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Climate knocking at our door: how to integrate climate into our sense of self

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By Jennifer Harvey Sallin

· 10 min read

When climate knocks, we need resources to respond

Climate has historically felt like something “out there” for many of us, unrelated to our sense of identity and not included in our personal narrative as anything more than a backdrop for the “real story” of our lives. Now that climate is knocking at each of our life’s doors, refusing to remain in the background, many of us are unsure how to respond. We wonder whether we should integrate climate into our life story and sense of self, and if so, how.

Some of our reaction to climate’s knock depends on our culture, personality and values system – for example, how much we know about, enjoy being in and connecting with the natural world, how much empathy and concern we feel for humanity and other sentient beings, and how much we care about matters of justice and fairness. Our reaction also depends on our capacity for growth, our available resources, and our current degree of physical and social safety. Those of us who are in a secure situation, with plenty of time and energy, internal and external resources, and ample social support have a different array of options from those of us who are completely overwhelmed, lacking in resources, and with no safety net to rely on.

If we are overstretched mentally, emotionally, financially and socially – a situation many of us currently find ourselves in – it’s likely we’ll experience climate’s knock at our door as a threat (even beyond the fact that the climate emergency in itself is existentially threatening). And when something threatens us, it’s often difficult for us to imagine welcoming it generously into our lives, integrating it into our sense of self and forming a reciprocal and generative relationship with it.

If it feels like a threat, we might fight, flee, freeze or fawn

Without the inner and outer resources to deal with them, real or perceived threats cause us to fight, run, freeze or superficially pretend to respond while actually avoiding the seriousness of the matter. These well-known reactions are traditionally called the Four F’s of Trauma in psychological literature: “fight, flight, freeze, fawn”.

How can we know whether we are engaging in one of the four F’s of trauma in response to climate’s knock? Here are some signs:

Fighting could show up as attacking others for bringing up climate-related issues and concerns with us, or shaming people in our life or social networks who make lifestyle choices to better integrate climate into their lives (i.e. eating less meat, going vegan, or participating in activism). It could also show up as “fighting truths” about the changes we need to make, i.e. refusing to do what we know we need to do.

Fleeing could show up as changing the subject whenever climate comes up, or distracting ourselves from thinking about it at all (i.e. avoiding informing ourselves about climate or creating dramas that consciously or unconsciously keep our attention away from climate issues). Similarly, it can also show up as “fleeing truths” about the changes we need to make, i.e. running in the opposite direction of what we know we need to do.

Freezing could look like going numb and becoming stuck in a space of chronic indecision. We neither engage with climate nor deny it – we’re perpetually in limbo. Maybe we’re still functioning well enough in our daily life, but when it comes to thinking about climate, we dissociate from it to some degree. Our ability to move forward and access our power for integration is, for the time being, on pause.

Fawning could look like engaging with climate on the surface level (i.e. recycling or posting about climate change on social media) but never actually developing a deeper relationship with or letting it into our sense of self. It could also take the form of virtue-signaling or trying to reassure ourselves that we are nature lovers or that we are “doing the right thing” by taking external action, while internally avoiding more authentic personal and emotional involvement.

Most of us have a complex combination of reactions

When confronted with new elements to integrate into our sense of self, many of us find different parts of ourselves reacting in different ways. While some parts may be curious, open and eager to take action, other parts may still be fighting, fleeing, freezing or fawning. This is quite logical, as psychologically we are all composed of many different parts – for example, our professional self, our family self, parts of ourselves living in the past, parts of ourselves dreaming about the future, and so on. All these psychological parts integrate into what we call our psychological “self”. When our “self” is functioning optimally, our various parts are in harmony and working in the same direction. When our self is in turmoil or in transition, our different parts struggle to communicate, find common ground and move forward as a coherent psychological system.

As it relates to climate, our parts’ reactions depend on the roles we inhabit in the world and which aspects of ourselves which feel threatened by climate integration. For example, we may find that a part of us which has been feeling disconnected from nature is ready to jump all in and integrate climate into our lives. However, our professional self may still be fighting the idea because jumping all in threatens our safety – i.e. leaving a job where we know we are harming the planet, but where we are comfortable and paid well. The future-oriented family part within us may be open and curious because that part wants to be a good parent and give a hopeful future to our children. Yet our present-oriented family part may still be in a state of “freeze”, for fear of the consequences of asking our children to give up their current lifestyle of comfort.

“Parts work” can help us create a coherent way forward

To help us find coherence among the various parts within, “parts work”* can be a very useful tool. The principle of doing “parts work” is acknowledging and dialoguing together with the different parts of ourselves, as we would with members of our work team or with our partner and children. When we notice and get curious about our parts’ reactions, feelings and needs, we see them not as conflicting, disconnected or lost fragments, but as integral parts of our coherent psychological self-system – as our “inner family”.

As I mentioned above, if we look within, we may find parts who are already motivated to integrate climate into our identity. These parts can serve as an inspiration and resource for stuck parts still engaging in fight, flight, freeze or fawn. It’s important to remember that stuck parts are usually trying to protect our inner psychological system from being overwhelmed by difficult emotions. Climate is a complex phenomenon, so it makes sense that opening ourselves to a relationship with it awakens correspondingly complex and challenging emotions within – eco-grief, eco-anxiety, anger, panic, sadness, rage, shame, or guilt, to name a few.

What those stuck parts are telling us is that they need more safety and resources in order to be able to fully welcome a relationship to the climate. Some of that safety comes from the more resourced parts within, but it comes from our social circles as well. Personal transformation is not only an individual process, but also a community process. We become who we are in the context of the people we are with and how we interact with them. Connecting with others through climate-aware therapy, climate coaching, climate circles and other forms of climate-specific support can provide important social safety for us to get to know and learn from our “inner family”. Seeing others dialogue with and find coherence in their own “inner families” as they work toward climate integration supports and mirrors our process, and vice versa.

Opening the door to a lifelong dialog with climate

It’s worth noting that all integration work – in our relationship with the climate and in any area of our lives – is not a “holy grail” we find at one moment in time and then the work is done. The climate integration process, just like with integration of our family, our careers or our friendships into our sense of self, is an ongoing, lifelong dialog. As long as the relationship is alive, we continue to listen, adjust, negotiate, learn and transform together.

Climate’s knock is an invitation into that dialog. How would you like to open the door?

Questions for reflection & further resources

Below I’ve included a series of reflection questions and extra resources to guide you as you explore climate integration for yourself. You may want to write your feelings and insights in your journal and talk about them with a willing family member or friend, within your therapy or with others in your extended community. As you inquire within, the emotions wheel can be a helpful resource for finding the right words to describe your parts’ complex emotional responses. A body-emotions map can also help you identify where your parts’ emotions are expressed in your body, especially for those of us who are used to “being in our head” much of the time.

Reflection questions

Are there parts of me who are eager to integrate climate into my identity and life story?

  • How does that eagerness show up in my body, mind and behaviors?
  • Do I have enough social support, resources, and safety to act on that motivation in a meaningful way right now? If not, what resources and support do I need to feel safe and supported in order to take the actions I feel called to take?

Are there parts of me who are fighting, fleeing, freezing and/or fawning in response to climate?

  • How does this fighting, fleeing, freezing and/or fawning show up in my body, mind, and behaviors?
  • If I ask these parts what they need to feel safe to engage with climate, what do they tell me?
  • Are there actions I can take in response to what I learn about their needs?

Are there other emotions I’m feeling in response to climate’s knock at my door? (You could use the emotions wheel to explore the possibilities)

  • How do these emotions show up in my body, mind, and behaviors?
  • Is there any support I currently need to be able to act authentically from these emotions?

When I envision climate as an integral part of my identity, do I see a motivating vision of my present and future, given what I can control?

  • If not, what could I change about that vision in order to make it motivating and encouraging?

What values, resources, skills, competencies, life experiences and personality and character traits do I bring to my relationship with climate?

  • How would I be inspired to use those resources in building a meaningful relationship with climate?

Once I am feeling sufficiently safe and resourced with my climate integration process, how might I feel called to support others who are still missing the social or other resources they need to open up to climate integration?

Additional resources for exploration

  • I Heart Earth is a project featuring public talks with experts and activists on the theme of integrating climate into our sense of self
  • Good Grief Network is an excellent resource for safely processing eco-grief and other difficult emotions that arise in our climate integration, in the context of community
  • Climate and Mind is a repository of information and resources on climate psychology

* The most well-known “parts works” approach comes from Internal Family Systems Therapy, which works with specific parts, but here I refer to the concept more generally.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Jennifer Harvey Sallin is the founding director of InterGifted, and leads a climate engagement project called I Heart Earth. She is a psychologist and leader in the field of high intelligence and high performance. She applies her expertise in the area of climate psychology and climate activism.

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