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
fight. 

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!

Margaret

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Ask a Climate Psychologist: Advice Column #1

Dear Climate Psychologist, My partner and I are beginning to have conversations about having kids, but I’m quite pessimistic and extremely worried about our future. Why would I want to bring a child into this world, right now? Imagining the future they would grow up in fills me with terror.

When I have tried we’ve become stuck arguing about what might/ might not happen. We get derailed into our different perspectives on how different the future might be.

How can I communicate my anxieties about having kids honestly?

Sincerely, Frightened of the future

Dear Frightened of the Future-

I get this kind of question a lot, and I relate personally, too! Many people who understand the existential danger of the Climate Emergency feel alienated from their partners, as well as other family and friends, feeling that “no one understands.” There is a spiral of silence around the climate emergency. We avoid talking about it because we worry it will make others feel uncomfortable, or start an argument, or that we will be uncomfortable So, let me be clear, despite widespread denial of the Climate Emergency and how it will affect our society, your worries are in fact based in the reality of what the global scientific community is telling us, and you have every right to feel that way

 You are already in touch with your fear about the Climate Emergency, but it’s always important to explore, express, and process more emotions. You haven’t been able to successfully communicate about these feelings with your partner, so make sure you are articulating them to others. Consider joining a discussion hosted by Good Grief Network or Conceivable Future. Also, consider joining the Climate Emergency Movement- this will not only help protect humanity and the living world, it will also help you by finding other people who share your alarm about the future.  

After you have had some practice talking about the emotional and personal parts of the climate emergency, try to bring the Climate Emergency conversation to your partner in a new way. First, leaving kids out of it entirely. Ask them if they have seen some recent news– for example Siberia being 100 degrees– and how it makes them feel. Talk about your own emotional experience– your fear, grief, and other feelings. Invite them to read an article or book about the climate emergency and discuss it with you. I recommend The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace Wells or my book, Facing the Climate Emergency: How to Transform Yourself with Climate Truth. Invite your partner to attend a meeting of a climate emergency organization with you, either a group you already know, or one you can explore together. 

When you do talk about children, communicate whether you are questioning, or whether you feel certain. If you are certain, you do not need to seek agreement, you need to communicate your decision. You have every right not to have children, but your partner deserves to know where you are at. If you are still questioning, try to articulate what might make you feel differently, ie “If I see world governments actually acting responsibly, and racing to eliminate emissions, I might change my mind.”

Try to have self compassion and compassion for your partner during these stressful conversations. Neither of you asked to be born into this age of ecological crisis. It is an unprecedented emergency, and it is extremely difficult to intellectually and emotionally make sense of. 

Good luck!

-Margaret Klein Salamon, PhD

Do you have advice for the Frightened of the Future? Respectful conversation invited in the comments.

Submit your question to Ask a Climate Psychologist here.