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How to Welcome Your Climate Emotions

Resiliency in an age of crises.

Dealing with, and learning from, our intense climate emotions isn’t so different from dealing with and learning from our other emotions, though it can be a bit more intense. In this post, I offer guidance on how to approach and process them.

When we feel terror, grief, rage, or other strong feelings in response to the climate emergency — or other major issues like the pandemic or the upcoming election — our first instinct is often to dissociate or distract ourselves with work, television, or anything other than those lurking feelings. But the scale and scope of these crises demand that we do not run away from them; we must learn to face our feelings, to name them and to feel them in our bodies.

Rather than block out or deny these feelings, you must face and work through your fear, grief, anger, guilt, and all the other painful feelings you’ve repressed. In fact, you must go further than just facing them — you must learn to welcome them. Only then will you escape the control these feelings have over you. Only then will you shake off their numbing and paralytic effect and be able to use their power to transform yourself and our society.

Expanding your emotional range, i.e., “building emotional muscle” in this way offers at least two benefits that are key to living a fulfilling and moral life: It allows you to live in reality, without distortion, and it allows you to fully experience love, joy, and other “positive” emotions. Both of these benefits help you to better engage with emergencies— even emergencies at the scale of the climate crisis or a global pandemic.

Self-Compassion: Treat Yourself Like You Would a Friend

My first suggestion, and in some ways the most important, is to begin treating yourself and all of your feelings just the way you would treat a beloved friend who came to you for help.

You wouldn’t tell them to ignore their pain or call them a bad person. You would instead realize that they needed your help and — if you’re a good friend — you would respond to them with compassion and empathy.

All Feelings Are Acceptable: Identify and Explore Them

In this practice, you work to stay with your feelings. You don’t downplay or ignore them, or attempt to intellectualize them so as to reassign their origins and effects. Instead, when you feel uncomfortable feelings, you assume an attitude of active interest and self-compassion.

Let’s try it out now. Think about a recent news story that brought you grief, terror, rage, or other painful feelings. Maybe the recent fires and smoke on the West Coast; anything that you had a visceral reaction to. Let’s approach these feelings with non-judgmental curiosity. They are, after all, just feelings. They don’t hurt anyone or have any impact in the world — only your actions do.

Take a few deep breaths. As you become aware of painful feelings, such as anguish or fear, don’t try to talk yourself out of these feelings. Instead of judging your feelings — and thus yourself — try to be curious about them, allowing yourself to really and fully experience them. Try, for example, to name the feeling — not justify, evaluate, or rationalize, just name: “Reading about the fires made me feel grief and despair.”

Notice where in your body your anger is being experienced. Are you holding tension in your shoulders? Are you clenching your teeth? By exploring your feelings, you become more comfortable with them and you build your emotional muscle, increasing your ability to face other, more painful feelings.

Get Comfortable With Crying

I recommend you try to get comfortable with crying. This is often challenging, especially for those who have been taught that crying is a sign of weakness or that it signals an inability to cope. Crying is a specific act of emotional recognition and response; it is powerful, healthy, and necessary. It provides an outlet for all of the grief and pain inside you, helping link the emotional and physiological. When you cry, you release toxins and stress hormones from your body. Simply giving yourself permission to freely cry can be a tremendous relief and can allow you to gain access to other repressed or ignored feelings. Further, crying plays a critical social function, communicating to others, such as your friends and family, that you could use their comfort and support.

Talk About Climate Feelings With Friends and Family

Talking about your feelings with friends and family about the climate emergency does more than just help you build emotional muscle; it helps break the silence in our society around the climate emergency. Only about one in four Americans say they hear people they know talking about global warming once a month or more frequently. By talking with others about the climate emergency, and your emotions about it, you are helping to bring awareness of the emergency to your community and social circles.

You can even get started by talking about climate emotions with others who are in pain about the climate emergency. Join a Climate Emotions Conversation, a small group online sharing & listening session that I developed for connecting with others about climate emotions.

Making Progress: Building Emotional Muscle

As you practice this emotional approach, you will experience more thoughts and feelings without judgment and censorship. You should feel proud when you notice yourself experiencing feelings that you are uncomfortable with — especially feelings that make you feel pathetic or guilty or otherwise vulnerable. If you have trouble crying, honor and praise yourself when you do cry. It is truly a victory. Every time you allow yourself to feel hard feelings, you expand your ability to tolerate affect. You build your emotional muscle. You make yourself stronger.

Exploring your feelings, especially about something as huge as the climate emergency or the pandemic takes courage and hard work. It strains our emotional muscle.

But allowing and accepting the pain is necessary for the work ahead. If you seek to move forward in reality, to help restore a safe climate and protect the world, you must allow yourself to experience the grief, terror, guilt, rage, and any other feeling that the truth evokes.

This is an excerpt from my book Facing the Climate Emergency: How to Transform Yourself with Climate Truth. Learn more and read a free preview here.

If you have a personal climate-related dilemma that you need advice on, submit your question here.