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Reclaiming Our Agency

This quote, attributed to Lutheran theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, sums up where we have been - looking at the difference between taking too much responsibility for things that we can’t control versus the opposite mistake: spreading the blame around to others or situations when in fact, there’s control and agency we can take. Today, it’s all about finding the courage to change the things we can.

Angie, an otherwise up-and-coming soccer player, struggled as many players do, with penalty kicks. That situation in a game when it’s just you against the goalie. You have time to think about and set up your shot, there’s no one else to jostle you or otherwise mess with your delivery…and it’s just the goalie. How hard can it be? Turns out, it's pretty damned hard. Angie had had a few opportunities, but her fear of letting the team down proved prophetic and she missed two penalty shots in two different games, one in a key situation that cost her team a victory.

Despite support from her coach and teammates, Angie felt like she was somehow defective when it came to penalty shots. She worked hard at other aspects of her game but found herself just going through the motions when it came time for the team to practice penalty shots. What’s the point? she wondered…Penalty shots are just not my thing. Not one to put her hand up at the best of times, Angie literally stepped back when penalty shot opportunities came up. And sure enough, coaches stopped looking her way in that space.

Angie, like all of us in this situation, had a choice. In the end, she decided it was easier to not confront her fears, and found satisfaction and success in other aspects of her game. And yet…she never really got over feeling like she was less of a player than those teammates who continued to put themselves to the penalty shot test.

Had she decided to tackle this for herself, these are the steps she'd take:

1. Become aware of what is actually happening. Shifting responsibility from the situation itself to how I feel about the situation is huge. That is, so often it’s our reaction to the situation that derails us. In Angie’s case, penalty shots were not the issue. It was her crippling self-judgment about her penalty shot failures and her sense of not wanting to let the team down that became the limiting barrier.

2. Listen and respond to the stories our mind is telling us. In particular, we listen for the fear, which is almost always part of the story - with kindness. Fear thrives and grows when unexamined. In that examination, we seek to turn toward the fear in ourselves in the same way we might if someone we love is afraid. Fear is real and is a result of us feeling threatened in some way. The way to soothe and corral fear is by enhancing our safety. In the body, this could be how we breathe so as to shift from "fight or flight" to "rest and digest." We may seek the counsel of supportive others.

Author Liz Gilbert, in her wonderful book, Big Magic, described how the unexpected, overwhelming commercial success of her previous novel, Eat, Pray, Love (which she didn't think was "all that special"), ate away at her self-confidence and agency. Maybe I have no idea about "good" really means! As well, how do I follow THAT up, anyway?

How did Liz Gilbert lean into and set boundaries around her fear? She wrote to it.

Dearest Fear,

Creativity and I are about to go on a road trip together. I understand you’ll be joining us because you always do. I acknowledge that you believe you have an important job to do in my life and that you take your job seriously. Apparently, your job is to induce complete panic whenever I’m about to do anything interesting—and may I say, you are superb at your job.

So by all means, keep doing your job, if you feel you must. But I will also be doing my job on this road trip, which is to work hard and stay focused. And Creativity will be doing its job, which is to remain stimulating and inspiring. There’s plenty of room in this vehicle for all of us, so make yourself at home, but understand this: Creativity and I are the only ones who will be any decisions along the way.

I recognise and respect that you are part of this family, and so I will never exclude you from our activities, but still—your suggestions will never be followed. You’re allowed to have a seat, and you’re allowed to have a voice, but you are not allowed to have a vote. You’re not allowed to touch the road maps; you’re not allowed to suggest detours; you’re not allowed to fiddle with the temperature. Dude, you’re not even allowed to touch the radio. But above all else, my dear old familiar friend, you are absolutely forbidden to drive.

3. When and if we are able to soothe fear, we may then choose to act. Act in accordance with what we really want. Move toward the thing we are afraid of, or afraid of doing. Fear can be with us as we do what it is we want to do. This is what courage is all about.

I can’t think of a more noble enterprise.

Have you reclaimed your agency? I’d love to hear your story.

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