Some years ago, I was doing some contractual work for a small company and found myself in an extremely stressful situation that went on for several months.
I experienced weekly excruciatingly harsh feedback sessions from my employer. There’d be a nod to something I was doing well for a minute at the beginning, followed by an hour or more of exhaustive feedback on anything and everything I was doing “wrong” along with detailed instructions on what I should do differently.
None of it was in and of itself untrue or unhelpful. However, the way in which the feedback was delivered, as well as the sheer quantity, felt brutal. I felt battered, disoriented, and distressed after every session, which was completely counterproductive.
I knew my contract would be up after a few months. Despite everything, I was doing a good job and they wanted me to stay. The idea was that if I accepted this treatment and incorporated all this feedback, I would become a permanent member of staff, yet I knew I could not possibly stay beyond the initial contract. In the meantime, I was committed to staying the course. Lip service was paid to being part of the team, but there was little dialogue in which I felt truly heard. I either couldn’t get a word in edgewise, or my suggestions and ideas were immediately shot down, followed by a long lecture.
My sense of agency had been taken away from me and it felt awful.
Giving and receiving feedback is important. When done well it improves our connection with one another and our work, and creates a sense of agency, as well as feelings of being understood, heard, validated, and valued.
I received the exact opposite.
I felt trapped and forced.
The only way I knew to get through these sessions was to shut down and disconnect from the situation as best I could.
I’m not sure how well that worked, though I’m sure it offered some protection for me from the full impact of these brutal sessions. Nevertheless, I always felt battered afterwards, made worse knowing that more was to come the following week.
Can you relate?
I know many people are trapped in situations like this, or worse, for years. I was lucky to be able to get out when I did. Support from friends and family, as well as my own knowledge of how to look after myself with the Alexander Technique skills I’d already worked on for many years, got me through.
As soon as my contract was over, I took back my agency and quit.
I was free!
I felt good that I had fulfilled my commitment. This had been one of the most stressful experiences of my life, and I was both relieved and ecstatic that I had been able to say no to continuing.
A simple definition of trauma is: “Too much, or too little, for too long.” It definitely felt like too much for too long to me! In fact, it’s still hard to think or write about. It feels raw even though it’s a long time ago now.
My lack of agency – or feeling that I had no agency – was the most brutal thing about it. I had no say, no power to change things, or the way they were being done.
Other things I value highly, like working gently with small, manageable bits, kindness, cultivating connection and community, and the recognition that self-care, breaks, and rest are important, were all vitally missing too (all key elements of my BodyIntelligence work). If even one or two of these things had been present a difficult situation could have been a lot easier to bear.
This experience is one of the reasons why fostering and cultivating a sense of agency is a core value in my work. I help my students and clients experience and develop, little by little, in a way that feels safe and manageable, a sense of agency and the ability to choose what’s right for them in any given moment.
How do you relate to my story? Have you had experiences where you’ve felt like all your agency was taken away?
I welcome your feedback. Please leave your comment in the space below.