Ask a Climate Psychologist – Despairing in Lockdown

Dear Climate Psychologist,
I have been a climate activist, on and off, for the last 15 years, beginning when I was a college student studying environmental science. The “off” times were during periods of depression and burnout.

But, these past 2 years have been the most exciting of my life. Greta/Fridays for Future, and Sunrise have brought such incredible energy and momentum to the movement, and I feel like they reinvigorated me. I have helped organize school strikes in my town, and worked on the – successful – campaign of a fellow organizer for city council. I finally thought that we – the movement – were winning. 

But in the past few months…my hope and energy are gone. I was really looking forward to the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and the escalating School strikes and those have been sidelined. I understand why, but that knowledge doesn’t prevent me from feeling hopeless. I have pulled back on my organizing after missing several calls and deadlines, and having my co-organizers get mad at me :(. I feel like I am letting everyone down.

I got so much joy and confidence organizing with others, including hosting meetings at my home. I hate zoom calls, I miss my co-organizers, and I feel like we, as a movement, have been set way back. I am feeling really hopeless. I want to cry even writing this. I know I need to stay positive, especially in front of my co-organizers. 

–Despairing in Lockdown

Dear Despairing in Lockdown,

I hear you and what you are experiencing is totally understandable. 

Thank you so much for sharing, and for your ongoing dedication to protecting humanity and the living world! 

You are in good company. Despair is something that I hear from organizers all the time. For many it’s central to their work… They battle despair through their organizing.  Sometimes, it works wonders– as you describe the hope, the camaraderie, the knowledge that you are actually taking part in shaping the world… it all feels amazing. Larry Kramer described his time as an activist during the AIDS crisis:

We cried an awful lot because there were always these stories (of young people dying of AIDS) and yet at the same time, more and more people were coming to help us and it was ironic that there was so much love and so much satisfaction…we all felt like we were well-used. That we were out there fighting the

And sometimes it doesn’t feel good anymore. That’s what “Burnout” is, I think. It’s when we are no longer able to combat despair with effective action. The non-stop exertion, personal issues (health, financial, family, etc), interpersonal friction and conflict, and state of the world can get to be too much. 

It sounds like COVID 19 has changed a lot for you- like everyone. I share your feeling that the Climate Emergency movement has lost momentum, but there is a huge amount of organizing going on behind the scenes. And Covid has also changed our political conversations, in a way that opens a lot of opportunities. It turns out the government can and really, must, intervene drastically in the economy to protect life in an emergency! This is really important. I think there is also a good amount of public education going on around exponential growth- and how that rewards early, strong action. 

Black Lives Matter is demonstrating how a passionate, righteous movement can grow rapidly and fundamentally change national opinion and create tremendous political pressure. The uprisings for racial justice have also highlighted the fact that we need transformation, not reform. I think this is a major “win” for the climate emergency movement, and I hope that the movements converge, and create an unstoppable force for emergency climate action, and the creation of a very different kind of government, society, and economy.

Beyond all this philosophizing, I have some advice for you:

  • First and foremost: practice self compassion. The despair that you are feeling is totally understandable. How would you treat a close friend who was feeling the way you are? Would you chew them out for not “staying positive” and missing meetings? Or would you respond to their suffering with compassion, empathy, and love?  
  • It sounds like you really get a lot of energy, organizing in fellowship with others, and sharing your home with them. That’s great! Don’t give it up. When you feel up to it, convene a masked, socially distanced meeting at a local park. We can be physically distanced and remain emotionally connected. 
  • Share your feelings with fellow organizers! Nothing is wrong with them and you do not have to “stay positive.” We need to gain strength from each other– and that comes through authentic engagement and sharing, not forced positivity. Ask your organizer friends about how they are feeling these days. (This could even be the focus for an outdoor meeting!) 
  • Take care of your whole self. We need you in this fight. And that means that we need you to create a lifestyle that you can maintain. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. 
  • Set boundaries about what you can and cannot take on. No one can set those for you, or determine your limits. So you need to check in with yourself every day, “How am I doing? Is this organizing working? (Is it working strategically, and is it working for me, in terms of my health and life?) What do I need to adjust?”
  • Seek psychodynamic psychotherapy if possible! 
  • Take care of your body. Sleeping, eating well, working out, and spending time outdoors will improve your mood, your cognitive function, and your ability to avoid burnout. 
  • Self compassion, self compassion, self compassion. The world is hard enough. All we can do is our best. And offering yourself compassion is necessary to offer it to others. 

Thanks for writing- and for your service to humanity and the living world. 

The movement is lucky to have you- and we need you to take care of yourself so you can keep fighting. Onward!


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