It feels like these last 5+ years have been more difficult, on a larger scale, than any I can recall. I have been through very difficult things, on a personal level, but this feels different. One of the greatest challenges about large, social, even global issues, is that we often feel impotent to make any difference.
Honestly, I struggle, quite a bit. And I’m not sure the best way to deal with it all. Maybe I need to reframe that idea itself—the best way. Maybe I need to look for some good ways to deal with it all, rather than tie myself to a “best” way. Regardless, I don’t have answers. I do have ideas and musings, however. And that’s what this post is about—ideas and musings on how to manage oneself and move through difficult times. I don't know if this is enough, if it will help, or what. But I have to try something. This is one of my small attempts...
Here’s a very brief recap of the last 6 months, as well as lingering effects from events since 2020, in no particular order (and I’m sure I’m forgetting some things and recognize this is a “White, Western-centric” view of global issues…):
Buffalo, NY and Uvalde, TX shootings. 293 mass shootings in the United States since 2022 (as of July 29, 2022; source https://www.gunviolencearchive.org/)
Climate Change issues, including
Severe droughts (42.5% of US and 47.7% of lower 48 states in drought this week, as of July 30, 2022; source https://www.drought.gov/current-conditions)
Russia’s continued attacks on Ukraine
US Supreme Court’s ruling on abortion and all the implications
US Supreme Court's ruling on the EPA
US hearings on January 6, 2021 Capitol Hill Riots
Rising inflation and gas prices
Global pandemic (older issue, effects still being felt)
Attacks on LGBTQ rights
Attacks on Democracy and civil discourse
Increased spread of disinformation
Okay, I’m going to pause here, because just creating this list causes my heart to ache and my anxiety to increase. And when that happens, my initial response is to shut down and go numb; but I don’t want to continue with that pattern, it doesn’t help me, and it doesn’t help the problem. So, I’m looking for new ways of dealing with the anger and the overwhelm.
Emotional responses and acceptance
Some people are very good at dealing with and experiencing their emotions. But a lot of us aren’t. A lot of people are either highly reactive to their emotional experiences or highly controlling. Poor emotional response might include things like:
Lashing out with words or physical violence
Inability to self-regulate emotions
Numbing and withdrawing (turning to all manner of distractions)
Because of this, I think the first thing most of us need to do is to learn how to manage the initial emotional responses. That’s where a lot of people get stuck. Things feel scary, overwhelming, impossibly big, and the emotions feel impossibly big, so we just get stuck in the emotions and nothing changes. Therefore, the first step, when faced with challenging times that generate challenging emotions, is often to ACKNOWLEDGE and ACCEPT our emotions rather than trying to change them or deny them or tell ourselves we “should” or “shouldn’t” feel certain things. The challenge is to make space for those emotions without getting stuck in them. It can help to remember that emotions come and go, like waves or clouds in the sky. They are not permanent. But the more we try to fight uncomfortable emotions, the more they hang around.
Acceptance is the first part in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. “The theory behind ACT is that it is counterproductive to try to control painful emotions or psychological experiences; suppression of these feelings ultimately leads to more distress. ACT adopts the view that there are valid alternatives to trying to change the way you think, and these include mindful behavior, attention to personal values, and commitment to action.”
The acceptance piece can be hard. I try saying out loud, “I accept the ________ (anger, frustration, anxiety, distress, etc.) that I’m feeling.” Sometimes I honestly can’t do that, so I take it a step back and say, “I accept that I can’t accept this right now.”
What Acceptance might look like...
So, what does this look like when I am distressed about the news and current events? I spend time focusing on what I’m experiencing. I sit with the emotions, acknowledge that, yes, this fills me with rage and also makes me feel impotent. I do not deny my anger and my fear and my frustration. I also acknowledge that the feelings can be so overwhelming that I long to shut down. There is nothing wrong with having that response. The thing is, by acknowledging that I want to shut down or numb or avoid those feelings, I get to CHOOSE what to do next, and that is an important point of empowerment and intention. Instead of instinctively shutting down, I decide what to do. Depending on what is going on, I make different choices. For example:
If I have clients to see that morning, I may give myself 5 minutes to feel the distressing emotions and then take another 5-10 minutes to put those emotions aside, get grounded, and focus on being present for my clients.
If I have more time and no other responsibilities, I may spend more time journaling, practicing mindfulness, crying, raging, talking to a friend or sister, etc. Sometimes I feel it will be helpful to read more about the situation so I read the news or do research, (although I am highly sensitive to my tendency to “doomscroll” and try to monitor what is happening for me as I read more news).
If it is the end of the day and I’m exhausted, I might choose to shut down and numb for a while and just watch some feel-good TV. One important caveat is that intentionally choosing to shut down is different than reactively shutting down; I make a commitment to myself to return to the emotions at another time. By doing this, I am no longer running away from my feelings, I am merely picking and choosing when I deal with them by trying to provide myself with the optimum time and space in which to do so.
If I have the time, I might spend some time feeling the crappy feelings and then doing something that I enjoy, that brings me peace, like birdwatching, or doing some yoga, or listening to music, or reading a book. I try and balance my emotional experiences, which helps me remember that emotions do come and go—they aren’t the things that define my experiences, they are just part of my experiences. It's incredibly important to find the things that bring you joy, because having that joy in your life reminds you exactly what you're fighting for. For a great podcast about this, check out Brene Brown's podcast Accessing Joy and Finding Connection in the Midst of Struggle.
These are some of the ways I deal with the immediate emotional response, but there is more to this situation. When we are faced with challenging issues, simply feeling the emotions is not enough. And this is the second part of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy—it is a commitment to act, to change. But sometimes it takes time to work through all the emotions. It is perfectly okay not to be able to act, yet.
Commitment to act
I think a big part of why these large, complex social/environmental issues feel so overwhelming is because one person’s actions don’t feel like much—like one raindrop compared to the entire ocean. And that is where discouragement, hopelessness, apathy, and a feeling of impotence originates. If we stayed focused on the overwhelm, on feeling like there’s nothing we can do, or if we focus our attention on all that we cannot control, we are likely to end up either raging against the machine or numbing ourselves with alcohol, food, social media, entertainment, sex, or whatever else we can find to distract ourselves with. It’s a recipe for disaster.
What I have been experimenting with is trying to figure out what’s in my control and what is out of my control. Then, I do my damnedest to let go of the worry over what I can’t control and focus on what I can. I work on finding small, concrete actions I can take. This will look different for everyone. And this is where creativity and diversity and personal choice come to a beautiful intersection.
One book that I have found incredibly helpful and empowering, is Bonnie Wright’s book called Go Gently: Actionable Steps to Nurture Yourself and the Planet. It’s a great resource if you’re interested in ways to combat climate change, but her basic philosophy works for any major issue we face today. In it she writes:
“There is no perfect way to show up for the planet, each other, and yourself. Perfectionism--essentially the ego--distracts us from the urgency with which we need to be addressing the climate crisis. I wrote this book to celebrate imperfect, in-process action.”
I’d like to borrow and modify that idea a bit, to say that not only is there is no perfect way to address the climate crisis, but there’s not a perfect way to address racial injustices, human rights, healthcare concerns, war, political conflicts, socio-economic disparities, etc. We can all find something to do, and we can do something on multiple levels. Here is a beginning of a general list of ideas. There will be more specific possibilities depending on the challenge that you choose to get involved in, but these general points of action can be used in any challenge. I would love for you to add more ideas to this list:
Get curious about your emotions and learn to ways to improve your mental wellness
Get educated on the issues
Decide which problems are most important to you and commit yourself to doing something about those issues
Donate time to different causes (being a “boots on the ground” kind of person)
Donate money to different causes (great way to support the boots on the ground)
Start having civil, curious-based conversations
Register to vote and then vote
Write letters to local and national representatives
Get clear on what your values are and make value-based choices
Find out what other people are doing, maybe you can join them
Practice mindfulness, especially as a way to combat feelings of discouragement and despair
As I write this it seems like it might come across as a little simplistic or cliché or . . . I don’t know what. The thing is, any one individual has a limited scope of influence, but when each person is doing something to make an improvement in the world, it all adds up. And the option to doing something is to do nothing. And I refuse to do nothing because I know exactly where doing nothing leads.
Now, I recognize that we have been operating under years of stress—our personal stresses and the collective stress of a world gone seemingly mad. If you are anything like me, you are tired. You have been stretched to your limit. You may wonder if you can handle anything more. You feel saturated with bad news and events outside of your control. You are exhausted. I am exhausted. You may want to just give up. I want to give up. You may have given up. There are moments when I give up. I get it. There are days I feel so discouraged that I could never write a post like this because I have no hope to share. So, I don’t write on those days. The thing is, if you’ve given up, you don’t have to stay there. Rest. Do things that will actually nourish your soul (as opposed to behavior that allows you to avoid and distract without replenishing yourself). Get help. Practice some self-compassion (for ideas of possible exercises check out Kristin Neff's work here).
Start where you are at
Big, complex problems require us to be in it for the long haul. We do the best we can, on any given day. Some days we can do more than others, that’s okay. Simply do what you can, when you can. Be honest with yourself. You don’t need to make excuses if you are being honest. Accept where you are at. Accept where the world is at. Acceptance does not mean resignation. Acceptance is about not fighting reality, it’s about being honest and real, then deciding what to do from there. Pema Chödrön talks about starting where you are. In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, she says, “With all the messy stuff, no matter how messy it is, just start where you are—not tomorrow, not later, not yesterday when you were feeling better—but now. Start now, just as you are.” I think that is good advice as we wrestle with these messy issues. Just start now, as you are, where you are.
As I wrestle with my emotions—fear, anger, rage, sorrow, frustration—and as my knee-jerk reaction is to shut down and numb my feelings or give into the despair, I am finding it helpful to accept and honor my feelings in combination with focusing on small steps/actions I can take to make a change. I am trying not to worry about whether or not my steps are “big enough,” or “profound enough,” or “effective enough,” as those judgements usually end up empowering my Inner Critic. And an empowered Inner Critic usually ends up browbeating me into inaction and despair. So, instead, I look for sufficiency. Whatever step I can take, in this moment, will be enough. Period. I don’t need to add an adjective onto that enough. Sometimes all I can do is cry. Sometimes all I can do is desperately wonder why. Sometimes I can write and other times I can listen. I do what I can.
Creativity and uncertainty
In the end, will it be enough? Honestly, I don’t know. I hope so. I believe if we choose to fight for those issues that are important to us, we can make a difference. To believe otherwise is to admit defeat and guarantees that we lose. So, I choose to do what I can. I choose creativity over complacency. I’m looking for balance between hopelessness and unbridled optimism because both tend to justify inaction. Mary Annaïse Heglar, a climate journalist, podcaster, and activist, says we have no time for nihilism, but that rosy hopefulness feels “sociopathic." She has said that you can be “overwhelmed by the complexity of the problem, or fall in love with the creativity of solutions” (from Go Gently). I like that perspective, and it works for any complex issue. There is no end to creativity. So, I try to apply that to the kinds of steps I can take and strive to live my life creatively, in alignment with the things I value most. The steps aren’t always clear or certain, but I am definitely learning to be more comfortable with uncertainty.
Looking for suggestions?
If you are looking for ideas on how combat issues of climate change and other environmental issues, I’d highly suggest Bonnie Wright’s book called Go Gently: Actionable Steps to Nurture Yourself and the Planet. She gives multiple actionable steps for so many different environmental issues. I’ve been going through and selecting the actionable steps that resonate with me and creating a master list of steps I can take that are within my realm of “control” and also align with my values and feels authentic for me.
If you are: a) unsure of why the abortion issue is problematic and how it goes far beyond the confines of the specifics of abortion itself, or b) curious about how we got here, or c) interested in what are possible next steps, or d) all or some of the above, I suggest listening to this episode of “We Can Do Hard Things" podcast called, Abortion: Family Meeting on Four Things to Do Next, in which Amanda Doyle talks about how we got here and what we can do next. She does an amazing job at breaking down the issue and provides groups you can support if this is an issue you care about. (You will have to search for the specific episode, I can't find a way to link to it directly, it keeps pulling up the most current episode. Look for the June 27, 2022 episode...sorry! But it's really worth listening to!).