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Can Therapy Help Us Save the Planet?

“How sad to think that nature speaks and mankind doesn’t listen.” -Victor Hugo

For a long time, I’ve felt driven to write about climate change and our denial of nature (inside and outside ourselves) yet couldn’t get the words on the page. I’d pull up a blank document and just stare and stare until I was in tears. As I try once again I notice a pull to shut down. I can feel the grief of disconnection in my body and I don’t want to feel it for a second longer. I want to close the page and do things I keep thinking will make me happy – the distractions of consumption. I want to buy something new, eat something when I’m not hungry, watch every single girl in boots on rock about therapy and the planetepisode of a show I don’t really care about while playing a game on my phone. I want to numb out by distracting myself with problems that don’t exist, like picking a fight with my partner or thinking I need to lose weight. Even in my distress over made-up problems I get to escape my sense of powerlessness in the face of what feels like impending doom. I avoid how crappy I feel about global issues like climate change, racism, or a failing congress. On a personal level, I avoid tough questions like “what do I really want?”, “what do I really need?” or “how can I take better care of myself?”

Most reasonable people agree that climate change is a real and urgent issue, but things get a bit fuzzy after that. Many of us shut down or turn away because we feel powerless to do anything about it or scared of the massive changes in how we live that are required to save ourselves and heal the planet. After all, how we live is what’s causing the problem in the first place. We know all this but it seems too painful and scary to stare it straight in the face. We do this to ourselves all the time by staying at war with our bodies (nature) – we know when we drink too much Friday night, we get depressed on Saturday morning but we pound those shots anyway. We know that our knees are screaming for some rest and love but we take some Aspirin and run through the pain. We know we can’t live forever and that our skin will start to sag and wrinkle and that we’re not fooling anyone, but we get nipped and tucked in a desperate attempt to avoid this reality. We learn that we should deny, conquer, outsmart our nature and the nature around us so we can be “happy” and “successful”. We’re taught we can and should have it all. But what for? And at what cost?

In the 2013 sci-fi film The Congress, starring Robin Wright as herself, future technology merges big pharmaceuticals with the entertainment industry so that entertainment is actually ingested in the form of a substance. These potions transport people into a goofy animated world that’s one big, phony party all the time – and they’re stuck there. When Robin Wright gets herself back to reality she sees a bleak world full of droves of empty people in tattered clothes zombied out on the drug. They’re not feeling any of it and in no way are they tuned in to decisions being made by corporate interests and their government. Mind control at it’s best.

Like in The Congress, our current system is built upon keeping us addicted to consumption of almost anything, like fossil fuels, trashy magazines, the latest iPhone, miracle cures, diets, keeping busy, and self-improvement (via self-hatred). In this environment it’s pretty hard to get clear on the real issues and to stand up for real change. We’re brainwashed into thinking that we’re in control. We’re told everything is going to be fine as long as we trust “the market” to take care of the issues that matter to us. For those at the bottom of this heap, the ill effects of climate change are no intellectual matter – it’s a lived reality. The closer we are to the top the more we can disconnect from this problem we hugely contribute to and have the resources to solve.


What can we do about it???

There’s much debate about what we need to prioritize in order to effectively address everything else. To create lasting change, we want to get to the underlying problem. In her latest book, This Changes Everything, author Naomi Klein proposes that we need to start with changing our economic system. This book is daring and inspirational but as a therapist I see this cycle of numbing and disconnection to ourselves as a block to changing any system. If we’re going to change it, we need to wake up. In order to wake up, we need to get acquainted with what’s putting us to sleep and learn to tune in to ourselves and our communities. We also have to learn how to reconnect ourselves to nature – after all, we’re a part of it.

As a therapist, I consider myself an activist. This doesn’t mean I enter the room with a radical agenda, yell in my client’s faces and throw red paint at them. Far from it. It means I trust that by helping my clients feel safe reconnecting and waking up to their inner and outer worlds, they will feel inspired to make healthier choices for themselves and the planet – not through fear or shame, but through hope and self-love. OK, maybe that is a radical agenda! I see progress as my clients feeling empowered to turn towards their deeper values and move away from numbing behaviors. That’s the goal I also hold for myself.

Therapy is not self-indulgent.

Most of my clients will at some point bring up their fear that by going to therapy they’re wasting money indulging in themselves. They worry that maybe they don’t deserve that hour each week where they’re seen and heard or that digging into their issues is a waste of time – they should just get over it or pop a Xanax instead. What they forget is the impact their personal work has on everything and everyone they touch in their lives. The process can be slow and gruelling and incremental. But the more we learn to tune in when faced with difficult choices or conflict or loss, the more we can show up for people who are suffering and for a planet we are killing. The more we begin to love our own nature, the more we can appreciate our role in the ecosystem and nurture that which sustains life. When Victor Hugo says it’s sad when “nature speaks and mankind doesn’t listen” I would add that the nature we need to listen to is within ourselves – our bodies, our emotions. Our nature is what ties us to the rest.

Therapy is one way we can invest in creating a world that is sustainable for our lives here on Earth.

BONUS! Climate Change Meditation

Practicing mindfulness is a great way to learn to tune in to ourselves in a less evaluative way so we can get real about where we are with less judgment. By tuning in we begin to pick up on the subtle or not-so-subtle emotions that might be driving our responses to the events that surround us.

Instructions: You can try this inquiry sitting, lying, or walking taking about 10 minutes or so (you can set a timer). Take your time with each step.

  • Notice your breath, the way your inhalation and exhalation moves through you.
  • Scan each part of your body slowly from head to toe, noticing any sensations you are experiencing.
  • Focus your awareness on thoughts, images, sensations, and emotions triggered by the thought of climate change, spending some time with this.
  • Notice what happens for you (physical and emotional). Do you feel anxious, afraid, angry, joyful, hopeful, pressure, tension, numb, antsy, disconnected, tingly, warm, cold, excited, distracted?
  • Stay with these sensations as much as possible and notice when you feel the impulse to push them away.
  • When the timer goes off, take a couple more deep breaths. After, you can try writing about your experience. What did you learn?

By practicing slowing down and listening to ourselves we grow our tolerance for difficult feelings like hopelessness, guilt, fear, and anger. Surprisingly, by sticking with it, we often eventually move through the feeling to a new place of hope and positive action, in whatever form that may take.

Lily Sloane

Lily Sloane

Lily Sloane is a licensed psychotherapist in San Francisco. She sees her work as a dynamic interplay of science, art, and relationship, aimed at opening up wholeness and a sense of choice for her clients. She specializes in working with sensitive, creative young adults struggling with eating disorders, substance use/misuse, perfectionism, and relationships. (LMFT #84885)

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