by Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW
A sense of personal agency—that powerful feeling of having the ability to make your life mostly the way you want it—is a historically unprecedented capacity for women and a luxury that largely belongs mainly to the privileged (Caucasian cis-gender) citizens of the western world.
Context acknowledged, most of my readers are those genetically and geographically and gender-identifying (ha! Try saying that five times in a row, fast!) fortunate Americans, so you have massive capacity for personal agency, but may not quite know it.
What does personal agency have to do with mental health? Only everything! If you feel you can point yourself in the direction you want to go—make a new friend, finish your degree, negotiate a raise, adopt fifteen stray cats,—then you can figure out a strategy to get there—strike up a conversation with your neighbor, research university programs designed for working adults, make a list of job accomplishments and ask for a meeting with your boss, invest in an industrial sized bag of kitty litter.
Without personal agency, life is just happening to us. We are at the mercy of the economy, the whims of our boss, the vicissitudes of life. Like children awaiting dinner and hoping for pasta, we have wants but are passive, and passivity equals powerless.
Girls in particular are raised to deny their needs. In order to be ladylike and nurturing, we are taught to take care of everyone else first and then (only if there is time) to attend to ourselves. Boys meanwhile, are taught to “shake it off” when they are physically injured and shamed “don’t be a baby” when they are emotional. Girls are raised to accommodate everyone except themselves, and boys are raised to dominate everyone including themselves. It’s crappy social programming resulting in massive, unresolved pain and the compulsive need to escape it.
This creates a society of men and women who are completely estranged from their authentic selves, from the internal voice that knows our deepest needs and wants, and therefore has no power to fulfill them. This estrangement and the resulting feelings of emptiness creates enormous resentment and insatiability.
It’s why we have major obesity epidemic in our country: because unmet needs show up in crooked ways and calories are comforting when you work twelve hours a day or stuff your pain down because your life fits like a too-small pair of shoes. Its why pot shops are becoming as common as coffee shops here in the Seattle landscape: because if you are hurting and don’t know how to make the pain stop, you just want to distract yourself from the pain. It’s why so many people can’t hang out alone without a television on in the background or a phone screen in their hand. Distraction is easier than taking responsibility for changing your life, but folks: Taking responsibility is a LOT more powerful, interesting and liberating.
The only way out of this mess is taking time to get to know yourself. There are a million ways to go about it: meditation, journaling, time alone in nature, reflection time over coffee, any creative practice, building things, moving slowly in silence, stillness. You need just three ingredients: curiosity, solitude and quiet. Curiosity is like an opening into the possible, it’s a deeply spiritual state. And we can’t enter into a state of curiosity about ourselves in the midst of other people or distractions of any form.
As we move through autumn, with its slower pace and gorgeous foliage, I wish for you dear reader, protected time to get in touch with yourself so that you can find out what you need deep down, below the incessant and noisy surface wants. Try saying “no” to a few demands on your calendar, and reinvest that time into yourself. Take a candle-lit bath. Go for a slow walk in a beautiful setting.
I wish you great patience with your wants and needs, and faith in your own secret strength and power. I wish you to exercise your personal agency to make your life a beautiful, sturdy, comfortable fit.