Trusting Your True Self’s Response in Urgent Times

This post is part of a series on emotional and psychological aspects of climate change that get little to no attention or acknowledgement, yet have a tremendous impact on the ways we are responding to climate change and on what is possible. Some of the posts are factual and literal; some are poetic. For an overview of the series and links to all the individual posts in the series, see Climate Change: What Isn’t Talked About.

Reading this blog post from Austin Kleon, I found myself thinking more about how, in a crisis or any situation that feels urgent, like climate change or the current pandemic, we can get caught in feeling like what we’re doing to help is insufficient. And so we can end up doing nothing, or running around trying to do everything, or doing something we don’t really feel passionate about.

None of those responses are ultimately helpful—for you or anyone else.

What is needed in urgent times, just like any other time, is what Howard Thurman, a civil rights leader, said: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

We seem to forget again and again (myself included) that coming alive is the only thing that really matters—in any situation, at any time. And in times of urgency, we doubly forget it. In crisis, our fear and shame can cause us to mistake the actions others are taking for the actions we should be taking.

Trusting that bringing forward our aliveness is going to help others can feel like a huge risk to the small, scared parts of us.

It means trusting that you are enough. It means trusting that your instincts are good. It means trusting that doing something quietly in the background or doing something different is more helpful because it is authentic than rushing to the front lines just because everyone else is.

In a nutshell, it means trusting yourself—what in psychology is called your true self.

True self is the real-feeling, vital, creative self at our core. Donald Winnicott, a psychoanalyst and pediatrician, described true self as “a sense of being alive and real in one’s body, having feelings that are spontaneous and unforced. This experience of aliveness is what allows people to be genuinely close to others, and to be creative.” I would also add, from my experience, in my own words, that it allows us to choose and act independently from outer pressures.

Trusting our true self is an act of courage, not because it’s actually dangerous to do so but because so many of us have been told that it is. Most of us have internalized messages that we can’t trust ourselves, whether those messages came from a caregiver, a family member, a friend, a group, or society in general. So to allow our innate response to a crisis, in a climate of fear, can be scary, especially when it is different than the accepted, encouraged, or popular actions.

Why are actions that arise out of trusting your true self the most important and powerful thing you can do in an urgent situation?

  • You are acting with the full force of your being. You are acting because something is rising up from inside you, something is compelling you, and that always has more impact than imitating others.
  • You can follow through on or sustain your actions far more easily. Authentic action has its own momentum. If you are just going through the motions, you are likely to eventually lose interest or run out of steam. You can also run out of steam with authentic action, but, when that happens, it is easier to find the next authentic step because you’ve already developed some sense of what responding authentically feels like for you.
  • You inspire others. When someone acts or speaks from their deepest self, others can feel that. When we see and feel someone speaking and acting in these ways, we feel a stirring of desire to be able to do that too, or we might even recognize in ourselves ways we are already acting authentically or could be. (I can’t say this is absolutely true in this specific case, but I can imagine that, when we see others speaking or acting from a deeply authentic place, our mirror neurons—the neurons that light up in a mirroring of others’ expressions and behaviors—create inside us a sense of what it feels like to be acting from a deep, authentic place.)
  • You inspire yourself and gain more confidence in trusting yourself in the future. I’ve experienced this and see it all the time in my therapy clients—once you have a positive experience of acting out of trust in yourself, you find it that much easier to do the next time. And you find that you want to keep doing it.

Trusting your true self creates a ripple effect—inside you and for others. And that’s what helping and creating positive change is all about. It isn’t about going along with the crowd or feeling self-righteous. (I’ve written in another post about how this is destructive to true progress and change.)

But how do you know if your response to a crisis is coming from your true self? How do you know it’s authentic? Sometimes it’s easy to know. Maybe you feel excited, or it just feels clear, like you couldn’t imagine responding in any other way. If you’re one of those people, I envy you! If you’re like me, it tends to be more of a struggle. I acted out of obligation for so long in so many different ways in my life that I almost can’t bear to do that anymore, so I can’t just go through the motions or pretend I believe in a specific action. But I can still get caught in “should’s”, especially if I feel fear, so I can’t always recognize my authentic response at first. With climate change, I was unsure for a long time and mostly just hid.

As someone, then, who felt unsure for so long about how to respond to climate change (and you can fill in the name of whatever cause or issue you feel concerned about), here are my tips for recognizing whether a particular response is coming from your true self:

  • You can’t quite let it go. There might be a part of you who doesn’t want to do whatever the thing is, but another part of you keeps wanting to approach it or see it through somehow. You are willing or need to keep wrestling with it or persisting in some way.
  • You find yourself noticing and wanting to take in things that relate to your response. Other things you encounter make you think about your response or make you look forward to getting to do it again.
  • It develops offshoots. None of them or only some of them might come to full life, but you keep thinking of ways you might want to tweak what you’re doing or new ways to do it.
  • You feel expansive or in integrity with yourself while doing it or after doing it.
  • Others tell you that they see something new and positive in you as a result of you doing it.
  • You gradually stop questioning your response or comparing your response to others’ (or you do these things a lot less).

Recognizing and trusting your true self’s response to an urgent situation can take time. Be patient with yourself. And let me just say: I know that is so painful and scary—to take time in the face of urgency. I hope what I’ve said here makes it a little bit easier to take that time, to help you know why it matters to take that time.

Know that being thoughtful and reflective about your possible response is meaningful action, in and of itself. You will notice that it has a different feel to it than simply procrastinating or avoiding. And if you find that you have no idea what a true self response might be for you or you can’t discern whether personal issues or trauma are muddying the question for you, talking it through with someone you trust and who can see it objectively is also a meaningful action and doesn’t leave you wrestling with it alone.

Any way you can find to be authentic with the issue, even if it is wrestling authentically with how to respond, makes you come alive.

And that is what we all need from you.

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The Doves

This post is part of a series on emotional and psychological aspects of climate change that get little to no attention or acknowledgement, yet have a tremendous impact on the ways we are responding to climate change and on what is possible. Some of the posts are factual and literal; some are poetic. For an overview of the series and links to all the individual posts in the series, see Climate Change: What Isn’t Talked About.

The cooing of the doves feels like an answer to the questions and fears I carry right now.

I hear them when I meditate in the dark morning, as I sit with all that stirs inside me during this time of pandemic. And climate change, yes, it’s still in there too, echoing similarly.

I don’t know what will come of all this.

But I know that the doves’ gentle cooing is a bridge somehow. Sometimes, in the clean moments, it’s a guide I can follow to how to be. Sometimes it’s barely a handhold by my fingertips, that I can use to pull myself out, when the anxiety snakes writhe in my belly. Sometimes it’s just a reminder that I will find my way back, somehow, to my breath and center. Even if it isn’t now. Even if it isn’t tomorrow.

And it’s not as if they have it easy, these doves. They don’t have their little dove hotel from which they can coo in their privilege. They are in the storms. The searing heat. The drought.

You can try to force and analyze its meaning for you, this cooing. Or you can let it wash over you and clean out your insides.

We want to know so much. We want to know it now. With certainty and guarantees.

But then there is the singing across to each other from the windows. The doves cooing.

I read somewhere once about a newborn baby being brought out of the hospital for the first time. She was agitated, squirmy. And then the breeze brushed her face. And she was stilled by this new sensation. I like to think that she sensed an answer there too. An answer that always is.

What if we let the answers be something different sometimes? What if we trust that answers sometimes sound like doves cooing?

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Climate Change: Calling the Radical Middle

This post is part of a series on emotional and psychological aspects of climate change that get little to no attention or acknowledgement, yet have a tremendous impact on the ways we are responding to climate change and on what is possible. Some of the posts are factual and literal; some are poetic. For an overview of the series and links to all the individual posts in the series, see Climate Change: What Isn’t Talked About.

Ever since my last blog post that promised forthcoming explorations of the less-acknowledged emotions and psychology of climate change, I have been diligently working on those posts, but I’ve also been struggling in some ways. And I haven’t been able to fully understand why. The work feels meaty and complex, but I keep having trouble finalizing any single post.

I think I know why now: I’m a left-leaning person who has come to question some of the left’s response to climate change.

This is a new place for me that isn’t yet clear and definitely isn’t comfortable.

What is clear is that my questions and discomfort are not just ready-made material for this blog post series; they also form a gate that I have to walk through, here, in order to be able to write about any of the other stuff.

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I used to fit pretty neatly into the left’s view of climate change: I believed climate change action was urgent, NOW, above all else, and I was frustrated with and confused by those who questioned this stance. It was only after I had spent some years digging into climate change and Trump’s election galvanized the left that I began feeling hesitant.

Why do I feel hesitant?

Because I experience the extreme left as having adopted a narrow and rigid response to climate change that leaves little room for any view other than theirs. And I can’t comfortably put both feet in with any group that disregards and even actively shuts down the voices of so many others.

I’ve seen people online who seem to genuinely care about what’s happening with our planet try to advocate for different approaches or talk about what the science can’t predict, and they are usually labeled negatively, as a denier or clueless or part of the problem. People who want to engage with climate change from a different perspective or in a different way tend to get criticized and dismissed.

Does this mean that all folks on the left are like this? Absolutely not. There are individuals and organizations working wholeheartedly for meaningful change in ways that include reaching across respectfully to those who see things differently or have challenging questions. Unfortunately, though, it’s the extreme left’s voices that command much of the media and social media attention, and this has created a face-of-climate-change that stokes apocalyptic fear on the left and evokes everything from eye-rolling to rage to other types of fear on the right.

The dominance of these extreme left voices, and the resulting absence of other voices, causes us to miss out on creative, robust solutions and what might actually be possible. It increases the risk of making decisions out of blind fear and other intense emotions. It causes people who might otherwise come forward in helpful ways to turn away or give up.

We also lose opportunities to make true, long-lasting change as each extreme group (left and right) keeps reacting to the other and trying to force its will on the other, resulting in a kind of Pyrrhic victory again and again. The “win” that one “side” might achieve is automatically, inherently brittle and temporary because it was achieved by disregarding or even actively disrespecting the other side. And it comes at the price of good will and trust and respect.

When the same old patterns and extremes dominate, nothing is able to truly move or change. Interestingly, the point when a repeating pattern in people’s lives has become intolerable is usually when they show up in offices like mine for therapy. And it is pretty much always the case that expanding to make space for what’s been marginalized–unacknowledged, unfelt, or rejected—helps untangle the knot.

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Given what could be gained from having other voices in the mix, I’ve been wondering: how many people in the “radical middle” aren’t speaking up? (“Radical middle” is my term for this place I’m in because being in the middle feels pretty radical these days.)

How many people on the left aren’t speaking up because of the extreme left’s criticism and policing? Possibly even more tragic, how many people on the right who are starting to feel some concern about climate change aren’t speaking up because of the extreme right’s own rigid perspective on climate change? It has been (and continues to be) hard for me to find my voice with it, so I can imagine that others, on both sides, are also having a hard time bringing in their voices or just don’t bother.

We, the radical middle, are a whole group (and a pretty large one, I suspect) whose experiences, thoughts, and ideas aren’t enough a part of the conversation and struggle that’s going on about climate change. And just like in therapy, our perspective, our contributions, can help untangle the cultural and political knot that has been created by the rigidity of the two extremes.

Advocating for a variety of voices to be a part of the conversation feels just as important to me for our future (maybe more?) as the efforts that are being made in regard to climate change itself. Climate change isn’t a separate issue or a different problem than the divisions among us—it is a super large mirror that is showing us we are out of balance, not just with nature, but with ourselves.

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If you feel yourself being in this radical middle and you too feel nervous or uncomfortable about being there, I invite you to find ways in your life to bring your voice to the table. I have been trying it out quietly in my life, offline, with some fumbling, with people I am willing to take the emotional risk with. This is my first attempt at putting it into words in a public-facing way. I feel vulnerable doing it, but I also feel relief. I think you will find relief too as you find ways to express your thoughts and feelings that feel right for you.

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Climate Change: What Isn’t Talked About

This post is the first in a series on emotional and psychological aspects of climate change that get little to no attention or acknowledgement, yet have a tremendous impact on the ways we are responding to climate change and on what is possible. Some of the posts are factual and literal; some are poetic. For links to all the individual posts in the series, see the end of this post.

For all that we hear about climate change, I’ve been realizing that there are important things that we either don’t hear at all or don’t hear often enough. And that isn’t surprising—any time there is a topic with the intense emotional charge that climate change has, it is inevitable that some aspects will get overlooked or marginalized. This narrowing of perspective happens with individuals in turmoil, and it is the same with societies. So I am launching a series of blog posts to shine light on the unseen and unspoken aspects of climate change that I’m noticing, all of them psychologically- or emotion-related.

My hope in writing and sharing this series of blog posts is that they will help me and you. Anytime we can make space for what has been forgotten or dismissed, more becomes possible. This is a fundamental truth I have seen in my therapy clients again and again and have experienced in my own life. We can’t know what the “more” that emerges will be, but bringing light to what’s hidden or on the fringes always yields something new.

Of course, something new happening is also what so many people are afraid of, which must be acknowledged. Whether you’re right or left, conservative or liberal, or somewhere in between, change is happening—a changing society, a changing environment—and the uncertainty of it can evoke difficult emotions, from feeling slightly unsettled all the way to feeling downright terrified. We are all having a similar experience in this way. Have you thought about that? Please take a moment to think about it, if you haven’t.

And anytime we feel unsettled or terrified, to take time to slow down to see what else might need to be considered, to see what’s been left out, can feel like, Oh my God, we don’t have time for that! We must stop the tree huggers and government from taking over! We must stop the greedy people from destroying the environment! We must flee and go off the grid and reject civilization!

It can be scary to slow down when it feels like your well-being is in jeopardy. I see it all the time with therapy clients, and I certainly have to work to slow myself down when my own fear gets stirred up. We all struggle with it because we’re wired that way.

And we’re also wired such that, when we’re in an agitated state, we lose access to our more robust and complex thought processes.

So I’m inviting us to slow down together here to consider some things that tend to be forgotten or dismissed or just not said. (That doesn’t mean I think carbon emissions are just fine or that I think we should do nothing. I’ve seen that strawman argument made against others, and I find it maddening in its reductionism.)

I’m acknowledging the truth of the difficulty of slowing down while also inviting us to do it anyway, together, to see what can emerge…exactly because what lies ahead of us is new. To meet it well, we need to widen our lens.

Posts in This Series:

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Climate Change: Trusting Connection

When you think about climate change, what happens for you?

Do you feel panicked? Powerless? Angry? Guilty? Grief-stricken? Something else? Do you feel a need to do something, but feel like nothing you can do really matters?

I have felt all of those things for a long time. I have despaired. I have felt alone with it.

And then, due to some chance events a couple of years ago, I started looking at climate change full on. I dug around for information, watched TED talks, looked at dozens of websites, and generally tried to take in as much information as possible—everything scary I hadn’t wanted to see, and some things that were encouraging, surprising, even fascinating.

Climate change started to come alive for me. It stopped being this paralyzing blob of doom that I often couldn’t bear to fully consider, and it started being something that stirred me in deep ways. It started speaking to me in very textured, specific ways as a nature lover, a woman, a human being, and a psychotherapist.

And from that place—THIS place—I can feel why it matters to me so much. I can feel the threads in it that specifically resonate for me. I’m not paralyzed, and I’m not as compelled to react out of blind terror (or blind anger or blind anything); instead, I’m focusing (and refocusing as needed) on following the threads and intuitions that move me.

It’s kind of like the difference between exercising by rote, automatically, because you should and you feel terror that you’re going to die if you don’t, and exercising by tuning into what your body is telling you that you need. Maybe you feel you should run because it feels like that will most effectively keep death at bay, but your knees are clearly saying, nope, that isn’t happening. You have to find what feels right for your body, and trust that those things are the most life-nurturing for you.

And the most important thread for me—my tuned-in “exercise” for climate change—that I keep tugging on and studying and trying to express and share is connection.

Connection with our deeper selves. Connection with each other. Connection to these animals and plants that are here with us. Connection to the water, the rocks, the wind, the dirt. And being willing to let into our inner world the undeniable truth of all these connections.

Some people might say, “We don’t have time for that kind of squishy emotional stuff. We’ve got to get carbon emissions down.”

But do we want to live in a world where that’s how we define environmental health? Where we miss or dismiss the beautifully intricate interconnections that contribute to true health for all of nature, including us?

I don’t want a world like that. And I know there are many others of you out there who don’t want that either. (That includes Charles Eisenstein, who thoroughly, eloquently, and passionately makes the case for disconnection as what ails us in his book, Climate: A New Story.)

I feel deep gratitude for the people working so hard on reducing carbon emissions and being willing to throw themselves again and again into that hard, hard fight. Truly. I’m finding that isn’t my work, but I’m damn appreciative that legions of folks are working so earnestly and wholeheartedly to do it. Because we absolutely need it. Deep bows to all of them. (And to be clear, I know they aren’t all absolutely saying that emissions are all that matters. I feel like many of them have simply found that work is their tuned-in “exercise” for climate change.)

I have found that my work with climate change is to foster connection: to help people feel more connected (and less alone) around climate change, and to notice how feeling more connected changes things. Because once we are back in connection, the innate self-righting mechanism that is at our core and the core of nature kicks in. I have profound faith in this because I have experienced it personally and in others so many times. Connection not only comforts—it reveals what is and what is needed, and it organically forges something new.

Is this sacred self-righting mechanism fast enough to prevent negative impacts of climate change? I’d love to be able to say yes, but no, it probably isn’t. Does that trouble me? Yes, it does.

But just like I know I might die sooner or have other health struggles because I can’t run because my knees say no, I have to surrender to the truth that is being given me. And disconnection is the truth underlying climate change that compels me. And as a psychotherapist, I know I can trust in what fostering connection does.

More to come…

Until then, I ask you to consider: do you feel connected to nature or climate change, or do you feel disconnected? Do you feel connected or disconnected with others around this topic? I encourage you to bring it up to just one person today, someone you feel safe approaching about it who will respond with respect and care. And notice what happens for you.

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