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.