Engaging Agency

Whether we act or not, the world goes on. Time passes and things change. What attaches us to the world that goes on and the time that ticks is our level of engagement with that world. If we engage too little, the world holds no meaning for us. If we engage too much, we loose ourselves, mistaking ourselves for the things we do, the things we have and missing the individual that is ourselves.

Secondary to engaging in the world is a sense of agency in our engagement. Agency is a feeling of control over our actions and thus a predictive capacity to the actions of others and our environment. Without a feeling of agency, we can feel lost, out of control and powerless. These feelings can lead to anger, aggression and fear.

A common theme that I write to is balance. Too much or too little is always a problem. The trick to life is finding how to judge for yourself where you sit on the spectrum of these measures and thus how you can work out what you can do to rebalance your life.

Low engagement markers are a lack of actions or caring about the actions that you do engage in. Often this is combined with low agency as people feel that their actions have no meaning, have no affect and is pointless anyway.

Low number of actions can also be contributed by feeling that there is too much agency, where you feel that your actions are causing harm or have too much responsibility. As such, one can feel that any action can lead to irrevocable or significant harm and thus any action is just too darn dangerous. The risk just doesn’t seem to be worth it.

Too much engagement can lead to feeling lost in actions, uncertainty of self and not knowing how to just stop. Those who do try can feel very anxious and fret about all the things that they could be achieving, looking at ‘down time’ as a ‘waste of time’.

When asked about the self, people identify themselves primarily via what they do, rather than realising that they are the people who do.

On that definition of self bit – there are many “self help” groups who ask you to define yourself, not by your characteristics, not by your actions but the central core you. Our language is not geared up to do this, so it generally turns into an effort by the “guru/teacher” to make you feel inadequate and in need of learning or being taught. Here is a good answer to that question – “I am the agent who acts. My actions are chosen to maximise what I believe is good in my life and minimise what I believe isn’t. These choices are based on my beliefs and experiences and are not fixed as I am an agent who learns and can change.” See how that throws them :-)

Over engaging can be used as a tool to avoid feeling, and / or thinking. You are so busy that  you don’t get that necessary down time to consider if what you are doing is “good” for you. Perhaps optimal would be a better phrase, since “good” suggests an apparent opposite of bad, and then we end up discussing the force and the dark side and someone starts quoting Yoda and it all goes bad. Optimal suggests a spectrum of options, from nothing, through sub-optimal, through to optimal and one can also aspire to perfect. Either way, avoiding considering your options is generally a fantastic way of turning healthy habits into actions that harm you.

If you combine over engaging with too little agency, then you can end up running around trying to do everything but feeling like you are achieving nothing. This can lead to a great deal of frustration as no action seems to have any beneficial consequences. This is generally because the action being taken are not thought out, or perspective has been lost and one can’t actually see the progress made. Solutions to this is to slow down, make a plan and include means of measuring success. Normally I dislike self referential articles, however you may find this one here, called “Making Use of the 6 Steps to Problem Solving Paradigm” as a useful guideline.

Over engaging with an inflated agency can lead quite quickly to burnout or narcissism  as every action seems to have powerful consequences. Over stimulation can lead to emotional fatigue, or to a state of addictive craving for your own life’s melodrama. People in this state are often finding themselves involved in their own social crisis. Every event is personal, everyone else must be included. In effect the world is a stage and these people are the main actors, their friends and supportive organisations the backup singers and audience. This is not a balanced view and eventually friends will leave. Generally this is okay because new people can be brought into the mix to replenish lost friends. The long term consequences of this policy is a few burned out real friends and a long list of people brought in for bit parts in the drama, each one trying to save the lead actor. The lead actor feels like the world is very intense and fraught with dangers and vendettas. If the sense of agency is higher, then the person can feel very narsassistic, that is a feeling of self importance and perfection over and above anyone else.

Bringing over engagement and inflated agency back in to balance is quite hard. Often people who participate in this cannot see that they are creating their own dramas, or why this might be a problem to others. And why should they? Media tells us that the lead actor is always the centre of action, normalising this melodrama. Watch any movie, read a pop magazine, watch a soap opera and they all tell you that this is a normal way of life, even though it is supposed to be a characature of life – a distortion. Those who are supporting or trying to rescue the person should step back and decide which battles to fight rather trying to win the entire war of momentary crisis. Conserve your energy.

If the person does decide to change their life, beyond the drama created by stating they will, then generally slowing down the reaction time to events is a great start. Implement realistic planning and only focus energy on a few things at a time. If there are more than 3 plans going at once, then pick the top 3 and postpone the rest. Devote more energy to these 3 life changing plans and do just that. Trying to see the big picture and becoming comfortable with a part that is equivalent to the ratio of you in that big picture. That is, if there are 100 people in this picture, then your part should be closer to an hundredth of the picture in comparison to one half. While your life is important to you and some of your friends, on average it isn’t much more important than that. That isn’t to say that you have no worth, it is just important to get your perspective back.

Decreasing your engagement and agency may make life seem very dull for a while. Resist the urge to create melodrama by considering the perspective of others. Assume that people are generally nice and didn’t mean to hurt or act against you. With this assumption, look again at the thing you are wanting to react against and re-interpret what you have assumed is personal against you. Ask them what they meant by their action without stating it as a black and white thing – life is not only shades in between, but colour as well.

Be patient.

In general, a balance between engagement in life and your agency in your actions is where  most people feel content with themselves.