Change or Be Dragged: Awareness, Agency, Action
Change and personal development comes easily to some. But, we hate those people, m'I right? Mainly because the rest of us are dragging our feet emotionally and sometimes literally in our attempts to advance ourselves spiritually. Or, maybe you're one of those people who doesn't really give a damn about your soul or your society and will screw whoever it takes for that penthouse in Dubai. If so, I hope you will read on, in spite of yourself.
Luckily, the majority of folks have come to see that our species would have long ago ceased to exist if we didn't favor our powerful instincts for cooperation and connection. Violence and isolation are the results of personal nervous disorders and underdeveloped social understanding that can infect the tribe and what often seems like the whole world.
But, rather than give up on ourselves or anyone else whose barbarism seems hopeless to overcome, let's check out the simple process for evolving.
Personal development is rarely linear. Our journey to maturity and peaceful coexistence usually takes two steps up and one step back. At some point in our lives, we might take several steps back and stall. Luckily, society can progress even when a few members appear hopelessly stuck, but when that number grows large, cultures can decay. So how do we keep moving forward?
The course of interpersonal evolution is simple; we move from dependence to independence and with any luck, we eventually settle into the awareness, acceptance and wisdom of our reality, commonly known as interdependence.
Dependence is when our needs are provided for via the resources of others, folks to whom we abdicate the majority of our important decisions. We can call the subjective experience of dependence enmeshed where we can’t see past another person’s perspective. You know you are living a life, but it turns out to be someone else’s.
Independence is a delusional belief that we are the author of our life and feel we are the only person affected by our decisions. This leaves us isolated, convinced our thoughts, feelings and motives are unique and aren’t easily altered by those of others.
Interdependence is the consensual reality that our actions affect every other being on the planet. Integrated means we are aware of, and interested in directing self will toward the collective good, or are at least be mindful of those with whom we interact most directly – our local community.
Awareness of Self and Others
If you are stuck somewhere between the dependent/enmeshed and independent/isolated stages, you may not notice how your actions and thoughts impact anyone else. It isn’t that you won’t give a damn as much as you can’t. Moving beyond that state can dramatically improve your life. But, everyone moves at their own pace, and most of us are only awoken to our place in the universe by circumstances beyond our control.
You may see any deliberate and conscious effort to increase your awareness as little more than a cool prospect for future you. But, I don’t think I exaggerate when I say that not budging in your development makes you personally answerable for delaying the advent of world peace. So, shake off those concerns about what you’re having for dinner, or how you look in your latest profile pic and focus!
“Men and nations behave wisely when they have exhausted all other resources.” ~ Abba Eban
How do we achieve and maintain our highest level of interdependence/integration? How do we keep our minds and hearts open enough to experience real human connection?
The first step is to pay attention. Take note of your self/society defeating behavior.
Humans can and do cling to pain and ignorance for a surprisingly long time before letting go. Often the only reason we do shift focus is because the suffering and needs of others eclipse our own, or we are carried out of our cave by a tide of positive social influence.
Bottom line: People can and will change you.
Scientific studies have shown for decades that social connection is an integral source of health, happiness and success. It is an essential component of recovery from addiction, depression, chronic physical ailments and pain. More reports on this are published every day. [i]
Those close to you are often the most powerful agents for transformation.
They affect your development, and the continuing ecology of your life. Parents, siblings, peers, co-workers, partners and offspring don’t just contribute; they ARE your emotional environment, determining your diet, air quality, health habits, sense of self and personal agency. Think of them as your psychic drinking water, your real life coaches.
So, when people ask, ‘who cares what other people say or do?’ The appropriate response is, ‘I do! And so should you!’ We would do well to take the behavior of others almost as seriously as we do our own.
This may seem obvious to those of you who’ve spent years struggling, surrendering, rinsing and repeating in order to emotionally shake off toxic people. It may sound like bad news for co-dependent relationships. Does it mean we are hopeless to extricate ourselves from the folks we’d rather were not influencing us? Not at all. With a little practice we can anesthetize ourselves to criticism and passive aggression. But, actually unlearning the messages with which some important people have is trickier. For now, it is best to abandon hope.
Hope is a not a strategy for success. Wellness work is needed and it starts with open eyes, accepting our own vulnerability and influence and the willingness to redirect attention and effort.
Agency: Antidote to Learned Helplessness
Do not believe what your teacher tells you merely out of respect for the teacher. But whatsoever, after due examination and analysis, you find to be conducive to the good, the benefit, the welfare of all beings—that doctrine believe and cling to, and take it as your guide. ~ Guatama Buddha
Why is agency most effectively won through acceptance? It sounds counter-intuitive because acceptance is often paired with forgiveness and mistaken for submissiveness. After being harmed by people we often forgive the behavior and return to their door with hope of an amended relationship. This hope is based on the frequent misperception that we are now both aware of what makes us hurt, and committed to avoiding such triggers in the future. Forgiveness is often misrepresented as tolerating abuse, or willingness to endure a repetition of it. But, the deeper acceptance has to be of our own vulnerability, the actual thickness of our skin and of the likelihood of certain people to cause us pain.
We are each capable of admitting that our behavior was regrettable. Then, we go and repeat that behavior deepening our regret more with each act. The earth is populated with creatures of habit. Habits frequently bring harm or agitation to others or us. This is where those quaint theories of adaptation bow to basic chemistry. It doesn’t have to feel good to be reinforced; it just has to be repeated.
“Repetition is the only form of permanence that nature can achieve.” ~ George Santayana
So, it doesn't really matter why we initially do something. Thought and behavior can be very random, based on whatever attraction/aversion signals are fired by our funky nervous system in that moment. What matters is whether or not we repeat it. Repeating makes it facile, then habitual, and ultimately, a character trait. This is where it becomes personal. This is where it gets difficult to understand, accept, and (if you must) forgive. This is also where we get into the difficult question of believing (or not) in free will. But that is a discussion for longer day.
Understanding and acknowledging our ability to decide which direction we want to go, or even if we want to go is the basis of agency. So often the power to decide comes only from the experience of pain. Some of us put up with an impressive amount of pain. Some of us have a low tolerance for even slight discomfort. We are sometimes called unreasonable.
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
~ George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman (1903) "Maxims for Revolutionists"
Action: Non Satis Scire
I have studied happiness, neuropsychology and behavioral economics with the top scholars at some of the world’s best schools. I have the most up to date info about how chemistry alters perception and affects behavior. I get the scientific reasons how and have sorted through the canny theories why behavior and perception actually change our chemistry.
But what is most clear is this: knowing the how and why isn't enough to personally access happiness and exercise free will. These may come naturally to some, but most of spend our days feeling like puppets on a string. We are slaves to circumstance and biochemical frailty.
Knowledge won’t change habits of mind.
Awareness only helps us to see what needs to be done. It doesn’t make us do it. Mindfulness, self-knowledge and wisdom don’t alter behavior. Behavior alters behavior. Repeated behavior alters our whole organism… and our life.
Individuals walk away from unhappiness, abuse, and ennui every day. To escape the intolerable, or even just the unsatisfying, groups disband, emigrate, and overthrow governments often enough to warrant a 24 hour news cycle and keep the world in a constant state of flux. When we accept responsibility for change, move ourselves toward happiness and away from pain, we take two steps up in our species’ ongoing (re)evolution.
The Internet brings so many updates on man’s inhumanity to man, making it hard to believe that human on human violence has been on the decline for several centuries. The statistical data is plain. The interesting question is, why? Here is one excellent theory:
“… the forces of cosmopolitanism—literacy, travel, journalism, education, the mixing of peoples—corrodes tribalism, authoritarianism, and puritanism, with all the punitive sentiments that go with them, and make it harder to demonize foreigners and nonconformists.”
While we would like to think that social evolution is the result of courageous collective battles against xenophobia, we should consider Pinker’s other point:
“Intellectuals, for their part, should avoid the thrills of utopian, group-exalting, and struggle-glorifying ideologies, and promote incremental and evidence-based improvements that put the flourishing of individuals first.” ~ Steven Pinker (The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.
Love, study, struggle. Your own wellness, your own ethics, your personal happiness will affect humanity like chlorine in a piss-filled pool. The value of small, daily action has to be experienced on a deeply personal level for it to ever catch on. It has to feed our joy. Ideas alone won’t work if they don’t crank your individual dopamine.
In the words of Emma Goldman, “If I can't dance, it's not my revolution!”
When you are invited into the solo circle. Be sure and go. Dance like everyone watching and drumming wants you there. But, if you suspect otherwise, please don’t let that stop you! Dance, rest, and repeat.
So, I know that this seems to be contradicting the whole people will change you reality. But, that’s the thing. Evolution is a big enigmatic and quite paradoxical at times. Our kluge-like brain is one example of forward doesn’t always mean progress. I prefer to think of this paradox as reciprocal rather than contradictory. Don’t over think it, and everything will be just fine.
Sustainable personal and global change starts with implementing this simple and cyclical formula: awareness + agency + action = change
We can do it. You got this.
Social Relationships and Health: A Flashpoint for Health Policy
Debra Umberson1 and Jennifer Karas Montez http://
[i]Social support Stress Buffering:
Eliminates or reduces effects of stressful experiences by promoting less threatening interpretations of adverse events and effective coping strategies.
Social integration Main effect (independent of stress):
Promotes positive psychological states (e.g., identity, purpose, self-worth, and positive affect) that induce health-promoting physiological responses. Provides information and is a source of motivation and social pressure to care for oneself. Negative interaction Relationships as a source of stress: Elicits psychological stress and in turn behavior and physiological concomitants that increase risk for disease. ~ Social Relationships and Health, Sheldon Cohen, Carnegie Mellon University, November 2004 ● American Psychologist 677
Honest inventory of where, when and why there is a need for bridges fences and dams.
Clear assessment of our personal and collective power over a structure’s function.
Learn and practice the best methods for building and dismantling dysfunctional structures.