A fundamental shift in any change process occurs when people fully realize they have the agency to make changes, and in the moment, feel empowered by this agency to make new decisions. Agency is the key word here. What exactly is agency, though?
According to the Mirriam Webster online dictionary, agency means,
“ The capacity, condition, or state of acting, or of exerting power.”
Agency is essentially the power to know you have the power.
So many people are extremely critical of themselves because they feel stuck and unable to stop repeating the same patterns in their life. Even though they might have a detailed vision of what goals they want to accomplish, skills they want to learn, and/or the life they want in the future, they just can’t seem to motivate themselves to actualize this.
This is not a motivational problem, it is based on not knowing you have the power to be powerful, which is a lack of agency. Additionally, some of the smartest, most skilled, organized, resourceful, intelligent, logical, able people feel hopeless and powerless when what they want to accomplish feels repeatedly just out of reach.
This out-of-reach experience is a lack of agency.
Limits To Our Power To Change
Before I write an article that might induce shame in many, I want to start off by saying there are, of course, multiple contexts in life, that actively limit how much power we might realize we have, or how much power we are allowed to exert.
These contexts might either be oppressive or abusive in nature. Or we may be at the bottom of the power wrung, in an authoritative system, where due to roles and protocol, we are not allowed to assert our power.
I am not at all suggesting there are no external limits placed upon how we can use our agency. No, we can’t accomplish absolutely anything, as there are certainly always going to be limits.
But we make excuses.
Many of us trend in the direction of having far more power and ability than we give our self credit for, and we instead choose to make excuses for why we “can’t” do something, when it really involves lacking agency.
But there is a good reason for why we trend in this direction. We aren’t pathetic, unworthy, not enough, or ignorant. This way of being is what we have learned, and it is deeply encoded into who many of us are.
A Lack Of Agency From Childhood Development
An important context in which we all have experienced circumstances limiting our power is childhood. In childhood, our parents or respective caregivers actively limit our power, either to keep us safe, to teach or guide us, or because they are attempting to control us, for better or for worse.
Additionally, being children, we are completely dependent upon our multiple caregivers and the environments they provide for us. We have no capacity to remove our self from them, therefore our agency is rather confined by what this inability to escape, the overall context, and the caregiver support, will allow.
In fact, the many ways in which we learn about (our own) power, how to feel and recognize it, how to embody it, and how to exert it, come from these early life experiences, in multiple contexts, while relating to these main caregivers.
Childhood is an especially formative time for agency and power, because we are most developmentally impressionable during these early years of life, and these many experiences shape the building blocks of who we are, what we believe is possible, and how we experience our self.
In these early, highly impressionable years, we learn about having a sense of self that is worthy of existing and experiencing what it is to be fully human, and this is at the foundation of being, feeling, and knowing our own power.
If we repeatedly do not get what we need from our caregiving/parenting environment, and there is no one there to validate us and make things right, it becomes traumatic. Or, alternately, as a part of the contexts we cannot escape, if we experience a major loss or disruption in the fabric of childhood life, and no one is there to comfort and care for us in an adequate way, this will impact our sense of self, worthiness, and sense of fully existing. As, when we are little, if we are not provided with some deep need, we internalize this as something being defective in us, and not deserving of the need/experience, or not deserving of existing.
Feeling defective or not deserving to exist comes with not knowing one is capable of, or allowed to have, a sense of power, worthiness, needs, boundaries, dreams, desires, and human experiences.
As we grow and mature, we may learn and heal through the trials and tribulations of navigating adulthood, however, for many of us, we have a relative set-point of self, felt defectiveness, worthiness, feeling our existence to our self, and knowing our own power, that follows us from early childhood.
What is This Inability To Access Agency, Then?
I don’t believe we are having enough conversations about what it actually is that prevents people from using the resources and capacity they do have, to accomplish what could potentially be within their reach. As, even with a general understanding that this lack of agency originates from childhood, most people believe this is something that we can will our self to overcome.
This is just not accurate.
With this understanding of agency and power, and where it is impaired or formed, I view most people’s “inability” to change rather differently from the mainstream. A major factor that blocks the vast majority of us from accomplishing certain goals, or ultimately being the best version of our self, is not skill-lessness, ignorance, negative thinking, laziness or disorganization. I believe it is the way in which what I call, “trauma brain”, decreases a sense of agency. The term trauma brain is literally the ways which the brain and body are conditioned to respond to large and small contexts, based on past painful or overwhelming experiences in life. In fact, this trauma brain takes over when we encounter a context that seems similar enough to the original person, situation, or environment that caused us this original trauma.
Trauma brain triggers strong emotional responses (usually survival strength fear) in the face of trying something new, accomplishing certain goals, or making (major life) changes. We then get preoccupied with managing this strong emotional response, and the co-occurring beliefs we have attached to feeling this way, and we get derailed.
Trauma Brain Is Learned Helplessness
The trauma brain experience above, is synonymous with what some theorists might refer to as learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is a phenomenon discovered by Seligman and Maier (1967), from their research using shock treatment with dogs, in a laboratory setting. From this research they discovered that if dogs were repeatedly exposed to shocks without the ability/option to escape, they showed signs of learned helplessness. Those that had the option/ability to prevent the shocks as a part of the experiment, seemed to show resilience, and did not show signs of learned helplessness, even when exposed to shocks.
In the context of humans, learned helplessness can be described as what occurs when a person has been stuck in a traumatic environment for too long, and eventually stops believing anything more than the pain and dysfunction could be possible for them. They then might give up hope, seem despairing, apathetic, lethargic, or depressive, and also not recognize their own agency to change their situation or life, no matter how many new and improved contexts or resources might be provided for them. In effect, their conditioning to expect a lack of control paired with repeated pain/trauma, becomes generalized around several triggers, and often overrides any new situation or opportunity for control and agency.
Given that childhood is often an experience people have of being stuck, and without control, or the ability to escape, while being exposed to traumatic conditions, it would makes sense how many of us exit childhood having developed learned helplessness.
More Specifically How Learned Helplessness IS Trauma Brain
Learned helplessness, which is what I refer to as trauma brain, contains within it a special type of fear, and other strong emotions. This needs to be understood on a neurological level, to help us all let go of our shame, and acknowledge this fear is a natural part of human experience.
In recent years neuroscientific research by Maier and Seligman (2016), has verified that learned helplessness is indeed traceable within animal brains (both human and non-human). It has been determined that the Dorsal Raphe Nucleus (DRN), a part of the Brain Stem, that directs trauma responses, responds to stress through inhibiting the fight or flight response, which leads to a decreased capacity to initiate an escape/change. The Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex (vmPFC), which in its many functions, helps to mitigate fear responses, signals to the DRN when there is a situation that contains controllable factors and/or is escapeable. The DRN response is then intervened by the vmPFC, and the subject experiences an ability to activate the capacity to escape, act, or know they can act. The vmPFC thus signals agency.
There is significant evidence that past trauma, and its impact on the DRN and vmPFC, as well as other secondary and tertiary brain systems, determines whether someone learns they have control, or the power to know they have the power (agency), on even the most pre-conscious of levels. This isn’t just an intellectual knowing about power and control, that determine the capacity to know we have agency, but it involves pre-conscious experiences and feelings of control and fear responses, that are created in the brain.
To drive it home here, when most of us face a challenge that requires change, that also aligns with a past trauma, we get triggered into trauma brain, which returns us to previous states of feeling powerlessness, and incapable. This repeated experience of being derailed by trauma brain, leads to an inaccurate (and often negative) reflection on the self, and the assessment of skill and control. In fact, the feelings are so strong, we tend to feel as though the feelings ARE us. But, these feelings AREN’T us, they are just a conditioned survival response from the brain, that we repeatedly get trapped in. We struggle, feel powerless, and believe we are incapable, as an extension of this neuro-biologically based state, when this is not the truth at all. This fear state feels very convincing, and thus, we don’t know we have the power to use our power. Eventually, many of us write off ever making those changes, or having that life we had wanted, because we believe we can’t. We eliminate our agency.
So, What Do We Do About This?
In essence, to realize we have agency, or the power to know we have the power, 1) we need to sufficiently override trauma responses, 2) prevent trauma from being triggered, and 3) set in motion titrated, manageable, practical action. As, when in a trauma brain state like learned helplessness, it is rather difficult to believe anything other than the fearful, hopeless messages our strong feelings tell us. Additionally, if we try to do too much, all at once, and we fail, this reinforces the negative messages our trauma brain has conditioned us to believe about our self.
First and foremost, in the process of learning to override trauma, it is a rather good idea to seek professional help with a therapist or a coach. In addition to professional help, here are multiple things you can do on your own that override trauma responses as you have them, that have in the past, convinced you that you are incapable of change. Here is a list of three things (A-C) you can do on your own.
- To override trauma:
A. Take an inventory of what changes you seem to be avoiding making. Now spend time talking with a trusted other, or writing in your journal, about why you are avoiding these changes.
B. From this inventory, explore what elements of this change process you could potentially control. Notice the excuses you make for why you don’t have control.
C. Notice when you are actively having a strong fear response around these areas where you haven’t been able to change, and take notes on what you believe about yourself, life, and your goals, when you are feeling this fear response. Write them down. Then, have what you have written available for you to revisit whenever you feel stuck in these feelings, so you can begin to dis-identify from the emotionally-driven conviction that the state you are in, is an accurate, objective reflection, whatsoever.
Then, for how we might prepare our self to prevent trauma from being triggered, here are three important practices.
2. To prevent trauma from being triggered.
A. Manage stress. This might include massages, moderate exercise, yoga, meditation, listening to calming music, visiting a sauna, or doing whatever it is that helps you unwind, but in healthy way. There is a major correlation between increased stress, and increased tendency towards higher anxiety and fear responses. When we are more stressed, many areas of our prefrontal cortex, that are supposed to help us inhibit fear, regulate feelings, feel gratitude, exert self-control, feel a sense of self, problem solve, and also have empathy, are impaired. These ways of managing stress, help our prefrontal cortex receive more blood flow, and thus help it function better.
B. Make sure you are allowing yourself to spend adequate, quality time with loved ones, who are a positive influence on you. Spending time connecting with others, is one key way to decrease stress and to heal. Many times when we have an affirmative version of our self being reflected back to us, it is much easier to avoid getting triggered into going down the trauma rabbit hole.
C. Make sure you are taking care of core needs for your body. This includes getting enough sleep, eating healthy, balanced meals, taking any supplements you might need, getting at least 15 minutes of direct sunlight exposure a day, and drinking enough water. Most of us don’t realize, but dehydration likely impairs brain function, as well as creates exhaustion, anxiety, mood problems, and a host of other challenging symptoms, that will set you up to be more susceptible to trauma brain taking over.
3. Taking practical, manageable, action.
A. Get clarity about your goals. Write down the goal you desire to accomplish. Now see if you can be very specific about what this goal is, how it would look while you are in the process of accomplishing the goal, and also what life/your self/ the outcome would look like, once you have accomplished it.
B. Create smaller sub-goals. Now, based on what you wrote down for exercise “A”, begin to write smaller, very specific, action-oriented sub-goals you would need to accomplish in order to make this larger goal possible to accomplish. Get annoyingly specific. A sub-goal may even be as simple as, “Start putting lucky bracelet on every morning, right after a shower.” These sub-goals can seem emotional or irrational. Just literally write down whatever steps or rituals you would have to engage in regularly to build toward accomplishing this larger goal.
C. Now pick one of these sub-goals to commit to doing for a period of time that is more than a week, but less than a year. Any time you falter, start again. Make it a practice to start again, and to give yourself credit for learning about commitment and devotion to your self and your goals, through this exercise. Eventually, you will be ready to add on other sub-goals. But, err on the side of making this too simple, first, as it is important to build trust in your capacity to change, rather than trying to impress yourself or another about accomplishing more.
It Is Time To Move Ahead
What you have learned here, is that lacking agency is a matter of traumatic responses taking over, while not having yet learned the skills to inhibit or dismantle these responses, I am hopeful you can become kinder to yourself. This is all workable. One just needs to understand the why of learned helplessness and how to work through it.
If you go about getting the support you need, establish ways to learn you do have power and control, take care of yourself in certain ways, and go about accomplishing goals in a way that is helpful to you, this will undoubtedly help you get closer to reaching your larger life goals!
I wish you the best on your path forward!