Reflections on Therapeutic Approaches, Modalities and Advocacy Efforts in the Face of Climate Collapse.
Hi friends. I have a question for my other clinicians out there… so this is primarily going to be a long talk with them about something that I come across and think is worth discussing openly… how do you talk about global warming with your clients, especially when they say they’re worried about it?
Different cultural approaches view global heating differently, and may bring it up in therapy a range of ways. White Americans report feeling greater climate anxiety as reported by Scientific American, while Yale studies show that Latino clients have a very strong practice of climate activism and engagement. Cultural sensitivity, interest, engagement, and even our client’s frame of mind will guide a sharp clinician through a fair understanding of how our clients think, feel, sense, and process something as vast and maybe intimidating as global warming.
Still, we as clinicians also need to be able to fairly conceptualize dramatic change at this scale, and that means having good resources. This is often hard though — reading news about global warming is rough, whether the article’s about toxifying the oceans, plastic across all biomes, more powerful storms and weather patterns, or the actual heat of the planet rising to unsurvivable levels if we don’t take good action.
So you can probably guess, I think about this a lot… and I have five natural inclinations.
First, I might take an existential perspective. This means settling with the hardest truths, whether you see tht as brave or not. “Yes,” CO2 is heating the earth, and “yes” it’s destabilizing the environment. There’s a very frightening reality to sit in, but doing it means sitting appropriately in the here-and-now dread of death, and that dread is something everyone feels, and everyone knows.
My sense though is that this perspective can lack compassion and freeze a client’s drive to support changing things for the better. A better shift might be to utilize ACT, acceptance and commitment therapy, in the sense that we are going to look at this real, powerful, maybe even crushing phenomenon, but it’s worth digesting it in a gestalt way in the room, and linking future goals and ideas for change to our personal values… like, wanting to help nature, or even just “saving the planet so I can on nice hikes.”
Again though, it means sitting with the hardest stuff first… and though this is a brave approach, I still senses it lacks a bit in terms of helping people contextualize their role in global warming.
Second I might take a cognitive behavioral approach with their anxiety. On the cognitive side, we have to be clear about what emotions are coming up, when and how… what thoughts are aligned with that emotion, maybe fears of resource depletion, or that the world will transform into an apocalyptic hellscape. Here we bring mindfulness tools, settle in where we are, know that these waves will pass. There are DBT-informed strategies we can use to build radical self-compassion for their powerful emotional waves arrive. There are even behavioral interventions we could think up with our clients — things we can do to settle, but also that clients can do as an individuals to slow or reduce our carbon footprint.
But the vast, mythic, Jungian psychoscale of global warming is supremely large. Big impactful media news about global warming is often framed in fear and urgency, and is also becoming really difficult to avoid. This can be literally crushing, to clients AND clinicians… and CBT-informed tools end up feeling like aspirin when people want a cure. As a species we feel apocalypse, and especially as intergenerational trauma survivors we know what “doom just around the corner” feels like: For centuries since colonization, our species have endured a mix of archetypal drama (for example, fears of a religious doomsday) OR vast social cognitive distortions that show up as reactions from large social but personal traumas, like the feelings of doom that flare around very specific calendar dates like the year 2000, or rare environmental phenomena like comets.
Anyway, third, I could get very post-modern with my approach to a client’s fears of global warming: ask the miracle question to notice how clients feel and get a sense for what they see themselves doing to fight off this scary future, and create a more active lifestyle. I like the general idea here that our and the client’s past climate mistakes don’t have to matter, however much damage we may have done to the earth. All that matters is how we overcome it, and maybe construct a narrative forward. There’s a nice kind of self-forgiveness there.
My only issue with this post-modern approach is that it sometimes presents as very ableist: it implies the client’s even capable of making these changes, and not in a condition where they need to use a car, need electrical support, need a specific diet, or need larger social infrastructure upgrades because they themselves cannot do it as things are. It in short puts a lot of the agency on one person’s shoulders when it’s a much more collaborative process, that requires community stewardship.
Fourth, as a more overarching approach, I apply grief models… and this comes from a personal question I think therapists need to consider when approaching global warming as a topic: what are we doing exactly? Are we helping people transform into keepers of the planet? Are we helping them learn to manage their climate worries? OR are we actually doing grief work, because things are changing and already too far-gone to try and cope with global warming itself, especially in just our lifetime. In short, are we helping people manage a slow environmental collapse? If this is the case, what we’re manage is pre-grief. With this in mind, I’d keep in mind Worden’s tasks of grief, since they lay out the things the client must do to process their pre-grief in long eras.
Worden’s tasks of grief begin with accepting the reality of the loss, and I sometimes wonder if this is the most important real step we can take forward as therapists helping clients. His second step is working through pain and grief, and his third is adjusting to the new environment — and in this case, a heated planet. His last task, the hardest for me personally to sit with, is “finding a connection to the deceased while moving forward in life.” In this case, though, the deceased will mean the planet as we know it.
Also for grief, dual-processing theory may be useful to discuss climate fears, knowing intuitively that things are painful and scary and doom-feeling while also knowing that there are technical things that can be done, a sort of merger of Worden’s processing and Post-modern’s actionable goal-setting, or CBT-style behavioral modification.
This is a very hard but earnest way to approach clints in the room I think, because it also involves us as therapists co-processing our own grief around harsh changes to the planet. Know that if you are doing this as a clinician, you are being very brave. Grief is rough.
All that said, I need to point out that all the previous models are very individualistic. You and I, personally, are very limited when it comes to global warming. Sure we can eat less meat, drive less, and buy solar panels and electric cars, but the actions that scale real change is profoundly out of our hands as individuals. So if I approach global warming from the fifth and last perspective of family systems, I can get a clear sense of how roles interact with one another in a house that’s basically on fire, our earth. If that is the case, there is an abuser in the family that runs our climate agenda. You and I don’t WANT to destroy the home, our planet. We want to thrive, but the abuser continues both limiting and structuring our options so that we’re stuck with fossil fuel pollution.
If we view this intersectionally, it’s clearer to notice that some people have greater social power to set our climate agenda — cisgender, hetereosexual men with financial means who are white and without disabilities. Our society historically has been designed to put them into these decision-making positions, warranted or not. Since they represent a very very tiny population, it’s also easy to notice that literally everyone else will be impacted by climate change, but not hold the same social power to enact the changes that we need to address climate fears.
As members of this global family, systems theory makes it clear that we don’t actually have the power to soothe climate fears as therapists at all. We are all victims of classism, or injustices against our economic class. WE don’t have billions of dollars, and WE don’t personally invest in petroleum products on the stock market. Whether I’m using plastic, oil and coal or I’m getting energy a better way, I still NEED to use energy to survive… to make these videos. So abusers with class power are using it to abuse US too: we HAVE TO spend our money to survive and simply “because abusers say so” this means polluting our planet… OUR planet.
Using family systems and intersectionality frameworks in this context also gives us the real chance to provide our clients with radical self-acceptance. No, YOUR are not ruining the environment — -just a small handful of billionaire abusers are, a few people with a vested interested in making money no matter the fearsome consequences. You are good, and doing your best. You are not to blame. So you can release yourself from shame and blame.
Then, because we understand that we live in an integrated family system, you can know to hold REAL perpetrators responsible for what they’re doing to our family: Wielding their tremendous class power to destroy our planet, and us, all of us.
Therapist friends, choose any modality that works. Or all of them. Personally, I think it’s worth being clear for ourselves and others that coping with climate fears, fear of global warming and the real possibility of climate disaster, means seeing where our clients sit in the context of this planet, where they have power, where and how they’re being hurt, and balancing the dialectic between empowering them and helping them cope with changes.
There is a real way to help people here. And another modality, ecosomatics, I don’t know as much about so won’t go into depth about… but having to do with processing change in an integrative way between our bodies and our environments… because of course our bodies ARE made of the planet environment… same air and water, same atoms, what’s out there is in here too. So healing out there, heals in here.
Anyway, if you’ve watched this all the way through, you’re a professional too. What do you think?