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Doing inner work for a more connected climate movement

jainee04

8 min read

Feb 28

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Here’s what to say (and what not to say) when someone’s freaking out about the world

Image credit: LaUra Schmidt. Design by Gen Dread


So. A loved one has opened up to you about their climate distress.


You’re on a walk with a friend, laughing, chatting, catching up. One of you comments about how intense the wildfires were last month. And that’s when the conversation takes a turn, and suddenly you’re struggling to hold the alarming weight of your companion’s anxiety: What will this town look like in ten years? What kind of life will her kid have? Why isn’t the government calling it an emergency? What if the food supply becomes unreliable? Should we move? But where? Isn’t everywhere going to be affected?


What to say (and what not to say)


These are all completely valid questions and fears – but most of us aren’t trained therapists, and a conversation like this can leave us panicked and scrambling: what can I say that might be reassuring? What if I say the wrong thing? What if I accidentally make her feel worse? 


Therapy is prohibitively expensive for a lot of people, waiting lists can be brutally long, and our capitalist culture doesn’t make room for people’s grief and fear, nor does it acknowledge any need for stillness, processing time, and rest. It’s no wonder so many people feel the only option left is to unload on their trusted friends and family. At the moment, so many government social programs are increasingly starved for funding, and as we start to rely more and more on mutual aid and community care, it’s important that we feel equipped to handle the conversations that arise as a result.


LaUra Schmidt is the Founding Director of Good Grief Network, an American non-profit organization that helps people sit with uncertainty and transform their climate distress into meaningful action. In the book that’s tied to this newsletter Generation Dread: Finding Purpose in an Age of Climate Crisis, Britt Wray writes extensively about her experience going through the unique 10-step program that LaUra co-created. During the 10 weekly steps, participants are guided to confront the ways they’ve contributed to harming the planet, and how they might address the problem in authentic, personal, and tangible ways. LaUra generously offered Gen Dread these tips to help you show up powerfully and properly when someone you love is freaking out about the state of the world.


If a friend or family member comes to me experiencing profound climate distress, what are some helpful ways for me to respond?


LS: Be patient with them. Listen to what they’re saying. Listen to how they are saying it. As the listener, practice deep listening; listen to fully hear what the person is saying without any intention of responding. We use a phrase in GGN, “be with, don’t fix.” Which means we can be in the tension, the not knowing, the not solving, with that person. We can hold the confusion, terror, grief or any other feeling alongside that person.


I’ve also learned from one of my teachers, Terry Tempest Williams, that “to bear witness is not a passive act.” When we “be” together, we heal together.


To bear witness without overreacting requires inner work. We must know our tendencies, patterns, and even trauma responses. Perhaps our friend or family member says something that triggers us or elicits our own fear response and now, instead of being an active listener, we’re stuck inside our own reactivity. In our triggered/fear response, we may react in a way that causes harm to the person. Building our distress tolerance is key for having difficult and challenging conversations. Building our distress tolerance starts with slowing down and pausing so that we notice our own reactions when we hear or witness difficult things.

We can also ask if they have a daily routine of self-care practices (e.g. journaling, drinking plenty of water, good sleep hygiene, body movement, spending time in the more-than-human world, meditation/mindfulness practices). These practices can help us be with distressing feelings in healthier ways.


Are there things I should avoid doing, or avoid saying?


LS: We should avoid overreacting. We are invited to stay with the tension, even if it’s uncomfortable. If our friend or family offers feelings of great grief, despair, hopelessness, anger, rage, or any other heavy or painful feelings, we can help normalize them. They are healthy reactions to the magnitude of the issues. And sometimes, we just need to notice, name, and process heavy and painful feelings to help them move along. 


If we overreact to someone’s thoughts and feelings, we invalidate them. We either directly or indirectly tell them to stuff their feelings, which leads to feelings of isolation.

Similarly, we ought to avoid fixing the people coming to us with their heavy feelings. Sometimes, people just need to be heard. The urge to fix someone who is expressing great eco-distress is often a reflection of our inability to be with discomfort.


Perhaps most importantly, we ought to avoid being overly optimistic in conversations. Telling our friend or family member not to worry/grieve/despair over the state of the world because someone/company/politician will fix it (or something similar) not only invalidates someone’s feelings but minimizes the magnitude of this complex, predicament-laden time we are in. These are legitimately terrifying, destabilizing, and grief-stricken times. Instead of trying to get someone to find hope or optimism over the state of the world, let them express their fears and feelings of grief, rage, and betrayal. After being with these heavy and painful feelings, if the friend or family member wants to, we can begin looking for meaningful actions that they can start engaging in.


Can you explain what active listening is and how it works?


LS: In Good Grief Network spaces, active listening is an embodied, patient, calm experience. It’s pausing our internal dialogue and being fully present with the person who is speaking. We are not planning how we will respond, but just offer them our full-bodied attention and presence. Our body cues and eye contact help the person know we are with them. A crucial part of active listening is to withhold judgment and instead express curiosity and compassion.


In a one-on-one conversation, we can ask our friend or family if they are looking for a listening ear or help in identifying proactive next steps. Active listening also involves asking questions to understand one’s perspective better instead of making assumptions. 


What's the best way to leave this type of conversation? (to clarify, I don't mean “how can I get out of this conversation”, but rather “what's a good note to try to end on?”)


LS: In Good Grief Network spaces, we often ask “is there anything else bubbling up for you?” We can ask our conversation partner if they feel seen and heard and if there is something else we might do to help them.


I would note in the conversation with the person experiencing overwhelm that these feelings will return and the more we can talk about them and process them, the less we’ll get stuck in them. We can begin to see them as friends who come over for a cup of tea but are not invited to stay longterm. Getting to know and befriend our feelings is part of this ongoing dance we have with eco-distress.


FInally, as the conversation winds down and with their consent, you may offer to help them identify next steps that bring back meaning, connection, and joy into their lives. What actions or activities help them notice what is still here, instead of focusing on all we’re losing? If they are interested, you could also offer them resources to help them learn more about eco-distress and eco-distress support.


What should I do if my friend/family member is really struggling and nothing seems to help and I don't feel equipped to help them with the weight of their distress?


LS: Much of our suffering stems from our overwhelming feelings of isolation that occur when we believe our heavy and painful emotions are too much for our loved ones and community. Conventional social norms keep us from sharing our individual pain, and that is doubly true for our collective pain. So, we often stuff our feelings, avoid them, or run from them, compounding our experience of isolation. If we have spaces to talk about and process our heavy and painful feelings while experiencing a sense of belonging, people can navigate their overwhelm in much healthier ways and (re-)ignite their passion to act meaningfully.

Plugging into support groups or climate cafes can help reduce feelings of isolation and create space for new ideas and perspectives. Creating a small support group in your local community can nurture a sense of belonging and connection. You could also suggest that your friend or family member spend more time outdoors and limit exposure to social media and news. There are a growing number of climate aware healers that your friend/family member might be interested in engaging with (e.g. somatic healers, rites of passage guides, nature-based healers, therapists, coaches). Of course, if the person’s eco-distress has gotten to a level of clinical depression or suicidality, you can help them connect with a mental health professional.


There’s an ongoing debate in some climate circles about how useful this internal work is. Some people say it’s just navel-gazing, and that it just distracts from the “real” external work of rolling up your sleeves and fixing the problem in concrete ways. How do you respond to that?


LS: The major crises of our time are caused by disconnection. The solution, as simple as it sounds, is to deeply reconnect on all levels. We must reconnect to ourselves, each other, and the more-than human world.


Part of reconnecting to ourselves is honoring that we are complex, dynamic, and deeply feeling beings. To sustain, energize, and inspire our work as changemakers, we must be courageous enough to do the deep inner work and heal our traumas. For many, this type of work feels more difficult and inaccessible than the “real” external work. We are taught to privatize, avoid, or distract away our pain. Some of us have forgotten how to do the inner work. Yet, "real" external work without deep connectedness to our bodies, sensations, and feelings is only a fragment of the work needed to create new pathways forward. 


For those of us showing up day-after-day, working toward an equitable, just, and liveable world can overwhelm us as we see our systems and the world around us not changing fast enough. The overwhelm increases as we are inundated by events impacting our collective body (e.g. mass shootings, instances of police brutality, instances of racial injustice, losses from extreme weather events, toxic chemical spills, the death of wildlife). We can begin to feel profound grief, rage, despair, and other heavy and painful feelings. If we're not making space to process our feelings, they get stuffed in our bodies creating prolonged nervous system dysregulation and eventually illness. A dysregulated nervous system isn't able to access connection, imagination, and complexity. Instead, we're often stuck in our survival responses which instruct us to constrict, “other” those who are different from us, and disconnect. Doing our “real” external work from this place perpetuates the systems of exploitation and oppression we are working to dismantle. To open to imagination, collaboration, and connection, we have to practice healing. This starts with the inner work.

The suppression of our feelings at the expense of “real” external work will also eventually lead to burnout. As the climate adaptation leader Susi Moser wisely reminds us, "Burnt-out people aren’t equipped to serve a burning planet … [so] the well-being of our hearts and souls must be reestablished to their rightful place as relevant, essential.”


What's often undervalued in changemaking spaces is that the internal, emotional work is key to co-creating new paradigms. A willingness to process our feelings not only helps them become unstuck, but they provide us with wisdom and the opportunity to mature as individuals. To be fully alive is to move toward wholeness, embracing our complexity, and the pain as well as the joy, If we truly want equitable, just and life-centered futures, we have to re-integrate our embodied awareness. How could we possibly create new pathways based in healing, cooperation, and connection, if we're living chronically dysregulated and in fragments? Maintaining the divide between logic and feeling, between our brain and bodies, perpetuates Business As Usual.






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