Yet another source states, “Personal agency refers to an individual’s ability to control their own behaviours and reactions to circumstances beyond their control, even if their actions are limited by someone or something else.” This is where REBT methodology plays an important role regarding this topic.

 

The ABC model

 

When working with clients, I encourage people to understand that they have no control and limited influence over other people and life in general. Even regarding oneself, you don’t have full control of your psychological faculties and physiological functions.

 

Take for instance that as you read this blogpost your heart is beating. Can you, with nothing more than the power of your mind, stop your heartbeat? I doubt you can.

 

How about your thoughts? Can you stop random thoughts from bouncing around in your head as you read this post? Again, I doubt it. This is because the conscious mind isn’t in full control of psychological and physiological operations.

 

Nevertheless, what you can control is how you react to circumstances, as suggested by the previous source. To illustrate this occurrence, REBT uses the ABC model which highlights philosopher Epictetusnotion, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” Here’s how it works:

 

Activating event (“Action”) – What occurred

 

Belief about the event – What you told yourself about (A) that resulted in (C)

 

Consequence of one’s belief about the event – What you felt (emotion or bodily sensation) about what happened and what you did (behavior)

 

Disputation of the self-disturbing belief about the event – How you might challenge (D) what you told yourself (B) and which led to (C)

 

Effective new belief to replace the self-disturbing belief – What effective new conclusion you can tell yourself rather than using unhelpful or unhealthy narratives (B)

 

Using this model, an unpleasant occurrence doesn’t cause an uncomfortable outcome. There is no Action-Consequence (A-C) connection, psychologically speaking. It’s true that if I walk around without wearing clothing in Antarctica, I’m going to be cold.

 

This is a matter of causality in the physical world. If I walk around nude when outdoors in Antarctica (Action), my behavior may indeed cause the outcome of frostbite (Consequence), because A-C connections exist within physical nature.

 

However, from an REBT perspective, getting frostbite in relation to poor personal agency (Action) isn’t what would cause an emotional or behavioral Consequence (e.g., anger and shouting about being cold). For matters related to psychological interplay of this sort, there is a Belief-Consequence (B-C) connection.

 

Importantly, I can take personal ownership for the unpleasant Consequences of my unhelpful Beliefs. For instance, if I unproductively assume, “Antarctica shouldn’t be so damned cold and it’s awful that I should have to cover my body when I don’t want to,” the physical reality of frostbite isn’t concerned with my B-C form of self-disturbance.

 

Shoulding all over the place isn’t going to help much when my appendages aren’t receiving proper blood circulation. Therefore, personal agency from an REBT point of view relates to philosopher David Hume’s is-ought problem.

 

Hume essentially suggested that a person cannot demand what ought to be when faced merely with what is. As such, it’s irrational for me to rigidly insist that Antarctica be warmer to suit my desire when the average temperature of the interior is about -71 degrees Fahrenheit.

 

Actions have consequences which become activating events

 

Thus far, I’ve acknowledged reality. There is an A-C connection in the natural or physical world. In this way, actions have consequences (e.g., not wearing clothing in Antarctica can cause frostbite).

 

As well, I’ve asserted that personal agency regarding psychological matters doesn’t relate to an A-C connection, though instead concerns the B-C connection (e.g., developing frostbite from rejection of the is-ought problem is the Activating event about which I maintain an unhelpful Belief that causes an unpleasant Consequence).

 

In life, actions have consequences, which become Activating events about which unhelpful Beliefs cause further Consequences. With this understanding, let’s move away from the example of Antarctica and warm up this topic a bit.

 

Throughout the past week, I’ve read reports about a couple women who claim to have been raped when on vacation in the Bahamas. Before proceeding any further, allow me to issue a unique disclaimer:

 

I have no personal knowledge about the reported incident, purported victims, or alleged suspects. As well, I make no claims regarding the presumed truthfulness or falsity of information concerning the case. Additionally, all persons connected to this matter are presumed innocent unless otherwise found to be guilty through legal means. Lastly, nothing expressed herein is meant to defame anyone concerning this case, as no links, names, or other personally-identifying information will be provided within this post.

 

As the story apparently goes, two women ostensibly claim to have been raped by two men when non-consensually under the influence of (a) foreign substance(s). After coming forward with their allegations, people within comment sections of various media outlets opined on the matter.

 

As the days carried on, closed-circuit television footage was released and which appeared to show the reported victims and suspects walking together. Walking with people doesn’t imply innocence or guilt.

 

However, some people speculated that the manner in which the women were dressed, and their supposed decision to consume an unspecified amount of substances (action), apparently contributed to the outcome of their ordeal (consequences). I have no meaningful input about what actually happened.

 

Rather than joining in on the speculative blame game, the incident and associated commentary reminded me of a discussion from the time I was in graduate school for social work. A group of self-identified feminist students, all who were female, claimed during one class discussion that women didn’t need to use personal agency.

 

Instead, it was a proposed problem of society that women couldn’t walk comfortably through the streets of Austin, Texas while wearing nothing more than a smile on their faces. This was a violation of the is-ought problem.

 

My educational peers argued that men were “problematic” and that when one member of my biological sex cohort sexually assaulted or raped a woman all men were guilty of the offense. Somehow, men were irrationally lumped into a monolith—a large and impersonal social structure regarded as intractably indivisible and uniform.

 

Not only was Hume’s standard violated by such rhetoric, the illogical and unreasonable principle espoused by my classmates served as a clear example of willful neglect or rejection of the B-C connection. Here’s how their unhealthy assumption is represented using a constructive dilemma syllogism:

 

Form –

 

Major premise: If p, then q; and if r, then s

 

Minor premise: But, either p or r

 

Conclusion: Therefore, either q or s

 

 

Example –

 

Major premise: If women are allowed to walk around nude, then women will no longer be oppressed. If women are oppressed by men, then men perpetrate oppression through the sexual assault of women—which also includes the unwelcomed male gaze.

 

Minor premise: Either women are allowed to walk around nude or women are oppressed by men.

 

Conclusion: Therefore, either women will no longer be oppressed or men perpetrate oppression through the sexual assault of women—which also includes the unwelcomed male gaze.

 

Using this illogical dilemma, when a man merely looks at a nude woman walking down the street he is automatically guilty of oppression. This is an irrational claim, if not wholly delusional, because it presumes intention and implies one’s ability to know the inner-thoughts of another person’s mind.

 

While there are undoubtedly some men who would sexually assault or rape a scantily clad or nude woman who traversed the streets of Austin, not all men would do so. Moreover, and I know it’s unpopular to suggest such a thing, women have personal agency for their actions.

 

Actions have consequences, which become Activating events about which unhelpful Beliefs cause further Consequences. If a woman chooses to walk among strangers while wearing next to nothing, and especially when mind-altering substances are in use, personal agency for Belief-driven Consequences cannot be ignored.

 

Insert false claims of my apparent rape apologist status (__________here__________).

 

Paglia’s brand of feminism

 

For maybe two times per year, I’ll agree with a feminist principle. Dear reader, you’re about to witness one of those couple times.

 

I make no secret of the fact that I’m no fan of the victimhood mentality promoted by feminist ideology. Controversially, I assume the stance that in the eyes of the law, women actually should be equal to men—while also bearing all responsibilities for which men are held accountable (e.g., conscription, if the non-aggression principle must be violated).

 

Therefore, I believe that women have personal agency. Moreover, I maintain that women can and should be held to equal standards of personal responsibility and accountability.

 

As such, and while I cannot say the same about most feminists, I appreciate Camille Paglia’s brand of feminism. For instance, Paglia has stated:

 

I still stand by every word of my date-rape manifesto. Women infantilize themselves when they cede responsibility for sexual encounters to men or to after-the-fact grievance committees, parental proxies unworthy of true feminists.

 

Many people took issue with the mere suggestion of women retaining personal agency, as posited by Paglia. When given an opportunity to expound upon her assertion, Paglia stated in an interview:

 

My philosophy of street-smart Amazon feminism is about putting personal responsibility onto women, every single moment of every day, okay? You have responsibility to project to men and to other women what you will tolerate and what you will not. Stop looking to daddy figures and mommy figures, okay, on grievance committees, and so on, or the government to get you out of jams. Life is difficult, okay? You know? Step up! Step up to the plate!

 

This is personal agency. This is how true equality appears. And no, I’m not guilty of violating the no true Scotsman fallacy herein. Actual equality of the sexes relates to shared standards of responsibility and accountability, not applying sympathetic specification to one group or the other.

 

Carrying forth this equal measure, Paglia has discussed sexual assault and rape on college campuses by asserting:

 

“We’re not talking about sexual assault. We’re talking about, often in the case of undergraduates, we’re talking about both individuals are drunk. The men are looking for sexual experience. The women aren’t sure what they want ... What I’ve said from the start, and I maintain I’m correct: a girl who goes to a fraternity party and is asked by a young man, ‘Would you like to go up to my room?’ — I still maintain to this day that a woman who says yes is signaling she is ready for sex.”

 

Signaling of this sort—whether overt, covert, or otherwise—has an effect. If one is tipsy and wearing a bikini in the Bahamas, walking in the nude down the streets of Austin, or under the influence at a fraternity party and solicited for sexual intercourse, are we as a society prepared to unequivocally state that personal agency leading up to these decisions doesn’t apply?

 

Of course, this isn’t to excuse criminal actions. Those who aggress upon others also retain personal agency for their actions. Two contradictory ideas can be true at the same time. This is the definition of a paradox.

 

One presumes that Paglia’s brand of feminism proposes that female X has personal agency for her poor decision to behave in a particular way regarding an environment wherein danger is highly likely. Simultaneously, male Y has personal agency for his poor decision to behave in a particular way in relation to female X.

 

The paradox here is that if you don’t risk anything, you risk even more. If female X doesn’t risk her use of personal agency, she risks more consequences of depending on others to infantilize her.

 

Just as I’d risk getting frostbite if I were to stroll through Antarctica without wearing any clothes, female X risks sexual assault or rape if she behaves in a particular manner in a foreign land without constant protection. Stating the obvious doesn’t mean one advocates rape any more than one applauds nature for producing -71-degree weather.

 

Conclusion

 

Personal agency is akin to the concept of personal ownership I use when practicing REBT. When a person does or doesn’t fulfill a particular obligation, there may be consequences attributed to such behavior.

 

Whereas actions have consequences in the natural world, Beliefs about Activating events cause unpleasant Consequences from a psychological perspective. In REBT, this is demonstrated by use of the ABC model.

 

In life—which is comprised of the physical and psychologic realms—actions have consequences, which become Activating events about which unhelpful Beliefs cause further Consequences. This is a matter of personal agency.

 

Herein, I’ve provided examples relating to an alleged occurrence in the Bahamas, feminists with whom I attended school and their irrational beliefs regarding men, and Camille Paglia’s brand of feminist perspective regarding sexual assault and rape (e.g., fraternity party scenario).

 

While nothing expressed herein relates to advocacy for rape or sexual assault, one has little doubt that someone’s unhelpful Belief about this post (Action) will yield self-disturbed Consequences. If advocacy for true equality is a matter about which unproductive assumptions are worth upsetting oneself over, so be it.

 

For the rest of the intended audience who refuse to subscribe to delusional standards, may you never experience frostbite in Antarctica or sexual misconduct when at a semi-tropical resort. To you, I express congratulations for accepting personal agency for your actions.

 

Lastly, it’s important to point out that there are relatively no guarantees for one’s safety in an uncertain world. Unfortunately, frostbite occurs, sexual assault and rape happens, and people will irrationally and perhaps deliberately misinterpret content of a blogpost.

 

For such instances, I promote use of unconditional acceptance as a means of reducing self-disturbance. If you’d like to know more about how to apply this useful technique, I’m here to help.

 

If you’re looking for a provider who works to help you understand how thinking impacts physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral elements of your life—helping you to sharpen your critical thinking skills, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.

 

As a psychotherapist, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues ranging from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.

 

At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!

 

 

Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW


 

References:

 

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CBC News: The National. (2017, May 7). Camille Paglia on her controversial feminism [Video]. YouTube. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/69rgLvitaYM?si=31PYM04boeEFQrEq

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