‘Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant.’

Robert Louis Stevenson

It’s so much easier to be aware of our failures than successes, but becoming more conscious of little moments of efficacy is a simple but effective way of increasing the feeling of agency in our lives. As the quote by Robert Louis Stevenson implies, we tend to be focused on harvesting ripe juicy apples, somehow expecting these to appear on a daily basis, when in reality it’s the patient planting of seeds and the nurturing of growing plants which sets our life in a good direction. For example, many parents have found skillful ways of containing and redirecting their children’s erratic energy, in a way which is incredibly beneficial to their children (and society at large!). Yet they tend to do this automatically, not even realising something special is going on, and only remember that time in the supermarket on a hot Friday afternoon when their toddler did have a melt-down and everyone stared at them judgmentally.

Years ago when I did some training to teach music to young children, we were told to always look for the small improvements in their playing and comment on these before going on to suggest other ways to make the playing better. It’s easy, as a music teacher, to notice what’s wrong and needs fixing. Yet the look on a student’s face when you say to them, ‘I can hear you’ve really worked on that left hand passage, it’s sounding much better this week’, is priceless. It’s empowering for the student to feel that their efforts have been noticed and acknowledged. Needless to say, they are also more likely to practise what you suggest this week, if they feel their hard work will be appreciated. Yet with ourselves, we are often more like the horror piano teacher who whacks their students on the knuckles and abuses them every time they make a mistake.

The practice of mindfulness helps us become more attuned to those moments when something did go well. It’s easy to notice the apples (our major achievements) but ignore the young plant which is simply there, quietly growing. Through mindfulness we might be aware that we’re able to think clearly in a stressful situation despite feeling a bit anxious. Or we might be able to take a deep breath and be more patient with a difficult colleague or relative. Each time we pause for a moment of mindfulness, we’ve planted another seed of efficacy. I recently sowed some salad seeds, and like to go out in the morning to see how the seedlings are going. We can do this in our own lives – celebrating the many tiny seeds we’ve planted, instead of wishing they’d all turn into salad or apples overnight.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, each day, write down three examples of being effective. It could be remembering to water the pot plant, or single-handedly restructuring your workplace to make it more efficient. Whatever it is, write it down, and allow yourself a few moments to feel good about what you achieved.


Anja Tanhane

Asking for help

There are many ways of increasing our sense of efficacy, the feeling that we can make a positive difference in life, but one of the most important is actually just knowing when to ask for help. People who have been through situations where they felt powerless are often reluctant to seek help, for a number of reasons. Firstly, they may have asked for help in the past and been disappointed (or worse, abused by the person who was supposed to help them). They may feel ashamed, blaming themselves for what is happening. They may not trust enough to allow themselves to be vulnerable, or have no faith in the institutions which are supposed to protect and look after us. Sometimes the help available is not culturally appropriate. For example, writer Andrew Solomon was told by Rwandans critical of Western counsellors trying to help after the genocide:

“Their practice did not involve being outside in the sun where you begin to feel better. There was no music or drumming to get your blood flowing again. There was no sense that everyone had taken the day off so that the entire community could come together to try to lift you up and bring you back to joy. Instead they would take people one at a time into these dingy little rooms and have them sit around for an hour or so and talk about bad things that had happened to them. We had to ask them to leave.”

So while counselling is certainly often very beneficial, some people respond better to other forms of healing which may not be offered, or at least not at a price they can afford.

It’s not always easy to ask for the help we need. Yet if we look at people who are successful (not in the sense of accumulating a lot of money, but those who are leading a rich and fulfilling life), we invariably find they’ve had many teachers, mentors, helpers on the way. Usually they’ve been through some tough times, but sought advice, support, counselling, whatever was needed to get them through.

The myth of the lone warrior who single-handedly saves the entire planet from destruction is ridiculous, but quite pervasive in popular culture. Most detective books and action movies seem to end with the hero locked in one-on-one combat with the villain instead of waiting for back-up. We live in a culture where people are often made to feel ashamed when they ask for help. There are some positive initiatives to counter this – for example, raising awareness of anxiety and depression as common, treatable conditions rather than a sign of personal failure. Yet there are still too many examples of people asking for help, and being made to feel judged and blamed instead.

Asking for help appropriately is a simple acknowledgment of our common humanity. There are times for standing on our own two feet, but if we don’t allow ourselves to be supported when we need it, we are less likely to be able to help others later on.

Sometimes we might be effective in small ways, but may not even be aware of these. Next week, we will look at how we can notice moments of efficacy through mindfulness.

Weekly practice idea:

What is your attitude to seeking help? Do you rely on others too much, or are you reluctant to seek help when needed? Think of a small action you can do this week to balance the scales.

Anja Tanhane

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

Our sense of agency – part 1

The sense of agency we are able to bring to our lives is one of the most important factors which influences our health, wellbeing and success. Yet it’s not often talked about, and usually poorly understood. Agency is the feeling of being able to make something happen, of being the cause of events rather than the effect. We’d like to believe that we, and everyone else in the world, is able to live with a sense of agency. It’s fundamental to how we see ourselves as humans.

Unfortunately, research (including some very cruel studies on animals) has shown that it only takes a few experiences of being disempowered, of not being able to get yourself out of a painful situation no matter how hard you try, to develop a sense of learned helplessness, where you give up altogether and simply accept whatever comes at you. Not only that, but it takes many more positive experiences of agency, of being able to make a difference, to counter the effect of one negative experience of helplessness.

This is where the saying ‘There but for the grace of God go I’ is so fundamental. It’s all too easy to look at other people’s lives and judge them for not trying hard enough. From the outside, it might look perfectly obvious what someone should be doing to improve their circumstances. Yet really, we have no idea why this person may be struggling. Chances are they have experienced traumas we can only guess at. And yes, people who are disempowered sometimes make bad decisions, just as people with all the power in the world also make mistakes. Often, however, our society often judges people who are on benefits much more harshly than those who are materially successful, although the research would suggest it should really be the other way round.

Mindfulness practices can be very empowering for us, as they can greatly increase our sense of agency. We will look at some of the ways in which mindfulness can lead to ‘learned agency’ in next week’s reflection.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, if you find yourself being judgmental about someone, pause and ask yourself – am I really sure I know the whole story? This is not to make excuses for the other person, but simply to acknowledge there may be aspects to the story we don’t know about.

Anja Tanhane