What is transformative self-renewal?8 min read

When agency drives change, the result is transformative self-renewal

If the wellbeing calculus tells us anything, it’s that our sense of wellbeing can be affected by a range of different factors.  But it goes further than that. Whatever we need to address, our agency puts us in the driving seat – and that means we can each pursue our own transformative self-renewal.  This is how

Critique, Praxis, and Emancipation

As we’ve seen previously, a key premise underpinning the wellbeing calculus has been adopted from a centuries-old tradition in continental philosophy:

(1) If we understand the conditions of our existence,
(2) We can take action that will transform our circumstances;
(3) This will lead to our emancipation and a life of self-determined freedom.

The first stage of understanding is one of critique, the second stage of practical activity is praxis, while the outcome is emancipation. This has particular relevance in the field of wellbeing and personal development, where coming to understand self, other and the world we live in (critique) and the implementation of transformative changes (praxis) leads to greater self-determination and a life characterised by freedom (emancipation).

While this process model underpins the wellbeing calculus, the key element that brings it to life and determines success is personal agency. Agency refers to our ability to make choices, to act, and to bring about changes in our lives. It’s also the very thing that enables us to engage in critique and bring about transformative changes in our lives.

The critical role of agency

We exercise our personal agency every day, and the lived experience of freedom that it affords us lies at the heart of our subjective experience of wellbeing. And, of course, our exercise of agency is intimately bound-up with the different elements of the wellbeing calculus. For instance, my agency will function well if I can regulate my emotions, but will be impaired if I’m overwhelmed by my emotions. If I connect well with the people around me, my agency will be channelled in productive ways, but if I’m distrustful or unsettled around other people, my agency will be deployed defending myself. If I have a good-enough set of capabilities (the things I’m able to do), then I can use my agency to accomplish my goals; if my capability set is underdeveloped, I’ll have power… but I’ll not know what to do with it.

Given the crucial role agency plays, it should come as no surprise that common mental health problems including depression and anxiety can often be traced to impaired agency [1] . And even when our agency isn’t impaired, it’s of limited use if we don’t know how to use it to effect change. Of course, this is where the wellbeing calculus steps in, providing a framework that helps us cultivate our agency and the knowledge and skills needed to optimise the relevant elements identified by the wellbeing calculus.

Transformative self-renewal

But there remains a question about what we hope to achieve when we set about making changes in our lives. A key element involves affective and conceptual re-engineering [2] – changing how we think and feel about ourselves, other people, and the world we live in. Another critical element involves rebalancing the body’s regulatory systems, where they have grown unbalanced or out of sync. Capability development is a further area of interest, as is cultivating the activities that bring joy or enhance our sense of meaning and purpose. Perhaps above all, optimising personal agency lies at the heart of the endeavour.

Alongside knowledge and understanding, we need to put things into practice, experimenting and trying out new ways of living in the world. Knowledge and understanding are crucial – but without action, it’s all a bit of a booby prize. Practical action – or praxis – is the key to bringing about lasting change. I call these activities practices of transformative self-renewal – and this is why.

The power of language

Language really matters. Everyday, we use words to describe our experience and make sense of the world we’re living in. But the words we choose also shape our understanding of things. Take the following statements: “I am an anxious person” and “I am living with anxiety”. The first describes an essential defining quality of the person, while the second treats anxiety as separate from the person, something to be lived with but not defined by. It may seem a small thing, but language has the power to shape our reality, our sense of ourselves, and the problems we may encounter. It’s more than just benign – and it can sometimes be deeply problematic.

Language matters here as well.  Some people talk of ‘behaviour change’, but we’re so much more than our behaviour alone. For the same reason, there’s little merit in talking just about ‘personality change’. Other people talk of ‘transformational change’, which is fine up to a point – but it only focuses on the outcome (the transformation) and not the process that led to it [3] . The recurrent term ‘change’ also has an air of ambiguity about it: do we seek to change everything when we undergo transformational change? This is of course impossible, and it’s also undesirable – after all, it’s not as though everything’s completely awful just because we want to make changes in our lives. And are we talking about change for the better – whatever that is – or any old change, as long as it’s different to what came before? No. None of these will do.

Thinking about renewal

Rather than settling on the nomenclature of change for no other reason than following convention, I’ve sought something more descriptive. Instead of mere change, I prefer to think in terms of renewal – something that appears in the Japanese kaizen (continual improvement) and the Old French renaissance (rebirth). But it’s more than just a process of renewal – it’s a process that’s self-directed through the exercise of agency, rather than something that’s done to the person. This means it’s a process of self-renewal.

Transformational renewal – or something else?

Something that psychotherapy research tells us is that, whatever skills, knowledge and experience a therapist brings to the encounter, lasting change only occurs when the client sets about making changes in their lives, away from the therapy room.  Therapy is a catalyst – but we’re transformed not only by what the therapist offers, but crucially by what we do ourselves as well.  Rather than being transformed by something done to us, the experience of engaging in the therapeutic process is itself transformative – where we’re transformed by the very act of participating [4].

There’s nothing radically new or controversial here. Brazilian educator Paolo Freire’s The Pedagogy of the Oppressed was published back in 1968 as the first clear statement of transformative education. Freire was also guided by continental philosophy’s internal logic of critique> praxis> emancipation, and he saw education as a means of helping people understand their circumstances, develop tactics and strategies, and set out on the road towards emancipation. And those principles are as relevant to therapy and wellbeing today as they are to education.

The power of transformative self-renewal

If the exercise of agency lies at the heart of the changes we need to make in our lives, then it’s also important to understand what that means in terms of the changes we make. In my experience, the most powerful and enduring changes we can experience are those which emerge from processes of transformative self-renewal – where we’re transformed through the act of self-renewal.  This isn’t a contest to achieve as much as you can as quickly as possible or to pursue a fictitious, impossible perfection that you’ll never achieve – because you’re fundamentally ok to begin with.  And these acts of transformative self-renewal don’t need to be hugely challenging, although sometimes they will be, and you don’t need to do it alone, although sometimes it will just come down to you.   That’s a powerful idea in and of itself – because it means you have the power to bring about change in your life.  And that’s the power of transformative self-renewal.


Since writing this post, I’ve elaborated this initial sketch of a theory  by incorporating ideas from transformative educator Jack Mezirow’s transformation theory.  You’ll find it fully laid out in my forthcoming book.


[1]  See, for instance, Jack Martin, Jeff Sugarman, and Janice Thompson, Psychology and the Question of Agency (2003) and Pascal Sauvayre, ‘Agency as Fluid Process’ in Roger Frie (Ed.), Psychological Agency: Theory Practice and Culture (2008).

[2]  I’ve borrowed this terminology from philosopher Simon Blackburn.

[3]  For instance, sustaining an acquired brain injury would be transformational – nothing will be the same again, but I will not have had anything to do with it.

[4]  Consider the man who challenges his father after a lifetime of constant criticism, the woman who chooses to leave her husband despite years of coercive control, or the teenager with social anxiety who chooses to venture out into the world, despite the sensed terror. These are the acts that change us, this is transformative renewal in action.


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