This article on having agency was inspired by Issue 13 of our newsletter.
In their book, The Power of Agency, Paul Napper and Anthony Rao define agency as:
The ability to act as an effective agent for yourself — it requires getting your mind, body, and emotions in balance to think clearly, advocate for yourself, and make choices that create positive things in your life.
We feel stuck when we're out of balance. When we feel more anxious, depressed, or overwhelmed, the stress hormone, cortisol, increases in the body. This inhibits our ability to make good decisions. Psychologists refer to the inability to make good decisions due to mounting stress as the main reason for the loss of agency. Having agency and making good decisions on our own terms is important because it helps us live a meaningful life.
The age of anxiety
The World Health Organization (WHO) ranks the United States as the most anxious country on earth. 1 in 5 or 40 million Americans are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. In September 2020, Americans reported feeling more anxious and depressed during Covid-19 than at any previous period. The data suggests billions of people around the world have experienced some form of unexpected emotional turmoil and trauma from Covid-19.
A licensed social worker who has practiced psychotherapy for 6 decades in the U.S describes how overwhelmed and stressed people are today:
I’ve seen the pressures climb over the last few decades, there’s no doubt. ... It’s a part of life now. Things are faster. They really started accelerating in the ’80s. It’s not going to go away. We’re in a race to adapt—trying to catch up constantly—and the effects are significant on our body and mind.
A 17-year-old high school senior describes a typical day:
Nearly every minute of my day, everything I do isn’t what I care about.
Dr. Gabor Mate, a renowned Canadian addiction and trauma expert, and author says:
People who experience trauma become disconnected from themselves and the present moment.
What’s the result when we are disconnected from ourselves for a long time? What happens when practicing self-care isn't enough? We need to find support in other ways.
Collective Community Care
Nakita Valerio is a Canadian community organizer and researcher. She tweeted about community over self-care in 2019 before the pandemic:
Shouting "self-care" at people who actually need "community care" is how we fail people.
Valerio says community care involves:
People committed to leveraging their privilege to be there for one another in various ways. ... They (the care providers) know that when they will also need care in the future, others will be there for them. It's about being there for people without them having to take the initial first step.
The global rallies of solidarity with American protestors following George Floyd's murder showed how communities can empower people. But personal community care can be just as helpful. During the pandemic, we saw many examples of community care like getting groceries for someone, cooking someone a meal, comforting a friend who was grieving, or connecting with someone who was alone and lonely.
The hit TV show, Ted Lasso, on Apple's streaming service shows us how individuals can find agency through their community. It was my favorite show in 2020 with Season 2 releasing on July 23rd, 2021. Director and lead actor, Jason Sudeikis, and the sitcom veteran writer, Bill Lawrence were interviewed about the show's positivity and success:
Every person’s life is a comedy, a drama and a tragedy.[The show is] a response to the toxic and cynical culture out there, especially social media, the political discourse, how people speak to each other. ... One of the themes is that evil exists — bullies, toxic masculinity, malignant narcissists — and we can’t just destroy them. It’s about how you deal with those things. That’s where the positivity and some of the lessons come in — it’s about what we have control over.
The show does a great job balancing and overcoming real-life drama and tragedy with comedy. It sees the characters finding their agency by supporting each other and being reminded to believe in themselves.
Community care over self-care
The buzzword today is self-care. If self-care isn't enough, are you suppose to give up and be invisible until things are better? Abeni Jones writes that self-care is:
entirely focused on what we can do for ourselves. We’re taught that we have all we need, that the power for transformation and thriving is within us, just waiting to be harnessed. That we alone can beat back the demons plaguing us and come through to the other side refreshed and ready to fight again.
Community care has the potential to rescue someone when they are unable on their own. An important question to ask someone who has lost their agency is:
How can I support you?
Everyone has breakdowns in life. It’s better for everyone to help others when you can so they reciprocate when they can.
Indigenous and Native peoples
We've been hearing a lot about how agency of Indigenous and Native peoples was taken away through indoctrination and dehumanization in Canada and the U.S. for decades. Natalie Diaz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Latina and Mojave American poet perfectly captures their invisibility and pain in her poem, American Arithmetic. Some passages are below.
Native Americans make up less than
one percent of the population of America.
0.8 percent of 100 percent.
In Arithmetic and in America,
divisibility has rules —
divide without remainder.
At the National Museum of the American Indian,
68 percent of the collection is from the U.S.
I am doing my best to not become a museum
of myself. I am doing my best to breathe in and out.
I am begging: Let me be lonely but not invisible.
But in this American city with all its people,
I am Native American — less than one, less than
whole — I am less than myself. Only a fraction
of a body, let's say, I am only a hand —
and when I slip it beneath the shirt of my lover
I disappear completely.
- Natalie Diaz
Regaining your agency
Napper and Rao in The Power of Agency, provide 7 principles to regain your agency, make good decisions, and live life on your own terms.
- Control Stimuli. Reduce the frequency of electronics like cell phones, tablets and televisions. Stop multi-tasking. Instead, focus on fewer things and get clear on what is most important.
- Associate selectively. As we move out of the pandemic, spend time with people who support, admire and challenge you. Choose positive friends who inspire and energize you.
- Move around more. A healthy mind needs a healthy body. Spend more time with Mother Nature and reduce sitting in front of screens and televisions. Try to move at least 30 minutes per day. Sleep better and take breaks and naps when your body sends you a reminder.
- Practice lifelong learning. Learn from the best people and resources. Embrace growth by learning from mistakes. Listen more and ask more questions. Be open to learning from others.
- Manage your emotions and beliefs. Being successful requires the physical and the emotional to be in harmony. Be open-minded and flexible. Remain open to different worldviews and change your mind based on negative beliefs and assumptions.
- Check your intuition. Tap into your inner wisdom by combining intuition and logical reasoning to make better decisions. When something feels wrong, evaluate the information and get assistance from your community.
- Reflect, decide and act with agency. Spend time deliberating important decisions and then act. After taking action, review how things develop and learn from errors made. Minimize indecision. After making a decision, try not to engage in "what if" thoughts that lead to regrets.
It helps to have people to lean on when you’ve lost your agency and need a helping hand from your community.
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