Agency, Autonomy, and Seat Belts

Feb 09, 2024
Photo by Remy Lovesy on Unsplash

I'm going to be vulnerable for a moment. Today I drove to the grocery store and home again without my seatbelt on. My car was even beeping at me to tell me to put my seatbelt on, and yet I did not. It was a very intentional choice. I have this defiant little girl inside that hollers quite loudly, "YOU ARE NOT THE BOSS OF ME." That is her life mantra. Literally. This morning she was hollering at the beeping car.

Now friend, we can discuss the woes of being a third child another day, but my reality is that "Defiant EM" is one of the passengers in my “EM Team” VW van and she feels it is her job to come out every day just to remind the world that I am an autonomous being. Part of me gave up fighting it awhile back, and I will often let her drive to the grocery store just to appease her. Then the rest of the day I have much more peace.

 However, today I had a powerful epiphany while driving home  (with the car beeping at me), inspired by two seemingly unrelated puzzle pieces coming together.

Puzzle piece number one was from my communion time this morning. I was reading in God's word where a father is giving counsel to his defiant sons, and the phrase "rebel no more against your brother, whose views have been glorious" stood out to me. Later in the story it talks about how the brother did things to bring glory to God. My brain connected the word glorious and the desire to bring glory to God, and I realized that the dad wasn't telling the troublesome sons to be like their brother. He was telling them to not push away from the glory of God and His plan for them out of a desire to push away and be autonomous from their brother.

Puzzle piece number two was the beautiful integration work I have been doing myself and have been coaching other women through. The past 2 weeks we have been focusing on integrating our family system (see this post for more info) and validating the views and needs of the different parts within us. That led me to "zoom back" and see Defiant EM through the eyes of curiosity and perspective.

 Defiant EM (D) and True Self EM (TS) had a pow wow when I got home that went something like this.

TS: I see that you really wanted to drive without your seat belt today.

D: Yes! That car is not the boss of me. I am not going to listen to it beeping at me and do what it says just because it thinks it's the boss.

TS: It is really important to you to feel that freedom to make your own choices, isn't it?

D: Yes!

TS: What a beautiful strength you bring to the EM team. We each have such different strengths that are so important to the team, don't we?

D: Yes.

TS: Have you ever thought about the difference between agency and autonomy?

D: No. I don't understand what that would mean. Will you teach me?

TS: Agency is your freedom to act and direct your own path. Autonomy is your authority to decide for yourself what that path will be without pressure or interference from influences outside of you.

D: I like both of those things a lot.

TS: Yes you do. Protecting agency and autonomy is your superpower.

D: I like thinking of it as a superpower.

TS: I imagine it's difficult when agency and autonomy seem to be two different parts working against each other.

D: What do you mean?

TS: Like with the car for example. It would be so easy to see the beeping seat belt reminder as the car asserting authority over you. The part of you that wants to be autonomous and maintain your own authority would get ignited and want to push against what the car was telling you to do as a way to remind the car that you are the boss and not the car. That's what we call rebelling. It is being defiant. It is where you get your name.

D: Yes! Exactly.

TS: You are giving so much power to the autonomy part and not much to the agency part. What if that car is telling you to do something that you really do want to do? What if it's not trying to boss you and it's just trying to remind you? It sounds kind of silly, but right now you are letting the car's beeping sound actually be the boss of you. Whenever it beeps you choose to be defiant and NOT put on your seatbelt to prove you don't have to do what it says.

D: That's a funny way to look at it. I've never thought about that. I really don't like that beeping sound, and whenever I hear it it makes me feel like it thinks it's the boss.

TS: What if the car is just doing its job, just like you are doing your job? Remember how Safety EM was so grateful for all the safety features of the new car? You see that beeping sound as a bad thing, but she sees it as a good thing because it helps her do her job of keeping everyone safe.

D: Yeah, sometimes Safety EM and I don't get along. Sometimes she tries to be the boss of me too.

TS: I can see that her doing her job sometimes may seem like it conflicts with you doing your job. I have an idea though. What if you focused more on agency and less on autonomy? What if you focused more on your freedom to act than on fiercely defending your authority?

D: What would that look like?

TS: Remember how I asked you a question and you didn't know about it so you asked me to teach you? You used agency to seek out more knowledge. You weren't saying I was the boss of you, you just knew that I had some information that would be helpful for you as you make the decisions. You still had autonomy. You can believe or not believe what I'm telling you. But you aren't rebelling against me and what I'm sharing with you. You are receiving it and becoming more wise because of it. That will increase your superpower to make good choices and actions that are most in line with what we want for our life. That was really good of you to be open to being taught more.

D: Well, you aren't beeping at me.

TS: Yes, that's true. It's hard to be open when we feel external pressure. In those moments that we feel pressure, it's very important that we be firmly anchored in our core values. Then the external pressures don't make us react one way or the other. We are truly being autonomous and using our agency when we choose actions in line with our values.

D: That makes sense.

TS: So do you really value not wearing a seat belt or do you just not want to be told what to do?

D: I just don't want to be told what to do.

TS: Safety EM gets worried when you drive without your seat belt. I know you almost always win at the thumb war and get to be the boss when it comes to the seat belt thing though.

D: It feels good to win, but somehow I don't really feel like I'm winning.

TS: Sometimes when we only think of our own jobs, we end up being on a team alone. That's a lonely place to be. And it's hard to grow and move forward like we want when we are all a bunch of individual teams instead of one team working together.

D: Yeah, I don't like to work alone. It doesn't work out right.

TS: That shows great self awareness for you to see that. So if we are going to work more as a team and be integrated, it means that everybody has a place at the table. Everyone's voice gets to be heard. None of the EMs has the same job as you and the same perspective as you. And, none of them want to be the boss of you. You all just have an important piece of the puzzle that helps everyone else do their jobs better. All the different parts of EM need to be fueled by your energy and agency power. That's a great gift. They need you and you need them. If you listen to Safety EM, she's going to remind you that seat belts save lives and are really important. They are a gift and not a restraint. You can still have your autonomy and wear a seat belt. In fact, it takes a lot of agency to choose that. It is your choice to not let the beep of the car trigger the old feelings about the car being the boss of you. You are showing that you are the boss of you by doing what you value most, regardless of what the car says or doesn't say.

D: That's a really interesting way to look at it. It would be safer to wear the seat belt.

TS: Maybe you could experiment with seeing the beeping sound as a loving reminder instead of as a challenge to your authority. Then you can use your agency to choose whether you think that reminder is important and whether wearing a seat belt is or is not what you want to choose right now. Then you are using agency and autonomy together. 

D: That would feel better to be a part of the team. And I really like thinking about agency and autonomy together as a superpower.

TS: How about we make you a superhero cape with two As on it for "Agency and Autonomy." And maybe we even change your name from "Defiant EM" to "Double A EM." Then you're not being defiant and fighting against anybody as a warrior, you are just protecting and growing  your gift of agency and autonomy that comes from God.

D: That would be awesome!

Those kind of pow wows are so helpful. That's what integrative growth feels like. I experience so much more peace and wholeness as I give place for all the parts of me to be heard and validated and united around what my core values are. That beautiful growth happens one day at a time.

Do you want to experience more of that growth and integration? Join us this month for our Gathering of Light and be a part of the conversation!