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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Power of Agency

The 7 Principles to Conquer Obstacles, Make Effective Decisions, and Create a Life on Your Own Terms

Anthony Rao and Paul Napper; read by Sean Patrick Hopkins; introduction read by the authors

Macmillan Audio



The Age of Anxiety and Overwhelm

Leslie and Josh entered the office and sat down on two chairs placed roughly parallel across from the therapist. They thought they were there to fix their son, who’d recently begun acting out at school.

The therapist began by asking about their daily routine. Leslie launched into a description of that morning. After an hour spent getting ready for her part-time job (which was part-time in name only), she woke up her three boys. Tired and irritable, they resisted, and it took too long to get them all started on their days. Soon, texts from coworkers began flashing on her screen, reviewing the details of an essential meeting that would begin only an hour and a half later—an important customer was threatening to jump ship. She counted on having a half hour that morning to prepare—she’d been too exhausted to do it the night before.

Somehow, as this thought was occurring, her mind had performed the complex calculation of what had to happen and in what order to get everyone fed and out the door so that she could arrive at her meeting a full five minutes early. Lunches had to be made. Book bags, instruments, and homework had to be located and packed up. Breakfast—the most important meal of the day as most guilty parents remind themselves—had deteriorated from fresh fruit and pancakes on Monday to peanut butter smeared on once-fresh bagels later in the week.

Amid all of this, the boys, sensing a vacuum, grabbed a few more minutes of screen time instead of putting on their shoes. Still, as was usually the case, she’d managed to get everyone where they needed to go on time, including herself to work, but never without the sense that the day was on the edge of being a minor disaster before it had even begun.

Recalling these details, Leslie’s arms tightened across her chest. Her voice, clipped and fast-paced, now rose, weariness turning to anger as she transitioned to her husband’s performance, or lack thereof, on the average morning. She refused to look at him as she described his ability to float above the morning scrum.

Josh, for his part, assumed the alienated grimace of the perennially misunderstood and underappreciated as the room now looked to him. He sighed wearily, defeated, as he began to defend himself. He was overwhelmed, he said, running his business. His workdays started early and ended late, and still he never felt as if he was doing everything he needed to. He was having to travel more than ever to stay connected to his customers—never mind doing the important work of trying to sign on new ones. When he got home, he was spent. It was hard to be present with the kids, and most of his and Leslie’s time was taken up by trying to get on top of everything, keeping the house running and getting it set up for yet another day. And each day, every day, it began again.

Leslie and Josh eventually returned to their son’s struggles at preschool. Left hanging in the air, though, was a much bigger problem.

What We’re Hearing

One of us (Anthony) is an experienced child and family psychologist (and the therapist who worked with Leslie and Josh), and the other (Paul) is a management psychology expert who helps business leaders improve their performance. We work with different people who arrive at our doors seeking to tackle challenges and work toward goals in very different realms of life, from successful executives to stressed-out parents like Leslie and Josh. And yet we’ve been struck in recent years by a significant and troubling commonality in the way people from all walks of life describe the things that compelled them to seek a coach or therapist:

• They feel overwhelmed by life.

• They struggle to make choices and decisions.

• They often feel stuck, adrift, or thwarted.

When we drill deeper, they often describe a burgeoning insecurity or anxiety, the source of which they can’t quite identify. Those working full-time watch their calendars fill up months in advance, and those with children have a second and similarly demanding calendar. All talk about losing the power to cope with the daily flood of demands—emails and the constant interruptions from electronic devices.

Many report feeling unhappy with where their careers have taken them (note the passivity in this description) but feel too overwhelmed to do the hard work of figuring out how to get to a better place. And it isn’t just adults. Children and teens have also become captive to a destiny they haven’t chosen. By middle school, they already feel they’re under the gun to achieve, to build résumés. A seventeen-year-old high school senior neatly summarized what so many of us are feeling:

Nearly every minute of my day, everything I do isn’t what I care about.

When you listen closely to what people are saying, you hear deeper problems that, when viewed from a psychological health perspective, are alarming.

Increased isolation and social disconnection permeate their stories—people tell us that they find fewer opportunities to connect with the people they care about. They can’t find the time to visit friends, be with spouses, or check on parents or extended family. Spontaneous, enjoyable social moments are rare.

And we hear mounting complaints about a loss of freedom to explore new things or do the things that make people feel energized and fulfilled. We hear unsettling phrases about a lack of real humanness in people’s lives:

Everyone is distracted. My spouse is lost in his own world. My friends seem like they are just going through the motions.

Older people are observing noticeable changes in their communities. Gary, a pastor in Minnesota, described how his congregation seems constantly harried and on edge. People no longer linger after church and rarely connect outside of Sunday mornings as they used to. Further, his congregants seek out his help much more than in years past. While he loves the counseling part of his work, he wonders why people are having so much more trouble coping. “This wasn’t how it was just ten or so years back,” Gary observed. “People seemed to be more self-reliant then, but now they seem more lost. They aren’t sure what to do.” We asked Phyllis Schimel, a licensed social worker, what she’s observed among the New Yorkers who come to her psychotherapy practice. Phyllis has been seeing patients for six decades, and she, too, notes an alarming trend. “I’ve seen the pressures climb over the last few decades, there’s no doubt,” Phyllis told us. “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.”

We spoke with a fifth-grade teacher in Arizona. Sue has sixteen years’ experience and noted that she’s observed differences in her eleven-year-olds. “Other teachers are talking about this at meetings and in the break room,” she said. “Students seem more agitated—more fidgety. Some of them look exhausted and tired. They need more help staying on task. In the afternoons, many have a hard time staying alert. And this is noticeably worse year after year.” Parent-teacher conferences have become more emotionally charged, too. Parents—much like their kids—come into these meetings worn out and nervous. They have a boundless need for reassurance that their child is “on target.” They demand and then obsess about metrics showing where their child stands academically. This, in turn, ramps up Sue’s anxiety. She says she finds it harder to stay focused on what she does best, which is educating youngsters and preparing them emotionally and socially for middle school. Instead, she feels pressured from all sides to prepare them for college. To her, the treadmill-like quality of it is mystifying:

No one stops to question if what we’re doing makes sense. We just keep doing it.

Here’s what we observe from our respective practices: The pace of life has accelerated to a level beyond that to which most of us can fully adapt. The result is a series of negative feedback loops that, left untended, can quickly spiral out of control. To wit:

• We exist with a constant buzz of worry and anxiety that we’re not doing everything we’re supposed to be doing.

• This creates a negative feedback loop in which we can’t get things done because we’re anxious, and our inability to get things done makes the list grow and grow, leaving us ever more anxious.

• All this anxiety also makes us seek distractions (Facebook or Netflix, anyone?), making it harder to be present for others, hurting our relationships. As we become isolated, we tend to become depressed, and this, too, makes it harder to get stuff done … leading to more anxiety.

• When it comes time to make a decision, reaching any decision becomes difficult, whether it’s “Should I stay in this job?” or “Where should we go on summer vacation?” or even “What should we do for dinner tonight?” We can’t quite seem to figure out how to weigh our options. And so the deal doesn’t get done, vacations aren’t taken, and dinner is last minute and stressful.

For the past two to three decades, professionals have focused on stress. We’ve been recommending stress management, a healthier lifestyle, medications, and in some cases, psychotherapy to help our clients and patients get back on their feet.

But it turns out this approach is only symptom management.

There is a bigger problem.

The Critical Role of Human Agency

What we’re witnessing in our practices, and indeed across every spectrum of the human experience, is an increasing number of people who have lost their ability to adapt to stress—with the result that they lose the ability to direct their lives. Psychologists refer to this as a loss of agency. Agency is what allows you to pause, evaluate, and act when you face a challenge—be it at work, home, or anywhere else in the world.

Agency is about being active rather than passive, of reacting effectively to immediate situations and planning effectively for your future. When you become too overwhelmed and lose your agency, you can no longer evaluate your circumstances, reflect on the challenges and opportunities you’re confronted with, make creative decisions, and then act in ways that open up possibilities for a meaningful life on your own terms.

In simpler words, agency is what humans have always used to feel in command of their lives. With it, people are able to live in ways that reflect their interests, values, and inner motivations. Building agency is central to what therapists and consultants like us do in helping people improve their lives, and it has been debated and written about by mental health scholars for years.

And yet only recently has it begun to penetrate the popular consciousness as essential for coping with the obstacles that life throws our way and building a healthy fulfilling life. Its erosion is linked directly to the crisis levels of anxiety we see in current times, for physiological reasons we’ll get to below, and because when we don’t have agency, problems fester, and plans don’t get made, leaving us with a constant sense of worry about the things that aren’t getting done and the impending consequences of inaction.

According to data from the World Health Organization, the United States has been ranked as the most anxious nation on earth, with at least one in five—a full forty million Americans—currently diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Many more people are hovering just beneath that clinically diagnosable line, absorbing and carrying around unhealthy amounts of tension, worry, and fear, which produce more distraction, restlessness, and fatigue.

And then there’s the destructive physical process set off by uncontrolled anxiety. Researchers know that at the cognitive and biological level, intense and chronic emotions such as fear and worry interrupt people’s healthy, normal thinking skills. In these moments, a chemical reaction occurs in the brain that disconnects people from fully employing their critical-thinking skills and navigating thoughtfully toward better options and solutions. We’ve all experienced this. The more upset we are, the less we can stay calm and act deliberately. When being upset, stressed out, and worried becomes chronic, people often become exhausted and just want to give up and stop trying. Biologists use the term allostatic overload to describe this type of problem. In short, exposure to ongoing high angst wears down the body’s normal ability to adapt and adjust, and it can sever the connection to the mental skills people rely upon to regulate their mood and make good decisions. Adrenaline is part of this, chemically speaking, but it’s the buildup of cortisol—the primary stress hormone left in adrenaline’s wake—that builds up, and we need to keep a closer eye on. It causes long-term physical damage to the body. It can also leave us experiencing anxiety and depression, which only further dismantles effective thinking.

Not surprisingly, our children aren’t spared. Shockingly, researchers have observed that starting in the 1980s, typical school-age children began reporting higher levels of anxiety than child psychiatric patients of the 1950s. And this continues its upward climb. More concerning, rates of suicidality and self-harm have doubled over the last decade in young people, according to the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Pediatrician Dr. Gregory Plemmons recently told Susan Scutti of CNN, “An increasing number of our hospital beds are not being used for kids with pneumonia or diabetes; they were being used for kids awaiting placement because they were suicidal.” More high school students, including college-bound teenagers, are taking their own lives. Sadly, it’s no longer a rare event.

Statistics show that more than half of college students who visited their campus counseling centers between 2015 and 2016 did so because they were feeling too much anxiety. This is a generation that is experiencing intolerable stress. Anxiety has taken over depression as the top complaint by college students seeking counseling.

In everyday conversation, we hear greater numbers of people talk about feeling overwhelmed—this is the word they most often use. When asked to elaborate, they describe periods of confusion and mental exhaustion where they lose the ability to focus and feel they can’t keep up with what is being demanded of them. They report a range of symptoms that may last a few minutes to a few days and can include flashes of panic, a desire to flee, trouble staying calm and focused, and becoming overly aggressive or, the opposite, shutting down and becoming passive. They may experience rapid breathing, sweating, waves of nausea, or muscle tightness. As a result of this, they essentially lose access to their full human faculties. Psychologically, we understand them as having exceeded their personal capacity to cope with and adapt to stress. Experiencing the state of overwhelm can feel like experiencing a clinical anxiety disorder, but while its symptoms are significant and debilitating, they don’t last long enough to qualify as a clinical disorder.

We often tell clients that experiencing overwhelm is like seeing an automobile dashboard warning light going on; something is happening that they need to pay attention to. But most people, when feeling overwhelmed, don’t stop to focus on figuring out the problem and mitigating the causes.

Instead, most motor on. And that is when the problems start.

What’s Different Today?

What’s changed to bring on this age of anxiety and overwhelm? Here are some of the cultural drivers and changes we see in personal habits:

Always-on technology. Cell phones, tablets, and larger screens dominate our homes and work lives. Too much screen time, almost independent of the actual content consumed, is associated with anxiety-like symptoms, including agitation, impatience, and restlessness. Importantly for our purposes, it robs us of quiet, reflective time when we might find time to focus on our lives.

Competitiveness stoked by metrics. We have become a culture obsessed with measuring everything—from test scores to goals scored in youth soccer games to monthly sales targets and number of steps taken each day. All of this measurement leaves us reflexively struggling to compete with others on whatever metric the outside world deems important. The minute you start thinking in these terms is the minute you lose your ability to think about and seek that which you really care about.

Loss of human connectedness. The availability of cheap and high-quality entertaining diversions and the rise of social media as a substitute for person-to-person contact have paralleled an increase in isolation. Increasing isolation leads to elevated stress hormones and is correlated with anxiety and depression, both of which diminish agency.

Less physical movement. More time sitting at home means less time spent in active pursuits. Lower exposure to outdoor and natural settings fuels stress and increases hyperactivity. We all know that we feel sluggish and isolated when we sit around the house by ourselves and energized and connected when we’re out doing things with friends and family, and the latter feelings are essential to agency.

Always working. Our interview subjects tell us that work, for many of them, has increasingly encroached on their private time. They report more time at the computer on nights and weekends and less time outdoors. They take remote meetings at nights, on weekends, and during vacations. Kids have more homework and “vacation packets” to occupy them at times when they used to be out running around with their friends. Most significantly, people report there are fewer moments in their lives to experience themselves as separate from the complex systems and fast-moving tasks required of them to simply get through the day.

In short, individuals’ and families’ lives have become increasingly isolated, overscheduled, and fraught with economic anxiety and worry about how they’re not measuring up or what they’re missing out on. And as with the proverbial frog in a slowly heating pot of water, people often don’t realize how much worry they are carrying around until it gets to the boiling point. Exposure to chronic high tension, often in a silent, steady way, leads to more frequent episodes of feeling overwhelmed and a resultant loss of agency.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. There is a series of simple steps you can take to restore your agency and regain control of your life. We’ll start by unpacking the concept of agency just a bit more, and then we’ll show you how to restore it (we say restore because you already have it).

Common Questions About Agency

There is often a moment in our sessions with clients and patients when we pause and say something along the lines of “I know you feel overwhelmed, and I want to tell you two things: 1) There are good reasons why you feel the way you do, and 2) I have found that there are specific practices that have proven highly effective in helping people restore control of their lives, through what we call their agency.” They usually respond with the following questions:

“What are the core features of agency?” Agency is, fundamentally, the ability to slow things down, focus, and size up your current situation and make good decisions. This comes from developing a capacity to pause, reflect, and deeply consider where you find yourself. In its highest form, agency allows you to step outside of yourself and assess the quality of your own thinking and feelings, a concept that psychologists call metacognition. This is all another way of saying that agency allows you to see your life accurately and envision it as it could be—and plot the steps to get there. Note some things that agency is not about: “productivity” or “high performance” (although it does bolster both).

“How do you know when you are lacking agency?” The most common symptom is the feeling of being stuck in an unsatisfying place, overwhelmed by everyday life, and unable to clear your mind and organize your thoughts to figure out how to get unstuck. It often involves feeling controlled or held back by outside forces—your work situation, or people in your family or your community, for example. Lack of agency often involves experiencing considerable doubt about your proper place in the world. People often describe a sense of going through the motions without a true direction or confidence in their future. In more extreme cases, people say they feel like they’re drifting through life and not truly connected to anyone, even friends and family.

“What is eroding my agency?” We are in a period of profound and accelerating change to our day-to-day lives, and this produces a commensurate need for us all to adapt—and to do so without the benefit of a guidebook or road map. When the capacity to adapt is overtaxed for an extended period, the resultant increase in anxiety, if elevated and chronic, leads to a decline in agency.

“Does everyone have the capacity to develop a higher level of agency?” Absolutely. Agency is a human capacity that can be learned. Indeed, human history itself can, in many ways, be seen as a quest for agency. While some people appear better at adapting to difficult situations and show more agency than others, this is because they have learned to do so. Each of us may have greater agency in some domains of our lives than others. The important thing for your purposes is that there are specific and proven practices that can help you develop your agency no matter what your baseline.

How We Developed the Agency-Building Principles

One of the great parts of our jobs is that we often get to hear people describe their approach to solving difficult problems at work or home, and in doing so we learn about their intuitive, trial-and-error methods for building agency. For example, Paul once coached a senior-level executive, Steve, who was feeling uncharacteristically defeated at work. Steve reported being worried and preoccupied to the point that his ability to make decisions was being severely compromised. This was both new and highly unsettling for him and, even more unsettling, he didn’t know exactly what was causing it. Hitting the Pause button periodically over the course of several months to carve out room to reflect more deeply on his situation allowed him to arrive at a creative solution. While hesitant at first to even consider questioning his life’s ambition to be CEO of a large public company, he ultimately embraced the idea of taking himself off the CEO track as he began to see himself and his options in new ways. Coming to the realization that his long held ambition was in conflict with the reality of what it entailed, he decided to embark on a new path in venture capital incubating startups and mentoring aspiring entrepreneurs. The act of deliberating and initiating a bold, well considered life change that was in sync with his core passion and values left him confident in his ability to thrive no matter what the future brings. This is the essence of agency.

Steve is just one example of a client from whom we’ve learned about agency in practice. Our work gives us privileged access to the inner worlds of many people who are successfully pursuing their passion in life. These are people from many walks of life, including teachers, athletes, business leaders, law enforcement officers, healers, and scientists, among others. What unites them is a remarkable degree of self-possession, confidence, and personal agency. We’ve witnessed many of them adapting and thriving despite the high-stress stakes of modern living.

To add to the baseline of information provided by our clients, we conducted in-depth interviews with a diverse group of more than a hundred people across the country to more deeply understand what high-agency people are doing differently to adapt and prosper. Including people from different racial, class, and geographical backgrounds gave us the widest breadth of material possible to further define and hone the principles to build agency. The questions, while standardized, were flexible enough for us to dig at deeper stories and experiences about how people coped with uncertainty and overwhelm. It was surprising how many different types of people we interviewed demonstrated some of these skills. The principles that emerged seem to be universal, but in most cases, people weren’t aware they were following them until we pointed them out and gave them a name. We worked to fully distill the different techniques and practices we learned about during our interviews into a final set of clear, specific principles. We continued to field-test them in our ongoing clinical and consulting work with very positive effect.

What emerged from our observation and study were specific behaviors that promoted adaptation and coping, and certain ways of thinking and mind-set that promoted self-awareness and good judgment. Most importantly, we learned that these capabilities could be developed. Putting these principles into use doesn’t require a special talent that only a lucky few are born with. We firmly believe that people only need to be shown the steps and given some encouragement to stick with them to make progress.

In addition to what we learned from our clients and interviews, we recognized the good-sized cottage industry of alternative health practices and self-help products that have arisen to address the age of overwhelm. Some people unplug at scheduled times. Others do yoga, meditate, or practice other forms of mindfulness. Others focus on a discipline like long-distance running or hiking, or knitting or slow cooking as a way to bring meditative mindfulness back into their lives. These are effective ways to quiet the mind, retrain the self to focus closely on one task, or to be less sedentary. We recommend some of these practices in our book, but it’s important to note that none of them by themselves address the larger problem.

And so we’ve sought to bring together a set of principles that anticipate and disarm the flood of “stuff” headed your way every day that gets in the way of living the life you want to lead. These principles, and the practices and techniques from which they are derived, aren’t designed to be deployed only at times of pain or crisis to dull specific symptoms like stress, though they often have this effect. They are designed to be integrated habitually into the fabric of your everyday life—to become part of what you do whether feeling good or bad, happy or sad, empowered or stuck. They provide a healthy, research-backed framework of acquirable life skills to help you to creatively adapt and flourish in twenty-first-century society.

While we’ve been recommending many of the practices and techniques outlined in this book for years, it was not until stepping back and reflecting on what works best and why that we recognized the degree to which they cluster around seven distinct principles. These seven principles can be practiced in a myriad of ways; hence, you will find many techniques and tools. We’ve integrated the most cutting-edge research in the field of positive psychology, including research on confidence, resilience, grit (long-term perseverance and passion), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), intuitiveness, and the benefits of physical movement. Ultimately, it was the integration of our work experience and interview findings with theory, research, and known best clinical practices that enabled us to distill the most essential elements to building agency into an actionable series of seven principles.

Focus on Building Agency Rather Than Reducing Anxiety

When we set out to write this book, we were struck by one thing above all. We observed a link between people’s general confidence and their ability to meet significant challenges. It seemed that those who were confident more of the time—that is, they were feeling more in charge of their lives and connected to their sense of agency—reported less anxiety and overwhelm, even when they were placed under highly challenging, pressured situations.

For us, this was a eureka moment. It wasn’t just that less anxious people felt more confident but that confidence itself fended off anxiety and moments of overwhelm. There is a biological parallel here. The sympathetic nervous system (which ignites fear and aggression when the brain perceives threat) and the parasympathetic nervous system (which returns the mind and body to calm and homeostasis) work in this seesaw way.

The breakthrough idea we had is this: Instead of trying to lower people’s worry or anxiousness (as many practitioners now do with pills and therapies), we attack it from the other end. We encourage a confidence that can actually help keep stress away. And we do it by figuring out what empowers people, what gives people greater capacity to cope and adapt, and nurturing that. Our theory was that the resulting confidence would neutralize—or at least keep at bay—the negative emotions that so often drag people down.

We started integrating this approach into our work, explaining the concept in simple terms to adults, teens, and even kids as young as seven. First, reframing “problems” was key. We started telling people, You don’t necessarily have anxiety because you’re an “anxious person” or that it’s a given that there’s a “disorder” beyond your control boiling up from some mysterious biological place. We told them to frame what they were feeling more as an erosion in their confidence. Uneasiness isn’t the problem, we said. In fact, angst is the natural response that warns you that something is wrong, so we don’t always want to rush to sedate it. The real culprit involves actually being overwhelmed by real things happening in the world all around you. The solution, we explained, would be found in incorporating the daily behaviors and ways of thinking that we have found build confidence in other people so they can better handle whatever life brings them.

Everyone has agency within them waiting to be unlocked.

That includes you.

Copyright © 2019 by Anthony Rao and Paul Napper