Learning Yourself, Part 1: Thinking, feeling, and the art of agency

Learning Yourself is a series of posts about understanding who you are, building healthy relationships, connecting with God, and navigating conflict. Subscribe for sneak peeks of my book, The Variable Life, to learn more about finding clarity and confidence in a world of choices.

Your mind tells you one thing. Your heart tells you the opposite.

Which one is right? How do you decide which to follow?

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If you choose the logical route proposed by your mind, you’ll know you made a good choice, but you won’t feel like it. If you choose based on the emotions of your heart, your mind knows it probably led you down an unsustainable path in the wrong direction.

To live in a way that we don’t regret our choices (or failure to stand by them), we need to take both heart and mind into account—both valuable tools given by God. We need to be whole people living holistically, and that starts with agency.

The Art of Human Agency

The art of being human is wrapped in the idea of agency. God gives us the power of choices, which we can use for good or ill. We are simultaneously resilient individuals and needy social creatures, but we can thrive if we learn to adapt. Agency helps us adapt.

What does agency mean? Here’s a succinct definition from Chris Barker:

Agency: the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.

You know people who have a strong sense of agency: they’re usually the ones who rise to the occasion, take responsibility, act assertively yet maintain self-control, and discipline seems to come naturally for them. Others often perceive them as leaders.

They use calculated decision-making to accomplish work and arrange their lives. They favor action over passivity, and adjust their behavior to match their aspirational values. In other words, they do what they say is important to them.

Why Agency is Important

The idea of agency fascinates me. Here’s why:

You must be self-aware to navigate your life well.

It’s a theme I see in friends or acquaintances who stop accepting the status quo and take action to make a change. They listen to their mind, body, and spirit. They work confidently toward whatever God planted in their mind, or they know God’s given them freedom to come up with great ideas and make them happen. They learn to see themselves and the world as they really are.

Those with a strong sense of agency don’t hide from the truth, but embrace it.

I’m inspired to be more confident, intentional, and helpful when I see others acting out a form of humble agency.

Agency Begins With Awareness

Dutch psychiatrist and pioneering PTSD researcher Bessel van der Kolk wrote about agency and human well-being:

“Agency starts with what scientists call interoception, our awareness of our subtle sensory, body-based feelings: the greater that awareness, the greater our potential to control our lives. Knowing what we feel is the first step to knowing why we feel that way. If we are aware of the constant changes in our inner and outer environment, we can mobilize to manage them.

If you have a comfortable connection with your inner sensations — if you can trust them to give you accurate information — you will feel in charge of your body, your feelings, and your self.”

This is what’s called emotional intelligence (EI). You can identify what you’re feeling, why you feel that way, and what to do next. (More on that in upcoming posts.)

If our quest for a meaningful, productive life requires agency, we have to become self-aware. And to become self-aware, we must get familiar with our minds, bodies, and spirits. We have to see and understand our surroundings. We have to know when we’re hurt and know we need time to heal. We have to be vulnerable with ourselves to see manipulation, shame, anger, and avoidance. We have to understand our own brokenness so we can begin to get better.

“Sometimes the best journeys aren’t necessarily from east to west, or ground to summit, but from head to heart. Between them we find our voice.” – Jeremy Collins

When you become more self-aware and address the differences between your head and your heart, you’re on the path toward a healthy inner life and relationships.

Thanks for reading!

In the next post, we’ll look at how to be vulnerable with yourself, dealing with your past, and what we need from external sources to be able to get emotionally, mentally, and spiritually healthy.

Learn more about understanding yourself, building healthy relationships, connecting with God, and handling conflict. Sign up to read a chapter in The Variable Life and get updates before it’s launched.

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