Monday, May 13, 2019


Our clients are anxious about climate change and how it is already and will continue to impact on their lives, the lives of their families and communities, and of the non-human beings who are our companions on the planet. They need our compassionate presence to be able to express the full spectrum of their feelings and receive guidance from us about what they can do to feel empowered and counteract the feelings of helplessness. We can also be a resource to environmental organizations that we are involved with in how to be more effective in communicating their messages about this major issue.
80% of media articles on climate change use the disaster framework emphasizing impending doom with great losses and catastrophic costs. According to Per Espen Stoknes, a Norwegian psychologist who has extensively researched the psychological effects of climate change communication, this approach unintentionally has the opposite effect of what they are trying to accomplish. Instead of generating action and collective will it evokes subconscious defensive resistance. He explains why this message evokes inner barriers to change. Per Espen Stoknes encourages us to be respectful of these subconscious responses and also offers us a number of communication strategies that can be more effective in either circumventing or bypassing these understandable human defenses.
If we humans were simply rational beings, when presented with scientific facts about global warming, we would simply act to make the necessary changes. However, we are also emotional and socially interactive beings. When climate messages are frightening, overwhelming, apocalyptic and induce guilt, hopelessness and powerlessness they evoke inner,often subconscious resistance. These messages engage our egos to do one of its primary jobs - to protect us from threats to our security and sense of who we are - by activating defense mechanisms. We are also socially interactive beings whose thoughts, feelings and behaviors are significantly influenced by what our friends, families, neighbors and groups with which we are identified, think and do. If a climate change message tells me to change my opinions and behaviors relative to the people I'm close to and upon whose high regard I depend(or my livelihood) then my daily life suffers potentially extremely unpleasant circumstance, from shunning to unemployment.
Climate issues are usually presented in the media as distant from us: in time(2050), in space(Arctic, Antartica, South Pacific Islands) and to non-local creatures(polar bears) using abstract numbers like carbon targets. This is contrary to how we are wired through evolution which emphasizes threats that are here,immediate,spectacular with a clear enemy. This distancing can enable us to react that it is not happening now, to me or people that I care about.
Climate messages are usually framed as an encroaching looming disaster with lots of losses,great costs and requiring us to make significant sacrifices in our lifestyle. These messages are subconsciously shaming, perhaps experienced by many people as a sermon in which we are ecological sinners - because of our high carbon footprint - who should repent(make great changes in our lifestyle) or the Apocalypse will happen. These messages produce fear, helplessness, despair and guilt. We then, as a self-protective, usually subconscious, reaction resist and internally split off these feelings(denial) so we don't feel them and then continue doing what we do.
If the scientific facts conflict cognitively with what we do or with what the people who are important to us think or do, the information creates inner tension. Then the mechanism of cognitive dissonance sets in. If we downplay or doubt the facts or dismiss them because of who the messenger is, then we can eliminate the tension and feel better about ourselves.
Each of us have a significant attachment to our worldview(how we see ourselves and the world around us). We look for information that confirms our existing values or personal,professional or cultural identity. Because of this, if new information is internally experienced as a challenge to our identity, at some level of consciousness - usually subconscious - it produces anxiety and feelings of vulnerability. We will defend our identity against those threats that embody the message that we need to change who we are.
One of the most fundamental axioms of psychotherapy is to accept people where they are. So it is essential that we be very respectful of people's defenses and their resistance to change. Of course it does not make rational sense that people do not simply accept the overwhelming scientific evidence about climate change and take action. But it does make emotional sense if we consider everything that was presented in the previous paragraphs. It is essential that we let go of any tendency to be judgmental of others and avoid the common pattern of hammering people with more facts. That simply increases the defensive resistance and makes us a threat.
One more effective pathway to communicate messages regarding climate change is to honor the human tendency to imitate, cooperate with and be influenced by friends and neighbors by using messages that describe what positive things others are doing locally. We can support the identity issue by describing what people who have similar values to them are doing. Many people are not aware - because the media does not promulgate these stories - that large numbers of people in their identity group are already making changes. For example, Catholics and other Christians(including evangelicals) are increasingly embracing the stewardship ethic(take care of creation) and moving away from the dominion model(use nature for human purposes). Churches are looking at energy usage in their buildings, their investments in fossil fuel companies: ministers and priests are incorporating climate messages in their sermons. Many people who are passionate about defense and national security issues and about veterans are not aware that the Pentagon has been already working for several years on climate change solutions that affect the military.
To counteract the common messages that focus on that it is each of our individual responsibility to do something(with the accompanying sense of being overwhelmed and alone) we can present it as an opportunity to be part of a social movement. According to Paul Hawken there are hundreds of thousands - perhaps millions - of groups worldwide that are working on environmental and social justice issues. In order for them to feel empowered we can encourage our clients to find the organization that fits for them. Our individual contributions then become part of a movement of movements.
In contrast to the 80% of negative news stories it is important for us to reframe the narrative. Instead of focusing on devastating pollution, reframe to improving air quality as a way of caring for the health and safety of our families and the environment. Instead of uncertainty regarding an apocalyptic future we can reframe it to doing things that are acts of prevention, preparedness and reducing future risk. Instead of emphasizing the need for everyone to make sacrifices, reframe it as an opportunity for communities and businesses to become more efficient in energy use, competitive with other cities and companies and develop better more fulfilling jobs with a living wage. As one example, the Tea Party is starting to embrace solar energy because it is a way to free people from the reliance on utility monopolies. The reframe is FREE MARKET ENERGY.
Humans will respond to stories more than abstract numbers like carbon targets. We respond to compelling narratives that capture our attention, help us to imagine a future and inspire us to be part of a movement that is trying to make change happen. In contrast to the powerful archetypal apocalyptic climate story that is usually presented we need a plurality of other positive stories each potentially creating a level of engagement for different groups of people.
We can grow an economy that is SMARTER - increases efficiency, cuts energy costs, is less wasteful of precious resources, improves water quality and creates fulfilling jobs. For example, solar power already employs more people than oil and coal combined. And is growing. One reframe that resonates with many people is,"Brown growth was the 20th century. Green growth is the 21st century."
Envision a future where people have a greater sense of life satisfaction and well-being(tools for measuring these aspects are now available to either replace or augment GDP). Imagine a future with forests restored, soil replenished, ecological imprint diminished, with more efficient buildings designed with care for people who live and work in them, workers having a living wage.
Imagine religious groups replacing the human domination of creation story with the human stewardship of creation story. This shift is already happening with a wide spectrum of religious groups. And growing. Encourage religious people to be part of the movement making this moral shift in a more caring direction.
This narrative tells the story of our feeling of love and awe for the beauty and wonder of nature, of our heartfelt and soulful connection to the places we live and to the non-human beings who are our neighbors. We want to protect diversity and to bring back the other creatures. Instead of working against nature we want to team up with nature and make it possible for her to do her restorative work.
Stoknes also points a pathway of a way-of-being during this time. He describes it for himself as "Grounded Hope". One aspect of this way-of-being is to acknowledge - not deny - and allow oneself to feel the Great Grief of the losses of habitat,species,diversity,beauty... To acknowledge that it might be hopeless to change. To feel the Eco-Anxiety evoked by knowing that the place we live,the place we love - our home - is under attack. To acknowledge and feel the anger/rage that this is happening. By acknowledging our feelings we counteract the psychological resistance and free up energy. It takes psychological energy to block these feelings.
The other aspect of this way-of-being is for each of us to increase our awareness of our connection to the non-human world and to deepen it. We are not separate from nature(the environment is not outside of us) we are immersed in nature. It permeates and envelops us. We are in and part of nature. We can increase our love for and expand our open-heartedness to the non human world. We can relate to the other non-human beings as part of our beloved community. We can become open to the possibility that they are reaching out to us, trying to communicate to us, trying to work with us. This deepening of our connection to the natural world can be concurrent with and co-exist with all the feelings that the crisis evokes.

Most of the ideas presented in this blog are extrapolated from "What We Think About When We are Trying Not To Think About Global Warming" by Per Espen Stoknes

Saturday, January 19, 2019


I am 76 years old and still growing psychologically and as a psychotherapist. Many of my patients are in their 60's and 70's and are also still experiencing themselves as growing psychologically. Including some who are experiencing profound shifts in their way-of-being-in-the-world. I and my patients also do acknowledge the physical and cognitive changes of the aging process and the full spectrum of feelings that those changes evoke. And. We feel more open to the potential for continuing to grow psychologically and spiritually until we die.
One day, a year and a half ago I was in robust health. Suddenly - without any warning - within six hours I was riding in an ambulance heading for the emergency room where I was diagnosed with pneumonia and septic shock. If my wife Jeanne had arrived home an hour later - which would have been her usual time - she probably would have found her beloved husband dead. Before this episode I was already very conscious of my aging process. Yet, this sudden physical and psychological trauma still is affecting me every day. I have become even more acutely aware of the preciousness of every day of life. I have become more conscious of how certain behavior patterns and ego attachments to some ways-of-being-in-the-world have blocked me from being more open to the flow of life. I have become more open to the flow of love between myself and others including my patients. My life is feeling fuller and richer.
One of my patients started psychotherapy at 87 at the insistence of his girlfriend who stated that their relationship would end unless he addressed his anger issues. In the initial sessions he was able to acknowledge that his lifelong pattern of explosions of anger had been so destructive to all his relationships. In subsequent sessions he was to look at his tendency toward self-sabotage that had blocked him from being more successful and really enjoying the many accomplishments of his life. As our work progressed he was able to internalize my repeated reminder, "time is running out" and has worked hard to make changes. Now at 89 his frequent refrain is "I am a lucky man." This expresses his deep appreciation for the richness of his life - the people who love him, the accomplishments (which are still happening) and his own personhood. His relationship is thriving.
Another patient, who had initiated therapy at 68 because of anxiety, was, after a year in therapy, diagnosed with early onset dementia. Because of the dementia he became unable to work and to perform many of the fix-it chores around his home. These had been his primary ways of defining himself. Initially these losses increased his anxiety, made him feel useless and diminished his already low self-worth. Gradually, as he increasingly accepted his "condition" - his Buddhist meditation practice was very helpful in that process - I and his wife witnessed significant psychological and spiritual growth. In contrast to before, when his demeanor was more serious and guarded, he seemed "softer" with a sense of lightness of being. He became more able to feel that his wife loved him for who he was not for what he did for her or their home. He trusted more the solid foundation of their love built through all the struggles they had weathered together. As they reflected upon these changes, both of them felt that somehow the memory loss and cognitive diminishments of dementia were helping the process of letting go of old ways of viewing himself and others and creating a more flexible way of being.
Another patient had initiated therapy because of the psychospiritual crisis evoked by becoming 70. Several of his close friends had recently died. Several weeks before our first session, two of his other friends had been diagnosed with early onset dementia. Early in our therapy he realized that although he had been in therapy twice before some core issues had not changed in any significant way. He wanted to delve more deeply. I have witnessed this phenomenon repeatedly with my aging patients especially when they connect to the phrase "time is running out." He was amazed when I said that I experienced him as a "very sensitive soul" and that he had probably been that way all his life. It became clear that he was still experiencing life through the lens of a very sensitive boy who grew up in the everyday atmosphere of the complex trauma of a highly dysfunctional family. It was especially helpful when I labelled that part of himself as "Little Paulie" who was very fearful and still filled with family shame. We then used the name "Big Paul" for the adult part of himself that was witnessing with compassion "Little Paulie" and protectively encouraging him to grow up. "Big Paul" conveyed the attitude, "It's safe now. I'm here for you. You're not alone anymore." He was profoundly grateful that with a lot of hard work both during and between sessions he was gradually able - even at 70 - to significantly shift his perspective on life and himself.
I feel moved to tell these stories about myself and my patients because they are hopeful and are counter to our cultural narrative. Our cultural stereotype is that old people sit around talking about their litany of body pains and aches, their cognitive and memory losses and the deaths of their friends. There is a partial truth in that stereotype. When I gather with friends those issues are often brought up first. However, someone usually changes that narrative. When one of my friends asks me "How are you?" my usual response is some version of "A year and a half ago I almost died suddenly. Because of that I am more aware of the preciousness of every day and I am grateful for and more open to the richness of my life."
As psychotherapists and counsellors we can help change the inner narratives of our aging patients/clients and the cultural narrative about the aging process. Yes, it is important for us and our clients to be able to acknowledge the full spectrum of feelings evoked by all the losses. And. It is also essential to look at and be open to the ongoing opportunity for more psychospiritual growth. Perhaps it will be helpful for your clients to internalize the mantra "time is running out" not with a sense of fear and dread, but with a sense of deep awareness of the preciousness of each day. A question for each of us to be asking is, "If my time is limited what do I want to do with it, who do I want to share it with, and how do I want to be with these people?" This means looking at how we may be blocking deeper intimacy with the people in our lives. This means looking at how some old ways-of-being-in-the world, ways of viewing myself and others that may no longer be useful in this stage of life. This means looking at whether my thought processes are too focused on projecting into the future and upon the losses, that I am missing out on the present moments of everyday life. These are the questions we can help our aging clients to address.