The simple room: agency and complexity

We would like life to be simple, but complexity exists. Photo by kimi lee on Unsplash

Agency is our ability to influence people and events.  Dysmorphia is a distorted sense of our own shape.  Agential dysmorphia is a distorted view of our own ability to influence people and events.  We either overestimate or underestimate our own agency.


Imagine there is a room, containing just you and a ball.  Imagine that you decide you want to throw the ball against the wall.  This is your intention.  So you walk up to the ball, pick it up, and throw it against the wall.  You hear the satisfying thud against the wall, and the ball drops back down to the ground.  You have achieved what you set out to do.

This is unhampered intention.  This is what it looks and feels like to have a clear intention, and to execute it.  The reason it looks so simple, is that we are imagining:

  1. A single agent
  2. A simple context
  3. A simple intention
  4. A clear outcome


Real life doesn’t work like that.  In reality, there are multiple agents, complex contexts, multiple intentions, and unclear outcomes. What we had hoped was a simple room is actually an extremely complicated world, containing us and 8 billion others.

People are constantly walking in and out of the room, asking us questions, bumping into us, talking with each other over our head.  We hear their conversations, and we learn that there are billions of intentions flying around the world every single day.

We want to get on with all these other people.  We also want to collaborate with them in some of their projects.  We want to have a stable home, job, finances, relationships, health, and creative activities, just like all these other people.

But everything is unclear.  We don’t have a completely secure home, our work isn’t stable, our finances go up and down, our relationships change, our health varies, and our creative endeavours are similarly complex.

This is hampered intention.  This is what it looks and feels like for life to be complicated, and for intentions to be impossible to see, let alone execute.  The reason it feels so difficult, is that we are experiencing:

  1. Multiple agents
  2. Complex contexts
  3. Complex intentions
  4. Confusing and unpredictable outcomes

We are a long way from the ‘simple room’.  We are in the real world.  This may make us anxious.  To rid ourselves of anxiety, we may long for the world to be simpler. 


Many of us have a moderate response to complexity: we create a collection of ‘manageably simple rooms’.  We select a few basic intentions.  We choose a set of reasonably simplified values.  We decide who is important to us.  We develop a simplified narrative.  We get our news from a chosen source consistent with our narrative.

The ‘simple rooms’ are illusory – they are not reality – but they feel healthy and functional.  We assimilate fashions, lifestyles, religions, football teams, political parties, and all manner of man-made teams and rituals.  We say ‘we won’, and our team agrees.  We say ‘we did it’, and the self-reflexive rules of our ritual back this up.  Life feels manageable.


But for some of us, this isn’t enough: life still holds too much complexity.  To make things manageable, we grossly distort the real extent of our own agency, deciding that we are all-powerful or powerless. 


In one extreme simplification, we rebrand ourselves as very powerful.  We become Walter Mitty, Don Quixote, a superhero.  We reduce the world to a single agent (us), and a single intention.  We are attracted to objects, people and fantasies we can manipulate without compromise.


In another extreme simplification, we rebrand ourselves as powerless.  This feeds our need for a rest from the complexities of agency.  We develop a narrative of ourselves as Cinderella, manipulated by others.


Both forms of agential dysmorphia (inflation and deflation) are unstable.  Real life may break in at any moment and unmask our presented powerful or powerless position as an illusion.  To avoid such humiliation, we develop defences against being ‘found out’.  Sometimes we collect arguments to back up our position, as though we were in court.  At other times, we create diversions to put people off the scent.


Sometimes, to defend the illusion, we team up with the opposite tendency.  If one person seeks simplicity in agential inflation, and another seeks simplicity in agential deflation, then they can feed each other’s delusions easily.  Hence the symbiotic, or codependent, relationship between the dominant and the submissive.  This can become a group thing, if an inflated ‘leader’ finds submissive ‘followers’.


If deprived of codependent relationships, some people live out the instability by swinging between inflation and deflation, in a Jeckyll-and-Hyde pattern.


For example, most of the time Phil behaves like a dictator at work, until something happens to him to pierce the delusion, and limit his sense of personal agency.  He then collapses mentally, and spends some time feeling completely powerless, and insisting he is a total victim.  After a while, he returns to his preferred simplification (inflation), and becomes the dictator again.  This cycle repeats, but no one at work sees his collapses, because he hides them at home.


In another example, Jane behaves like Cinderella in the world, interpreting herself as powerless in most situations.  Occasionally, friends comes along and point out that she has agency, and could improve her situation.  Faced with the collapse of her Cinderella complex, she inflates, and  explains to her friends, in powerful, well-tuned speeches and actions, how powerless she really is.  Once others have backed off, Jane returns to her preferred simplification (quiet deflation) and becomes Cinderella again.  This cycle repeats. 


Petra has arguments with her partner.  Finding negotiation difficult, she easily slips into instability.  One minute, in agential deflation, she assumes the victim role, screaming ‘See what you’re doing to me?!”  Another minute, in agential inflation, she grabs her partner by the throat, temporarily believing she has the power to silence them.  A further moment later, she runs to a friend, pleading to them that she has been victimised.

The swings of all three of the above are typical of agential dysmorphia.  The extreme position (I am all-powerful or I am all-victim) is unstable, because evidence may eventually appear to pierce the delusion.  At such times, instability or a collapse occurs.


There are two main consequences of agential dysmorphia:

  1. Behavioural and emotional instability, especially if events threaten to bring the delusion to consciousness.  When inflated, we fear humiliation.  When deflated, we fear responsibility.
  2. Codependent relationships between the inflated and the deflated.  This can be a dominant-submissive coupling, or a grouping where someone inflated works with a group of the deflated (a religion, a political movement, a gang, or a cult)


Consider these questions:

  • How have I simplified life to make it manageable?  What religions have I chosen?  What fashions?  What lifestyles?  Which teams?
  • In what ways do I pretend to have more power than I really have?  What humiliation am I trying to avoid by assuming such imaginary power?
  • In what ways do I pretend to be a powerless victim, when I really have a moderate degree of control over events?  What responsibility am I trying to avoid by positioning myself as powerless?