Questions concerning what it means to be a human agent and the capacities of those who receive welfare services to reflect upon and shape their lives, and the kinds of social conditions which create opportunities for such ‘reflexivity’, have begun to move to the centre of social policy and social work analysis. Using empirical evidence drawn from a study of child and woman protection, this paper argues that, contrary to claims that the concept of self-reflexivity as developed in the work of Beck and Giddens is of little relevance to marginalised citizens, in late-modernity the socially excluded are using social work and welfare services in creative ways to critically engage in life-planning, to find safety and healing. However, the data suggest that much greater specificity is needed in relation to the areas in which it is possible to act to change and develop the self and the social world in late-modernity. The paper argues for a complex theory of agency and reflexivity in welfare discourse which takes account of the intersection of structural disadvantage, intervention practices and personal biography and how people adjust to adversity and cope with toxic experiences and relationships in their lives. This helps to account for the limits to the capacities of agents to reflect and know why they act as they do and their capacities to act destructively, as well as providing for an appreciation of the creative, reflexive welfare subject.