Ideas for addressing the shame, embarrassment, and guilt that are stopping us from saving the planet.
By Jennifer Keluskar, Ph.D.
Recently, I stopped by my town hall carrying a box of garbage. I was donating plastics to the Nex Trex Recycling Initiative, which uses disposables to create park benches. While some might think this was an ordinary errand, for me it required a dose of bravery. I had to go alone, with my hemp backpack in tow, and explain myself to the security guard with the quizzical look.
My motivation to help the environment is fueled by climate change anxiety, which has left me tossing and turning more nights than I would like to admit. While it is important to help people respond to this kind of anxiety by encouraging them to engage in pro-environmental action, mental health professionals also need to consider how self-consciousness might prevent someone from following through with eco-friendly efforts.
People like me tend to have trouble coping with self-conscious emotions, which are those feelings that are affected by how we see ourselves and how we think others perceive us. Self-conscious emotions include embarrassment, shame, and guilt.
Personally, there have been many times when embarrassment stopped me from acting in accordance with my environmental values. Like when the server at a fast-food restaurant wouldn’t fill my thermos, and I caved into buying coffee in a Styrofoam cup as to not “make a fuss.” Or when I have given others brand name chocolates on holidays, knowing they are not sustainably sourced, because I wanted to look festive.
One reason I don’t share my pro-environmental intentions with others is that I assume they won’t agree with me. Ironically, it turns out that most people are probably making the same assumptions. According to an article published by Yale Climate Connections, while two-thirds of Americans worry about global warming and support policies to address it, most also don’t realize how widely shared their opinions are.
For me, though, there’s more to it than just closed lips. When it comes to acting in a way that shows I care about climate change, I also worry about being judged by others. However, while I might hide the fact that I want to walk instead of drive for environmental reasons, I don’t hesitate to show off my electric car and the solar panels on the roof of my house. The reason for this discrepancy is likely that society values consumerism, and therefore I am less concerned about being judged for stuff I bought. Research has highlighted that a cognitive bias known as the balancing heuristic leads people to believe they are compensating for the environmental damage they cause by purchasing goods labeled as “eco-friendly.”
We can address the impact of self-consciousness on sustainability by not pathologizing emotions related to global warming, and by embracing different ways of thinking. This shift requires those of us who struggle with self-consciousness to stop worrying so much about what others think.
It also requires flexibility, including accepting that not every decision is going to be perfectly sustainable. In fact, rigid adherence to environmental values can be counter-productive. For example, re-routing to a coffee shop where a refillable thermos is acceptable might add emissions, while an un-caffeinated brain might lead to careless environmental errors. Also, given that collective actions have more impact, strengthening alliances is of utmost importance to the strength of the climate movement. This means we might have to go with the flow for the sake of strengthening relationships with others.
We also need to talk more. There have been times when I didn’t express my environmental values to others, and my silence did more harm than good.
For instance, I used to send my son to daycare with a reusable plate knowing that they served lunch on paper plates. I later learned that they doled out his food on a paper plate before transferring it to his reusable plate. The daycare staff said they had no idea about my environmental intentions and had assumed that my son simply preferred eating off the reusable.
Self-conscious emotions are baked into our DNA because they prevent us from breaking social norms that keep people safe. An unfortunate side effect of this is not being loud and proud enough about the climate crisis. By bringing self-conscious emotions out into the open, we can gain traction in the fight against this existential threat.
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