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The Importance of Agency | Dr Juliana Hauser #608

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On the Regular Version …

Dr Juliana Hauser joins me as we dive into her work on the concept of agency.

So what is agency? It’s the ability to stand on your own two feet. To make decisions in life and face the consequences of them either way.

To learn more about Dr Juliana check out her site –

On the Extended Version …

Dr Juliana and I continue to explore her work and the research surrounding her mission and message.

Enjoy the show!

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Corey Allan: Coming up next on the Passionately Married podcast.

Juliana Hauser: The concept of the tolerance for ambiguity came into bear also during this. And I remember thinking when I first saw this coming up in all my truly thousands of interviews that I had in my research, I was like, "No. This is not what I want to happen." I work, even my own life, work so hard at creating certainty that equals safety in my life-

Corey Allan: Don't we all?

Juliana Hauser: ... like, "This is it. Yes, we can plan it. We can foresee things." And when it became very clear that the people who were at most peace and grounded in general on their life, but particularly in decision-making, and then even more so at the end of decision-making, were the ones with a tolerance for ambiguity.

Corey Allan: Welcome to the show. I'm Dr. Corey Allan alongside my wife, Pam.

Pam Allan: Glad to be here.

Corey Allan: Each and every week, we explore wisdom and skills of the world's most passionate and vibrant relationship minds because there's always a theme here, right?

Pam Allan: Mm-hmm.

Corey Allan: It's all about relationship and it's about living fully alive in those relationships. We want to have in-depth conversations that explore topics that every relationship will face, and we're going to offer starters for your conversations or actions that you can take that will move your marriage and your life forward. If you're new to the show, if you want some handy ways to tell your friends about Passionately Married or just to check out what we do, check out the Episode Starter Packs. You can go to These are just a collection of our favorite shows organized by topics and some of the popular shows organized by topics. And if you've got some feedback for something we've missed, let us know, 214-702-9565. You can text us at that number as well. Or as always, you can email us, but as
So coming up today on the regular version of Passionately Married podcast is a conversation with Dr. Juliana Hauser, who we have a similar background, and there's a great overlap in the sense that she and I had the path of education, the counselor education, and some of the path that I took is the same thing she took. And so there was immediately a mind-meld in a lot of ways with our conversation.

Pam Allan: I'm assuming that's good.

Corey Allan: It is. She has been spending two decades talking about and exploring the importance of agency in life.

Pam Allan: And what does that mean?

Corey Allan: So agency, this is a thread, and the reason we reached out to find her. This is a thread of how do you make your own decisions? How do you stand for yourself in the context of the values you live in and the relationships you want? We still need to have autonomy and the ability to-

Pam Allan: Stand on your own two feet, kind of what you're-

Corey Allan: That's the exact same phraseology we use. Yes.

Pam Allan: We proclaimed for a long time.

Corey Allan: And so she's been doing a bunch of research on it and has even come up with some five steps to it of what it takes to really examine how are you standing for you? And so it's a wonderful conversation, and it's sorely needed in our societies. And if I think of our relationships, my relationship at times too, people I work with, agency's a common thread.
And then on the extended version today, which is deeper, longer, and there are no ads, you can subscribe at We go into a further conversation about the research and the design and how she came about what she's built, her practice and her platform, and her message on. All that's coming up on today's show.
Juliana, it's such a pleasure to come across people that... And we've got a lot of similar journey, if you will, in the sense of education, background, focus, et cetera. And it's so great to come across people that are on the same path.

Juliana Hauser: I feel the same way. I'm excited to be able to talk with you today.

Corey Allan: And let's jump right in. When I'm learning about you, the one word that keeps jumping out is the idea of agency and the importance of it. And so to start the conversation today, let's just define it. How do you define it in the sense so that way everybody's got the same language surrounding this?

Juliana Hauser: So I found that it's really been tricky. I mean, it's taken me 20 years to really come up with what feels right for me. And the reason why is because it's several things. It's a noun, it's a verb, it's a concept, and it's a skill. So I've been working on defining it through those four different slots as well. And as a noun, it's a person's ability to be able to predict and to understand that there is a decision to be made. It's the self-determination that we need to have. It's also your ability to see what outcomes there are likely to come to bear. And third is to respond and react to what actually does happen after you make a decision or you have a choice so that you can learn or let go.

Corey Allan: Okay. So I mean, that's what's interesting. So 20 years to help capture what this idea means. I totally understand it because it is one of those things that's I guess is probably not unfortunately as common in the vernacular and the field as needs to be. And then also just out among the world is the idea of what does agency even mean? So what would make that such an issue that where it's not just part of the everyday, "Oh. This is something that's so important and my parents taught me this," even?

Juliana Hauser: Yes. Well, and that's something too that I... It began with me really being curious about how people make choices and how they make decisions in their life. And when I started asking people about this, when I realized that all of a sudden, they couldn't form a sentence or, "I don't really know. You just make a decision. I just go with my gut." Or they had these answers, but nothing was really uniform. And I did think, "Why aren't we being taught this?" And for those of us who are lucky enough to be around people who are making decisions and are showing you how they go about this, I realized, "Oh. This is a skill.
And so in the skill, I actually came up with five steps of how to make a decision and how to then have agency in that decision-making process. And what I've discovered is that people who were coming to me as a therapist, most often, what I consider the fourth part of the skill of decision-making, which is when consequences intended and unattended come to bear. Another way I'd say is like if you're in the boxing ring, it's the swing you didn't see coming that takes you to the mat. And I wanted to help people to have more agility, to be able to juke to things, to be able to feel okay. And the concept of the tolerance for ambiguity came into bear also during this.
I remember thinking when I first saw this coming up in all my truly thousands of interviews that I had in my research, I was like, "No. This is not what I want to happen." I work, even my own life, work so hard at creating certainty that equals safety in my life.

Corey Allan: Right. Don't we all?

Juliana Hauser: This is it. Yes. We can plan it. We can foresee things. And when it became very clear that the people who were at most peace and grounded in general on their life, but particularly in decision-making, and then even more so at the end of decision-making, were the ones with a tolerance for ambiguity. And they felt safest because they knew no matter how things happened, they were going to be okay. And I thought, "Wow." When you meet somebody, some people describe it as comfortable in their own skin. Some people describe it as somebody who's very grounded. But it's somebody who understands that life is going to swirl, life is going to be unpredictable, and they had themselves. And so that's another way to describe agency. Agency is standing up and showing up for yourself. But then I progressed to something else too. And I don't know if you want to speak about that before I go onto another point or not, but-

Corey Allan: Let's go. I mean, this is an agency conversation, so it should go wherever it goes if we're just going to model it accurately too.

Juliana Hauser: I literally just finished doing a TED Talk about this weekend, so I'm joking that I'm about to give you my TED Talk with it as well. But another thing that really became important when you're asking about why should we be doing this, why should we be looking at agency in our lives and employing it, is that you'll hear agency a lot more now. Some of it is confusing. It's like a PR agency or government agency, and obviously I'm not speaking of that. But you'll hear it used synonymously with boundaries or empowerment.
And I want to be clear, my view and my research in agency is that there's really an important difference, that boundaries are a step along the way towards agency and empowerment is after boundaries. But there's a difference between empowerment and agency that's crucial, and it's this: Empowerment is individual, and that's wonderful. You know have a voice. It matters. But it ends in its efficacy and in its ability to help you in relationships because agency is relational. Agency requires you to show up for yourself, but to consider the ripple effects and multiple perspectives of others. Empowerment does not.
And at some point, your empowerment is going to bump up against somebody else's empowerment, whether it's in your marriage or a company or a government. And then you need to figure out how to be relational in that conflict. You need to be understanding of how to negotiate your agency next to somebody else's agency.

Corey Allan: Right. No. And I think that's an incredibly powerful distinction because we're talking about... What comes to my mind, Juliana, is this idea of individuation versus differentiation, to use the psychobabble terms. I live and breathe every day because the individuation is that isolation of I am my own person away from everybody else. But when I get into relationships that are pressuring me to conform to whatever it is that's their comfort level or anxiety relief or wishes, then how do I hang onto myself while not losing myself and the relationship? Sometimes we go, it's easy to be your own person when you're alone in the wilderness, but it's harder to do it when you're in a whole lot of close, deep, intimate relationships.

Juliana Hauser: Yes. And have you do that and keep growing together and still feeling like you are... When I work with couples, we work on your individual agency, and then the couple, that relationship has its own agency. You get to co-create what you want your relationship to look like and be like. And I don't know if our society really supports a lot of that. I know it certainly doesn't speak about it in those terms. I see that to be changing.

Corey Allan: Hollywood and Hallmark don't speak about that. It's the illusion romanticized. We are of one brain and mind and emotion all the way through, which no, that's not the truth.

Juliana Hauser: That's right. And so we do a lot of teaching... I know you do this in your work too, a lot of teaching, relearning, then how do you relate to others without losing yourself in the process?

Corey Allan: That's perfect. So I'm going to back up just a little bit, Juliana, to the idea of the five things that you speak of. I think it's probably important because the one thing I want listeners to get out of this, if we're talking about trying to be more passionately alive in life and in marriage and just parenting, I mean, it fits to everything of the best gift I can give to anybody I care about is a better version of me, an improving, powerful version of me, if you will, and then adding to it the component of in relationship too, not just in isolation. So what would be the concepts that are worth everybody unpacking and understanding as they're on this journey to applying this better in their own life?

Juliana Hauser: Yes. So the steps of agency, I think, are really critical too because when you start doing the skill of agency, you realize that it helps you get to know yourself. As you get to know yourself, you get to have better agency that's more fine-tuned. And everyone gets to then see the more authentic you, including yourself, and your relationships get richer.
So let's start with the five steps. The first step is that you know there's a decision to be made. When I was doing my research... Again, that sounded so obvious, and I'll say this too. It's going to again sound really insultingly simple, why I took 20 years to come up with this inaudible-

Corey Allan: No way. Some people-

Juliana Hauser: ... conversation.

Corey Allan: Some people might think that I am absolutely not going to think that just because we realize that-

Juliana Hauser: I did. There are a few times I did.

Corey Allan: Fair enough. But I think it's this idea is we have this belief now with Passionately Married that the concepts and the ideas we teach are relatively simple but incredibly difficult to actually do. And that's what exactly what you're talking about.

Juliana Hauser: Yes. And the more you start looking at agency and unpacking your past decisions and experiences, you'll see it. And as you start employing it in your present and future, you'll see that. But it's a lot more complicated. So I know you get it.

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Juliana Hauser: So the first thing is there's a decision to be made. And when I was talking to so many people, at first my research began within the topic of sexuality, and then I started expanding it outside into different contexts. But I kept hearing over and over again, "It just happened to me." And not speaking about sexual assault or not speaking about any kind of violence, but just before I knew it, there I was. And I didn't even notice that there's a point that I could have made a decision, or there's multiple decisions and you pick the wrong one, or you focus on one that seems more evident, but actually, the bigger decision was behind it and you avoided it instead of actively hitting it on. So you could know there's a decision to be made this second, is that you feel confident that you are the right person to make the decision, that you can make a decision that's aligned with your purpose and intention, and that this is the right time and place to make it.
If you're over the age of four, you have experienced agency or the lack thereof, and you have experienced what it's like to make a decision and have it not go well. So when you've had that experience, and if you add any years beyond that, as we have, we start having this loss of confidence whenever you've experienced... When you feel like you've made a good decision and it's bad things happening to good people, or you think you've really had lots of forethought, that starts shaking your confidence in yourself. So again, when you hear, you have to feel confident that you can make a good decision. That's part of this is not letting, when things have been unattended in other decisions, shake the belief that you're the right one to be in the driver's seat of your decisions and in your life. So it's a skill to keep that sacred and to protect it.
And then third is that you make the decision and you make it actively, and you make it in a decision that is aligned with your purpose and intention. And so you have to know who you are. You have to know what your purpose and intention is in that experience or in your life or in that relationship in order to make that active decision. This is also so you're not calling seven people and making decision by committee, which I'm a proponent for mentoring and for getting people's opinion. But in the end, they can't make a decision for you and you need to be the one that's making it. And also it's indecision is a decision too. And if there's a decision to be made, it's going to be made. And if you choose not to do it, someone else will do it either in favor of you or not.

Corey Allan: Yeah. Life on life terms requires something of us. And if we don't, then it still will go on.

Juliana Hauser: It will. Yes. Absolutely. And that doesn't feel good either. But again, sometimes what I found is when people had this thing of life happen, it feels at times because you don't want to feel the pain of that, easier. It's not easier, but it feels like it's the easier path is just to let it happen instead of to make that risk or that stand and then say, "This is what I want or what I don't want anymore." So it's important to be active in that. And I have found that in all of my research, it almost didn't depend how things turned out in someone's choice and decision-making, as long as they felt like they had actually made an active decision with purpose and intention, that that was really the saving, healing aspect of it. So it's a crucial step of it.
And then fourth, and I said this earlier, this is often where I see people in our practice, is you have to be able to live with the intended and unintended consequences of your choices. And that's about the tolerance for ambiguity. It's about knowing you're going to be okay. It is about not trying to control everything and understanding that that's not safety. Oh gosh, that was a hard one for me in my personal life to get to that. But once I did, the release and relief that I felt and I see with my clients is truly extraordinary. And that doesn't mean that you don't care. It's not apathy. It is ambiguity, understanding the brilliance within that and the movement inside of it. I think of... I'm a big football fan. That is when you see someone able to juke, that's the skill of ambiguity, being able to juke in that way. Ambiguity isn't just a passiveness. There's also an activeness as a part of it too.

Corey Allan: Absolutely. I mean, and on the sports metaphor, the one that thing when I've heard you talk about this just a minute ago, and then now that comes to my mind is Mike Tyson's phrase of, "Everybody has a plan until they get punched." And then that thing is out the window because it's like, "Wait. Whoa. I wasn't... Oh. This hurt. Hold on." And then all of a sudden, everything comes running to the surface on... And this goes back to your other steps. And I think that's probably the beauty and the sophistication of this, is now it's going back to discovering, "Wait, I'm okay. I did make this call. I chose to get in this ring, metaphorically speaking. And okay, I can do. I can rely on a training, I can rely on a mantra, I can rely on whatever, and see it as this goes through. And I'm okay."

Juliana Hauser: And I will be okay. Or I can have a support system that's going to make me okay. And okay doesn't mean feel good all the time either. Agency doesn't always feel good. But you can figure things out and be resourceful and take care of yourself and find resilience and protection, which is the fifth step. So the fifth step is you make meaning of all four of these one through four steps. And this was actually a later add-on in my theory of it that I realized... And it was pretty exciting when it kept coming up in the data, was that agency allows you to heal in retrospect and protect you in the future. And the way that it helps you heal... We've heard the terms toxic positivity and looking at everything too possibly not understanding that that harm can happen and we need to acknowledge that.
But we also look at the ability to see silver linings. We look at the ability to see what meaning do we make of what's happened? And when you can go back to things in a past that are still causing you emotional labor or you're still having a difficult time with, meaning-making is the only thing that you have the control and power at that point in the terms of agency, and it's potent. So you do have the ability to go back and make different meaning of what's happened and who you are and the choices you've made, have forgiveness for yourself or for other people, or find different resources, or you've grown since the person that was in that situation. What have you learned about life? What other perspectives and skills have you garnered that you can put into that meaning-making? And I found that to be quite powerful for people as well.
And then just finding a balance of, are you somebody that when something's gone awry or something going well, do you make absolute statements? "I no longer trust such and such," or, "Look at me. I could do all of this." Are you holding staunchly to a view or do you have, again, some agility to it and some resiliency? So all five of those steps are what I found to be the skill of agency and something that you can go to.

Corey Allan: And I love the idea of the word skill because I think you're talking about here is the idea of it's something we learn because when our emotions happen because this is... Tell me if I'm off-base with what you're framing here. This is the way life goes on life terms in the sense that I can have an idea, I'm going to go out and I'm going to follow this path, or I'm going to say yes to this person and see where this relationship goes, or yes to my spouse about something. And we got the best intentions and everything mapped out, and it's all set.
And then something doesn't go according to plan. And so my immediate reaction from a feelings-based overreaction at times can be this idea of, "I'm never doing that again." But the skill then comes in to realize, "Wait, that was just a reaction. That was not an edict that's determining of never again will we whatever." And then I can lean back in and see it as, "Okay. Wait, what were the nuances within all of this that life determined by circumstance or not, by intention or not, that was not the right time, or we went too quick on that, or that we overshot, overestimated, or my expectation wasn't even realistic?" Or whatever it might have been.

Juliana Hauser: Or didn't have all the information. And really, when you're enacting agency in a relationship with another human being or multiple humans, it's so unpredictable. And so we could only make the decision with the information that we have and like, "Oh, yeah. Didn't see that one," or, "Didn't know that," but yet we'll make very concrete statements based on what we did have instead. And that to me is crucial to learn to stop doing that, or at least to lessen it.

Corey Allan: Yeah. That's the improvement of self-talk. This is one of the things that my wife and I have been incredibly blessed by, and I don't even remember where I got this from. It's from a book years and years ago. But whenever I make a mistake or do something that didn't go according to plan, it's really easy to get self-condemning. "I'm so stupid. Oh. Here we go again." And it's that self-talk that's deep down, came from someplace. That's kind of what therapeutic field is for in a lot of ways of, "Hey. Let's unwind that and create a better message than whatever it was you were led to believe early on." But just changing the concept of after I do something stupid, or my wife does this too. It's like, "I'm usually smarter than that." That's what I'll say to myself. Yeah. "I'm usually smarter than that." And that's just a framework of "Yep. It happened. Yeah. That was stupid." But I'm not going to flog myself over the top and unnecessarily, but just realize, "Yeah, that happened." And keep it kind of as a neutral, but still have a little bit more of a positive slant.

Juliana Hauser: I love that. And that falls into the fifth step, which is the meaning that you make of it because that allows you to have room for growth and it helps you to not be afraid of yourself or the next time in it that you're like, "Okay. All right. Now I've learned," or figure something else out. But when you're self-condemning, it starts shaking those one through three quite strongly.

Corey Allan: Well, this is so vital of a conversation, Juliana, just because I think it is one of those things that when you look across the world and across the States, man, we are reactive societies. We are non-agency communities at times. And in some regards, that's part of being in a civilized world of we do have to connect and give for the better of the whole. But I think what you're describing here is this idea of I can still have agency in my giving for the better of others to where I'm not giving in just for the sake of caving to others. I'm giving in for the betterment of all in some regards. I think that's what makes all of us better.

Juliana Hauser: Agreed. And it's so powerful when you can trust somebody's yeses just as much as you can trust their nos. And that's a skill you have to learn for yourself as well, to give that and to receive it from others, and to be a person that supports other people's agency as well. It's one thing to learn in your own life. Again, that's the difference between empowerment and agency. It's such a gift to give this and to have a relationship like that, whether it's a marriage or a friendship, a company, a culture.

Corey Allan: Well, Juliana, how can people find more about you as we wrap up this segment and jump into the extended content in here in just a minute. But if they want more because I know you've got a lot of good information on this, how can they find you?

Juliana Hauser: Sure. I'm on all social media handles as Dr. Juliana Hauser, and then I have a newsletter where I put just its own content in it that you can get off on my website at

Corey Allan: Perfect. And I'll have all that in the show notes so that if you're listening to this, everybody can easily find it. So Juliana, man, this has been fun thus far. I'm looking forward to diving in a little bit deeper here in just a second.

Juliana Hauser: Thank you so much for having me.

Corey Allan: It's not at all a shocker to me to think that we could actually take just the concept of how do I make a decision and break it down into steps.

Pam Allan: Yeah. When it started out, I was thinking, "Okay. How's this going to apply to me?" And then, I mean, it didn't take long to really be glaringly obvious. And looking at this, to break down making a decision into, "Am I confident? Am I confident to make a decision for myself? And then ultimately in the end, what's the meaning behind that decision?" Those are some really important things. And realizing that if I don't make the decision for myself, something's going to be made. Someone's still going to make it.

Corey Allan: Life on life terms pretty much means decisions will get made. You're either a part of it or it's made for you.

Pam Allan: Right. So how am I handling that? I did not expect there to be that much packed into it. I loved it. I loved it. I think there's a lot of real self-evaluation going on there.

Corey Allan: There is. And what stood out to me was one of the things she discovered in her research was that a person's ability to handle ambiguity determines their groundedness, their comfort in their own skin, their ability to handle life, to be flexible, to pivot, to audible, to do what's necessary because we all can be control freaks and all are in certain aspects of our lives. But we have to all also come to the realization of, "I really don't have much control. My ability to respond and adapt is what sees me through in a lot of ways."
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