Our sense of agency – part 2

Last week we looked at our sense of agency, and its opposite – helplessness. The experience of learned helplessness – this feeling of ‘it doesn’t matter what I do, it won’t make any difference’ – is a major risk factor for anxiety and depression. We humans can be remarkably resilient, as long as we feel we have some influence over how our life unfolds. There are times when much of our life is outside our control. We might be stuck in a miserable job, but can’t afford to resign. We might be dealing with a major illness, get caught up in a natural disaster, or have a family member who requires a lot of care. It’s also possible that our external circumstances look very rosy, but internally we feel trapped in the grip of anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues.

This is where practising mindfulness can be empowering. Over time, if we meditate regularly, we notice we can have quite an impact when it comes to how we respond to certain situations. For example, we might be feeling under pressure at work, but are able to ground ourselves and take some slow deep breaths before a difficult meeting, helping us to think more clearly, speak more calmly, and therefore be more effective. Or we are able to listen more deeply to our teenager, and find that the conversation takes a more constructive turn as a result. Perhaps we feel attacked by someone, but don’t over-react, and the other person realises you’re not such an easy target any more.

People who are learning mindfulness often report a greater sense of choice. Rather than trudging down the well-worn path of habit with our eyes to the ground, barely noticing our environment, we can pause, look around, get a wider perspective, decide perhaps to take the ‘path less travelled’. These brief moments of choice add up over time to a sense of ‘learned agency’. We often underestimate the power of small but wholesome choices to steer our lives in a better direction.

Studies have shown that people with a strong sense of agency are more likely to look after their health better. They are also more confident, resilient, have a greater sense of responsibility, and are more successful. Agency is like a boat which carries us through a stormy sea – we are still caught up in the elements, but are safer and more in control than if we were trying to swim through the waves.

Our sense of agency is developed through increasing our experiences of efficacy – being effective. We will look at how mindfulness can help us to do this over the next two weeks.

Weekly practice idea:

Choose a current situation which is causing you difficulty, and think of a small way you might be able to bring a greater sense of agency to it. For example, take the time to pause now and then, or write down what you want to say to someone before having that tricky conversation.

Anja Tanhane