Self-Compassion, Meet Climate Change

How I’m dealing with my emotional baggage in the face of planetary demise

A few years ago, I worked as a manager at a restaurant that employed a very passionate, motivated group of people. I was brand-new in my role, and undergoing a period where I had to accept some tough feedback. In turn, I was compelled to constructively criticize my team—who had a mixed bag of reactions. In this rarefied class of restaurant workers who cared deeply about their performance, I encountered shame, defeat, even tears. 

I also came across people who took criticism gracefully, using it as a tool to improve, without becoming mired in self-doubt. At a time when I was struggling with my own growing pains, internalizing negative feedback and transforming it into self-loathing, these people became my role models, and the idea of self-compassion became my key to unlocking their wisdom.

One morning on my subway commute, I stumbled across this article in the New York Times in which Kristy Wong weighs the benefits of self-compassion versus self-confidence, arguing that the former can help us achieve greater personal growth and reap professional success. Wong explores the idea that being kind to ourselves can enable us to view our flaws as objective realities and approach them accordingly. 

Reading it, I identified deeply with the crippling insecurity that can come with what Wong refers to as “productivity culture,” where success defines our value, and imperfection is a source of shame.

In the words of Dr. Kristin Neff, “instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?”

Personally, I wasn’t especially motivated to explore self-compassion until I saw it framed as a tool for improving performance. It sounded nice, but I was more focused on succeeding at work than I was on being nice to myself. Wong’s article references studies that show that self-compassionate people have an easier time admitting to mistakes and subsequently improving on them, which is an incredibly important skill in a professional setting. I began to utilize self-compassion to process my emotions at work, and shared the concept with my colleagues. Eventually, it came to shape my approach when giving and receiving feedback.

Over time, I’ve started to apply self-compassion in other aspects of my life, like my relationship with my partner. In the past, I had a really hard time taking criticism, and this new way of thinking has helped me to accept that he still loves me even when I’m not perfect. It’s allowed him to be more relaxed when pointing out something I’ve done wrong, without being afraid of stepping on a potential minefield of emotional reaction. It’s a process, and I’m not always good at it- but that’s the whole point, isn’t it?

Lately, I’ve become increasingly preoccupied with climate change. And I have a lot of feelings about it. Using the tools provided to me by the self-compassion movement, I’ll attempt to unpack them.

One of the hardest things to reconcile is that it’s very difficult to know whether any of my individual efforts (like recycling, composting, not using plastic bags, etc.) are making a difference. Climate change experts are divided on this point- some say that individual behavior changes are too small to have a significant impact, while others posit that the power of social influence from witnessing others who’ve made life choices like flying less helps to raise collective awareness about the climate emergency. 

In reality, both of these things are true. And this is where self-compassion comes in. Knowing that the kinds of significant policy changes that need to happen in order to truly reverse climate change are beyond my control, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by a sense of futility. However, just like self-compassion has taught me to view my personal shortcomings without feeling defined by them, it’s enabled me to acknowledge my limitations in the fight against climate change without feeling defeated.

Caring about climate change is complicated. On one hand, there’s a sense of connectivity that comes with investing in the wellbeing of others and focusing on issues that exist beyond one’s inner biosphere. Simultaneously, I feel anxiety and dread, and fear that it’s too late and by 2050 we’ll be living in the reality predicted by dystopian movies. I’m angry that corporations are prioritizing profits despite evidence our very ability to exist on this planet is threatened. Paradoxically, I’m optimistic, because some very smart people are working to enact innovative solutions

I have guilt for every package I’ve ordered on Amazon, every long shower I’ve taken, every plastic bag I’ve used to wrap produce at the grocery store. I’m exasperated because people aren’t taking this seriously. I’ve experienced hopelessness because my CSA and compost bin are so small in the face of a global economy that runs on fossil fuels. There’s the desire to ignore it all, and the pride that I’ve chosen not to. There’s the cringing embarrassment that I’m yet another person who wants to talk about their feelings about climate change.

In short, it’s exhausting.

Self-compassion means taking an objective, realistic view of ourselves and the world around us, without becoming entrenched in what meditation teacher Tara Brach refers to as “the trance of unworthiness.” According to Brach, the trance occurs when we believe that our flaws define us, causing us to internalize and obsess over them. It can also manifest in denial and defensiveness, when we lash out and blame others. 

Whether by compelling us to deflect responsibility or trapping us in a loop of inner dialogue, the trance debilitates us. It takes us out of action, immobilizing us inside our own heads, and robs us of the opportunity to move forward with behavioral changes.

In effect, the trance of unworthiness is eerily similar to my climate change-triggered emotional spiral.

If self-compassionate behavior- ie, acknowledging my imperfections, being nice to myself about them, and doing what I can to improve them- can help me escape from the trance, it can help me figure out a balanced way to deal with my anxiety about climate change, while taking whatever small actions are in my power to reverse its effects.

Like the ability to simultaneously come to terms with and improve on our internal states, living in a world with climate change means being able to hold two contradictory realities, and somehow continue to function. I’m flawed, but my flaws do not define me. I don’t want to ignore or underplay the seriousness of the issues facing our planet’s future, but sinking into despair or trying to achieve blissful oblivion won’t do me, or the world, any good. 

I know I’m not the only one who’s experienced difficult emotions regarding climate change. When I try to gauge whether my level of anxiety is healthy and productive, I sometimes think about John B. McLemore, who was profiled in the podcast S-Town. John was mentally ill and most likely affected by mercury poisoning, and he was also obsessed with climate change. In the podcast’s narrative, John’s suicide and his preoccupation with humanity’s demise are lumped together as tragic symptoms of a sick man. 

Maybe John’s despair about climate change was not so crazy. Psychologist Margaret Klein Salamon attests that many people “[grapple] with grief, terror, alienation, and even suicidal thoughts stemming from their confrontation with our current reality.” McLemore struggled with a level of depression that I thankfully do not, and I don’t want to minimize his suffering. But in his despair, I recognize the extreme end of the thoughts I’ve had during my darkest times.

Processing my emotions won’t pull carbon out of the atmosphere or make Trump stop denying climate change’s existence. But it does enable me to continue to look for opportunities to enact change, instead of getting lost in despair or denial. Circling back to Tara Brach, “One of the great teachings in spiritual life is this: It doesn’t matter what is happening. What matters is how we respond.”

For anyone who feels how I do, you’re not alone. No single one of us can reverse the course of climate change, and sadly, even our votes only have so much sway on the people with real power. Still, we do have some choices, and those choices, when made collectively by an increasing number of people, can send a message to corporations and politicians about where we want our money and our electoral influence to go. 

A few ideas, to start: buy food directly from local farms. Divest from banks who use your money to invest in fossil fuels. Bring your own bag to the store. Waste less food, and compost scraps. Use public transportation, or carpool. Eat less meat, and be conscientious about where it comes from. Recycle. If you want to do more, try this resource from Kiss the Ground.

Most importantly, be nice to yourself. It’ll make you more resilient, and more capable in the fight to salvage our planet’s resources. Plus, if the world does implode, it would be a bummer to spend your last days feeling guilty.

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