Reading time: 10 minutes.
I know my corner of the internet pretty well.
Like anything, it has its seasons – but also its consistency. You know, algorithms. But over the last couple of months I saw that consistency getting flooded by a different type of waves. And like any surfer, that caught my attention.
On one hand, I saw a peak of fear-spreading and panic-inducing narratives, especially around the "all-conquering rise of ChatGPT 4.0”, the imminent financial crash, the lost game of climate change – just to name a few.
But what caught my attention the most was seeing extremely resourceful friends, allies and colleagues getting sucked into these fear-spreading narratives – far beyond what we normally already experience (courtesy of how we do most media work these days), and lose their footing.
Lose their sense of agency.
That was the straw that broke my camel’s back.
Because I've spent the last 10+ years working in “change making sectors” – looking at how proven projects can spread and replicate, what compels people to take action and the role that cognitive science plays in the equation.
And that’s how I know that the point is not whether or not you believe in those narratives. The point is that we can’t afford that type of framing.
Because we tend to believe that in order to make people take action we need to create and spread content that will make them feel how bad, big and urgent this (anything) is.
But fear-inducing narratives don’t make us take more action: they make us take less.
Or they make us take the kind of action that doesn’t create better alternatives. I’ll get back to this.
My point being: in a world in desperate need of informed, brave actions, the last thing we can afford is to fall under the weight of narratives that deplete us. Or to unconsciously amplify them, thinking that we are doing good activism.
Therefore — as the fear-spreading game levels up, so must we.
Which means it’s time to talk about agency and power. And learn how to use them.
What is “agency”?
I’ve been obsessed with the topic of agency (and, by extension, power) since I was a little girl.
I thought it was a recent passion – until my family politely reminded me of the scandal I caused in primary school, when I insisted on doing my 5th-grade final project on the rights of Native Americans, the expropriation of their lands and the ancestral practice of the dreamcatcher. As a white, blond girl in a small Roman Catholic town in northern Italy, I was off to a great start.
Today, many power-related rabbit holes later, I still believe agency is one of the most crucial topics to understand.
But what is it?
We can think about agency as our perceived ability to influence what’s around us or to act on our own will.
In particular, our sense of agency depends on:
- the socio-economic structure and context we are born into (and/or find ourselves in at a specific time);
- the cognitive belief structure and the perceptions we hold (or reinforce) as individuals and as a society, which will determine whether or not we’ll think we can do something about anything.
You can see why I stress on the perceived ability.
Nothing happens in a vacuum, of course. Context matters. But while socio-economic structures and constraints play a huge role in defining our playing field, whether or not we move on that playing field and how we do it depends on our narratives and perception – both of the situation and of ourselves (in that context).
So when fear-inducing narratives make us feel small and overwhelmed, we lose our sense of agency – and with that, our ability to take effective action.
No matter how simple the context we’re in, or however many of our resources. We still won’t feel in-power enough to do anything.
No sense of agency = no perceived ability to act.
For those of you into visuals, here's a pretty accurate representation.
What happens when we lose agency?
Someone else gains it.
Pretty straightforward, also annoying AF.
The moment we find ourselves in any narrative that shifts our perception and makes us feel small, afraid or powerless, we lose power and something or someone else gains it.
There are many ways to explore this, and a lot of tangents to follow. I've actually decided to follow many of them, and publish my findings in upcoming posts.
But I still want to make this one practical, actionable and hopefully useful. Nerds will be nerds, after all.
In order to do so – I thought to start looking at how we lose agency and power through the well-known 3 ways in which we respond when we perceive threat or danger: Fight, Flight and Freeze.
When we care about a topic, and we are hit by something that is fear-inducing, and…
- We fight — we take our power and (usually) react instead of respond. We react in a way that (to us) feels proportional to the threat we are perceiving. This is when we burst back in anger, pour our rage online or perform what I call angry activism. Understandable, still not effective. Shame is not an effective tool of change. Who wins? Separation. More destructive conflict. The threat. The status quo.
- We flee — we take our power and put it somewhere else in an attempt to gain a sense of control. This is when we numb ourselves with food, social media, or any other cheap source of feel-good hormones that costs us time, and money, or both. Again, understandable - and in most cases less destructive (but nos less damaging). Who wins? The status quo, and consumerism.
- We freeze — we actually don’t shift our power in any direction, we just dissociate. We unplug — from the news, the event or the sources of what’s triggering us, and we internalise the tension. Who wins? Definitely not our mental and physical health. Again, the status quo.
When a fear-spreading situation or narrative hits, and we fall into any of the above three scenarios, something or someone takes our power. We lose it to a narrative that is often designed to take it away from us.
So instead of using our power, power ends up using us.
Any good news, Meg?
Of course. Always.
Starting at: agency, like most things, is a muscle. And a game.
Which means that, like any other muscle, you can train it: learn what to do VS not do, choose a practice that works for you and build consistency.
And like any other game, it only matters in the arena. You can intellectually learn about power and agency, but ultimately what makes the difference is practice so that when situations come up, you find yourself able to ride those waves differently — and maybe even bring other people with you.
To me, "impact", "sustainability" and any other form of change-making is all about agency. And power.
Over the last few months I felt an increasing sense of urgency to go back to writing and share more on these topics – because I personally believe that most of our well-intended efforts in the impact space are actually feeding more of the old story. We think we are using power, but power is using us.
But also to share tools, actions and practices.
Because as I said, if the game levels up – so must we. And if our narratives and sense of agency are everything we’ve got, then we must learn all about it, and how to use it.
So – actionables.
Let's talk action.
To get started with this, you can:
- Get on the radar. What narrative(s) or future scenario tends to catch your attention and make you become anxious, worried or overwhelmed? Write them down.
- Know your reactions. What's your go-to response? Do you fall under any of the above 3 scenarios, Fight, Fly and Freeze? Which one? How? Write it down.
- Map it out. Imagine that any narrative is a script. Which is true. Its goal is to convince you of your (or our) ability to __________ . It wants to reinforce specific belief about yourself, which can be your ability to do/not do something. Now look back at one of the narratives that tends to overwhelm you. What is it trying to convince you about? Do you think it’s true? Can you find any evidence to prove it wrong? Write it down.
To take it one step further: join Tools of Power.
Every Friday I share 1 proven method, action or practice on power and agency that made the difference for me and/or my clients – and occasionally, we get on a community call, to meet each other, share reflections and hacks.
I look forward to leveling up our game together. After all, since we're here, we might as well figure out how skilled of players we can be.
See you in the arena.
In joy, ~M