It’s appropriate, of course, to take seriously the dangers climate change poses and to feel some grief about the crisis. But when this grief or sorrow turns into anxiety, it is likely to be the result of emotional weakness that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with climate change itself.
This fact, however, is apparently not being recognized by the new branch of mental-health treatment that’s now responding to climate anxiety (eco-anxiety). This branch has now produced an online climate-aware therapist directory.
Many therapists say that climate anxiety is challenging and transforming the practice of psychotherapy. An article this week in The New York Times Magazine discusses the healing approach that “climate-aware” therapists are taking. It’s apparent to me these therapists have blind spots.
According to the magazine article, many therapists don’t plan to “fix” a client’s problem or respond to a pathology. Instead, they plan to give “their patients the tools to name and explore their most difficult emotions, to sit with painful feelings without instantly running away from them.”
I can assure my readers, it’s not necessary for people “to sit with painful feelings.” And “running away from them” is not, in any case, typically what people in states of anxiety are able to do. They wouldn’t be going to a therapist if they could “instantly” run from such misery.
The magazine article acknowledges that anxiety, hopelessness, depression, and anger have long histories that involve conditions other than climate change. The author notes that people “bring their own issues and patterns to the particularities of the climate crisis: hypervigilant doom-scrolling if they have control issues, perhaps, or falling into despondency if they have a tendency toward depression.”
However, nothing more is said in this article on what “issues and patterns” might possibly be at play in the emotional life of these individuals. Nothing is said about how such issues or patterns might conceivably relate to the emotional challenge of dealing with climate change. Further on in this post, I address these deeper issues.
The article says these eco-therapists focus “on trying to help patients develop coping skills and find meaning amid destabilization, to still see themselves as having agency and choice.” But this therapeutic approach is not unique to eco-anxiety. This approach is commonly taken to help those who are struggling with a wide range of emotional or behavioral issues. There’s nothing in the article about therapeutic methodologies that are unique to the climate crisis.
One psychotherapist quoted in the article said some clients wanted to vent their “’sort of righteous anger and sense of betrayal’ at the various powers that had built and maintained a society that was so destructive.” The therapist indicated she was sympathetic to this anger. Of course, it’s appropriate to be disgusted with the failure of the authorities to address the problem. But people can get stuck in a passive anger that produces both needless suffering and a futile response to the climate crisis. The more that people feel helpless, the more they’ll act out being helpless, which compounds their misery. The more they express so-called “righteous anger,” the more they can unwittingly be using this “aggression” as a cover up (an unconscious psychological defense) for their emotional entanglement in underlying passivity and helplessness.
Clients often burst out in expressions of anger and betrayal at many targets—parents, friends, romantic partners, corporations, politicians, and so on—over matters having nothing to do with climate change. These outbursts, especially when they fail to reform situations, are often reactions to underlying passivity and to an unconscious willingness to go on feeling weak and victimized.
Some sufferers from eco-anxiety are neurotic. If they weren’t feeling anxious about climate change, they’d be feeling anxious about something else—money, wars and violence, nuclear weapons, pandemics, health issues, or their careers. Climate change has become for them a convenient external target onto which they project their psyche’s penchant for feeling helpless and for needless suffering.
The therapists mentioned in the magazine article appear to be troubled by countertransference, meaning they emotionally resonate with the weakness exuded by a client. This can make them emotional enablers of the client’s dysfunction. It’s an appropriate reaction, of course, to be greatly concerned by climate change. This concern helps us, at the very least, to lessen our personal carbon footprint. But therapists must guard against identifying with (being emotionally drawn into) the weakness displayed by their clients. Discussions and comments in the magazine article suggest some therapists feel a particular receptiveness to a client’s sense of helplessness because of their own distress or anxiety about the climate crisis.
The article also noted that some therapists believe climate change to be an event of such magnitude, affecting both therapist and client, that therapists are entitled to cross the boundary that restrains them from bringing their own emotional issues into the therapy room. Therapists thereby become self-disclosing, believing wrongly that this kind of personal sharing is helpful to their clients.
These boundary-crossings do the client a grave disservice. They validate the emotional weakness of the client. When an individual becomes anxious and depressed over a particular issue or problem, that person is sliding into emotional weakness. That weakness is not likely to be appropriate. The danger now is that the slide will continue, resulting in more suffering, failure, and self-defeat. Good therapy addresses the weakness, understands the underlying dynamics of it, and strengthens the client’s connection to a best self.
Individuals can develop a stronger connection to their best self in a variety of ways. One big danger for them is that their weakness will be validated by others, even by therapists whose own resilience is shaky, who claim that the weakness is appropriate to the seriousness or trauma of the situation. Instead of teaching clients how their weakness originates within them, this approach coddles them with nothing but consolations and shared suffering.
The deeper, more effective approach to overcoming eco-anxiety recognizes inner conflict in the human psyche. This conflict, often mostly unconscious, weakens people and undermines their resilience. The conflict occurs in clashes between the inner critic and the passive ego, in the context of polarities found in human nature: strength versus weakness, pleasure versus displeasure, passivity versus aggression, connection versus disconnection, and ego versus both inner world and outer world.
This inner conflict also takes place as people replay and recycle, as emotional attachments, the first hurts of childhood (feeling refused, deprived, helpless, controlled, criticized, rejected, betrayed, and abandoned.) The details of how this happens are described in my books and in posts on this website.
We all have an inner critic that is capable of cruelly mocking one’s sense of self. On an inner level in the psyche, the inner critic can punish us for alleged flaws or unworthiness if we allow it to get away with this self-abuse. This dynamic reflects one of the polarities mentioned above—aggression versus passivity. The aggressive inner critic (or superego) gets away with harassing the passive subordinate ego (what classical psychoanalysis calls inner passivity). This leaves the individual feeling emotionally weak, and often the individual identifies with that weakness. The weakness is then felt in the individual’s experiences in the world, even becoming the centerpiece of one’s sense of self. (It’s this same weakness that drives gun mania in America and underlies in part the victimhood ethos of identity politics.)
Our assimilation of the knowledge of inner conflict (especially in terms of how we’re passive to our inner critic and willing to recycle the first hurts) runs up against psychological resistance. It’s as if the subject is taboo—and indeed it is. Humans are still operating in a highly egotistical manner (a second-hand way of accessing reality and one’s essential worthiness, and one of the polarities mentioned above). Our ego is insulted by deeper knowledge concerning the extent of our entrapment in inner conflict. Our egotism convinces us we know who we are, that we know what is important to know about our inner life. Our ego does not want to become aware of the startling degree to which we are not conscious. Self-knowledge undermines the ego’s preferred centrality. Through our ego, we resist being humbled by knowledge that reveals our psychological ignorance.