(Sex)Therapy and Climate Anxiety
I’ve been arguing with Dr. Doherty all week. A silent, one-sided argument that puts my teeth on edge and makes my breath short. Dr. Doherty and I have never met except on the pages of last Sunday’s New York Times article entitled, “Climate Change Enters the Therapy Room.” Dr. Thomas J. Doherty is a psychologist in Portland, Oregon, who specializes in climate anxiety. His ideas about “treatment” for his climate-worried clients make my hair stand on end.
But out of this argument with Dr. Doherty, this week’s climate action has risen. It is a special Valentine action you will have to wait till the end of the essay to discover!
In the Times article we meet one of Dr. Doherty’s patients, a young mother so worried about climate change she is having trouble sleeping. Trips to Trader Joe’s for nuts wrapped in layers of plastic make her feel guilty. The plastic toys in the bathtub make her anxious. The disposable diapers make her anxious. She asks herself, what is the relationship between the diapers and the wildfires?
Well, very good question, I say to myself!! How are diapers disposed of? How many forests are cut down for disposable diapers, what are the alternatives? Are there still diaper services like there were when I was raising children? A quick internet search reveals this link to cloth diapers and information about the carbon footprint of paper diapers. The paradigm shift that we all need to make very quickly in order to preserve and regenerate life on this planet needs to come from people like Dr. Doherty’s patient who sees clearly the connection between our unfettered consumerism and the climate crisis.
A million years ago when I had my first job as a psychotherapist at the University of Chicago Psychiatry Department, my then boss and beloved mentor, Dr. Eberhard Uhlenheuth, asked me to do a community talk on anxiety. I was totally flummoxed. I knew nothing about handling anxiety, I was twenty-five and raised in a family that shunned any discussion of feelings like anxiety and depression: for having those feelings one should go to her room and come out when she was feeling more cheerful. "What should I say?" I asked him. “Say that anxiety is a warning signal to the brain that something is awry. Say that it teaches people that changes need to be made in their lives, anxiety can be a pointer, a warning that the human system is in danger.” No one used the word agency back then but that’s what he meant.
But this is not what Dr. Doherty tells the young mother. Instead, he tells her that the idea of tracking one’s individual carbon footprint is a dodge invented by the fossil fuel companies to take the pressure off their need to stop producing oil and natural gas.
Her conversations with Dr. Doherty, she said, “opened up my aperture to the idea that it’s not really on us as individuals to solve.”
And with that he wipes off the table any sense of agency his client can achieve over this. This is sloppy thinking at best and a very dangerous idea to be putting forth on the pages of the New York Times at this moment in our planet’s trajectory when there is so little time left.
The climate psychologist is entirely right that the fossil fuel companies are trying to shift responsibility away from their end of the table. But this argument does not mean individuals should do nothing. Never in the article is there mention of any actions this young woman can take to address the climate emergency. Never is the idea put forward of collective action being the answer to the fossil fuel companies’ dodge. Never is the idea of talking to others who feel the same way so as not to be alone with one’s fears hinted at. Imagine if he had suggested she form her own group of new mothers who together share their worry and love for their children and learn about the climate footprint of diapers and plastic toys.
I have in the past considered the idea that going to therapy to discuss ones’ fears or griefs has the consequence of draining the community of opportunities for each of us to be compassionate to each other, to learn how to reach out in moments of grief and uncertainty. The question, “are you seeing someone about that” too often rises when a friend or family member is in pain, instead of the words, “come here, sit down, tell me about it.” Now this climate therapy offered in this article is doing the same thing: draining this woman’s community of the energy she could be putting into meaningful organizational actions.
The summer that the young mother met the climate psychologist, Portland was under a “heat dome’ experiencing 116 degree heat.
Looking at her own children, terrible images flashed through her head, like a field of fire. She wondered aloud: Were they doomed?
Dr. Doherty listened quietly. Then he told her, choosing his words carefully, that the rate of climate change suggested by the data was not as swift as what she was envisioning.
In the future, even with worst-case scenarios, there will be good days,” he told her, according to his notes. “Disasters will happen in certain places. But, around the world, there will be good days. Your children will also have good days.”
At this, Ms. Black began to cry.
“I really trust that when I hear information from him, it’s coming from a deep well of knowledge,” she said. “And that gives me a lot of peace.”
Who of us knows what the rate of climate change will actually be? Maybe it won’t be as bad, maybe it will be worse. Data I’ve been scanning suggest that scientists’ projections for the rate of change and destruction of multiple ecosystems may be much too conservative. Who of us is in this omniscient position to reassure a client that things will not be as bad as she fears? Certainly, not me! Maybe Dr. D. has clairvoyant powers.
“Of course, you should be worried. Your worry reflects your love for this earth, for your children, for our well-being.” This is what we should all be saying to everyone who speaks of her worry about her child's future on the planet. And, we should say, we have very little time left so we need to do everything in our power to change the course we are on. Now.
A young woman teacher who is distraught about the children turned to me in an FCAN meeting last night and said, “Thank you, it feels so much better to be doing something like this with other people who care and who want to make a change." A man I see for therapy who is retired and worried about the future of the planet is going to have lunch with three of his also newly retired friends and ask them if they are worried about the future they are passing on to their grandchildren. He hopes they will brainstorm ideas about what they can do together.
If you are worried about the climate crisis don't go to a therapist who tells you it won't be so bad, turn off the TV, there's nothing you can do about it personally. Maintaining our anxiety without going into despair, denial or depression is helped by actions taken together. Without fear we will not press forward towards the huge paradigm changes we need to make. Fear and worry and concern are all markers of the fact that what we love is at risk. They are the body’s signposts for where we need to go next, what we need to do.
So here is my action step for this week. Bear with me while I explain. At the same time as I was learning about how to think about anxiety, I was also learning how to do sex therapy. I won’t tell you the backstory behind this great adventure but, oh, the stories! Anyway, what I learned was that there are stages to sexuality and the first stage is initiation. If neither partner is comfortable initiating sex, then sex doesn’t happen.
So because tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, and we all love the earth and want to save her, I recommend you initiate a conversation with one person about the climate crisis. Tell her what you care about and what causes you to be worried. Ask her if she has similar thoughts and feelings. Many of us were raised to be strong, not to ask for help. So this step could be hard for us. But try it. You could say, “I’ve been thinking about what kind of world my (grand) children are going to inherit and feeling very (worried, sad, guilty). I don’t like to talk about it much but sometimes I feel all alone with it. Do you ever feel that way too?”
See how that feels. Then, or later, you can move on to the next stage. Perhaps you’d both like to take the conversation further!! Shall we do something together? Shall we use our imagination to invent what that could be?
Should we meet this way again?
If you’d like to join a discussion with me and two inspiring ThirdAct leaders tomorrow night about this topic, register for this workshop at Thirdact.org
Now is no time to go to your room until you come out with a smile on your face!!
Thanks to Colin Sullivan-Stevens for the illustration!!