In his welcoming remarks, Networker editor Rich Simon outlined the challenge psychotherapy faces to retain its relevance and keep pace with a changing, attention-challenged culture.
One of the main reasons for the size of our record turnout at this year’s Symposium is the theme—The Colors of Tomorrow. Who can resist a glimpse into the crystal ball that foretells the future? Americans in particular have always put great stock in the future. Isn’t that what the American Dream is all about? But lately, I think we all could agree, assurances about the pinkest and rosiest of futures don’t seem all that assured anymore. We’ve become increasingly aware of just how complicated the world is and how hard it is to predict what lies around the corner.
And the profession of psychotherapy is no exception. There may have been times in the history of the field—kinder, simpler times—when as psychotherapists we thought we knew where we were going. It was a time when insurance still reimbursed 80 percent for therapy, when our chief rivals were other therapists in our neighborhood and not the Internet and the pharmacist at the local CVS, and when the phrase “wealthy psychotherapist” wasn’t an oxymoron.
In those days of Peace and Plenty in the Gentle Kingdom—at least that’s my nostalgic, dim recollection—it seemed that we knew who we were and how our profession was ushering in a new age of psychological enlightenment. We might even have entertained fevered dreams that therapy could actually change the world. It didn’t really seem completely insane to think that if everybody just got in touch with their inner wounds, and every family learned to detriangulate, differentiate, and realign their subsystems—who knew? We could see the end of intolerance, poverty, and war. The lion would learn to control his emotional reactivity, come to understand the lamb’s point of view, and develop a vegetarian palate.
In reality, of course, I suspect there’s always been a deep undercurrent of uncertainty in our practice of therapy. Certainly, DSM notwithstanding, we can’t argue that psychotherapy is even a remotely “medical” intervention. So what is it, and what are we doing when we do it? Who do we think we are, anyway? Here’s where it gets really interesting. Whatever it is that we do, there still seems to be something so alluring about our profession these days that it defies the basic laws of economics. Even as surveys tell us that we’re losing ground in the marketplace to Big Pharma and yoga classes and apps that colorfully chart our moods on our iPhones, somehow large numbers of new therapists continue to flock into this field. Why is that? I think it’s because the satisfactions of doing this work, at least on a good day, run so deep.
You all know what I’m talking about. You’ve had a really good session. The client’s had what looks like some sort of breakthrough and leaves with a fresh glow of insight and clarity. You allow yourself a tiny pat on the back—maybe you really are the wise, skillful, exemplary healer you like to think you are. What could be a more meaningful way to earn your daily bread? But then, just to make sure that you don’t get too full of yourself, the universe steps in.
Next week, the same client comes in and tells you that the session you thought was so great was not quite as life-changing as you’d imagined. It’s like that Seinfeld episode when George gets all sweaty again right after taking a shower at his gym and complains frantically to Elaine—as only George can—that, for some reason, the shower “didn’t take.” In fact, that’s also true of what may appear to be the most dramatic sessions of therapy. So the client returns all discouraged again and tells you he’s not sure he should even continue with you. What’s more, he has a friend who has a therapist with a powerful new approach—neurodynamic, attachment-oriented water ballet—which sounds like just the ticket.
At such moments, many of us learn over the years that a big part of our job is to sigh inwardly, put aside our fantasies of being therapeutic magicians, and patiently begin rolling the boulder all the way up the hill again.
But whatever it is we do, there are few enterprises that are so fundamentally linked to hope and a sense of possibility for the future—even to the very sense in people that they have a future. To choose to see a therapist is in itself, if not always consciously, a step toward hope, a declaration, no matter how muted and buried in layers of despair, that says, “However much my life may feel like a complete train wreck, in some tiny corner of my being, I believe things could be better.” And that possibility, the possibility of a better tomorrow, is the fundamental currency of therapy. If therapists were bakers, hope for the future would be the yeast in their dough: the bread won’t rise without it. In a sense, we’re a passageway into the future for our clients—we help them find their own way to seeing the colors of their tomorrow.
So what’s ahead for psychotherapy as a profession? Most therapists today still inhabit a largely mom-and-pop business world, a nice, old-fashioned bricks-and-mortar kind of place, in which word of mouth is still the way many of us broadcast our services. But the challenge for us is to not mistake the outer forms of what we do with the essence of our craft. We need to resist the temptation to keep on practicing just the way we always have without keeping track of all the ways the world beyond our consulting rooms is changing. Above all, we need to avoid the fatal mistake of appearing to ask a digitally tuned-in generation to communicate with us via the equivalent of quill pen on parchment.
And yet, while we undoubtedly need to rethink many of our hallowed ways of working, I believe this younger generation who’ve grown up in a digital world is no more or less human than any past generation. And that means that when they feel stuck in their lives, embedded in a kind of psychic cement, they still want and need somebody, somewhere, somehow, not just to give them information and easy answers that fit into a haiku-ish tweet. They want someone to grasp who they are and understand their way of seeing the world. In short, they want help in envisioning the tomorrow they wish to step into.
I know that in today’s hypercompetitive world, the word hope is in bad repute these days: it can suggest a kind of passivity, a lack of fortitude, too little get-up-and-go. But hope for the future is the underlying driving force of most human activity, the reason we try anything new. It requires at least a modicum of hope to negotiate life’s important challenges—getting on a tricycle for the first time, going out for the basketball team, asking somebody for a date, going off to college, starting a new job, getting married, deciding to have a child, or even getting your hair done. They’re all fueled by the belief that taking this or that step will, somehow, make tomorrow a bigger, brighter, more inviting place.
The biggest obstacle our profession faces today isn’t the paucity of new methods and models of practicing our craft, but a crisis of imagination in the way we think of ourselves and how to maintain the relevance of our profession. We need to recognize that we live in a world in which people are far more reluctant than the well-trained patients of the past to sign up for a person-to-person appointment once a week for exactly 50 minutes for the next two or three years. Of course, when it comes to adapting to an attention-challenged world, we have lots of company. Maybe we should begin to think of traditional psychotherapy as having gone the way of “appointment television.”
on the Meaning of Mindfulness
Jon Kabat-Zinn has probably done more than anybody to bring meditation into the mainstream of American life. His opening keynote address sought to capture the essence of the experience of mindfulness and why it should matter to mental health professionals.
Since this is a crowd of therapists, let me start with a confession. When I travel, I usually bring along bells to use for guided mediations. At airport security, I always take the bells out because on the x-ray they look suspicious. At Logan airport yesterday, one of the TSA guys asked me, “What are those?” I said, “Sometimes I use them just to start or end the meditations.” He said, “I meditate.” I said, “Interesting. How come?” He said, “Well, you wouldn’t believe the stress around here.” I said, “I believe it.”
From the time I developed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) 36 years ago, this is exactly the kind of thing I wanted to happen. I wanted the TSA guy to meditate long before there was a TSA. I wanted everybody to meditate. The idea wasn’t to do it because you wanted to get specific results, not “I’m going to meditate to perform better or to have no stress in my life, or to be so wise you wouldn’t believe it.” My hope was that they could gain an access to some dimension of being that might actually make them more aware of their relationship to themselves, to their bodies, to other people, to everything.
The only “goal” of mindfulness is to acquaint people to a whole topology of being that most of us haven’t been educated about. That’s what this work is all about—not becoming a Buddha, or the Dalai Lama, or Mother Theresa, or whoever your hero of the moment is. The best you can do is to be yourself. But to do that, you need to experience the full dimensionality of what it means to be human. So if you hear “mindfulness” and you start to envision some kind of cold, cognitive, esoteric kind of experience—that’s not it at all. If you don’t include the quality of heartfulness, you’re not even close to understanding what mindfulness means.
Recently someone asked me, “What do you think about life after death?” I said, “I don’t know about life after death. I’m not even interested in life after death. I’m interested in the question Is there life before death?” That’s the real challenge. True meditation practice isn’t sitting in Full Lotus and looking like a statue in the British Museum. The essence of meditation practice is discovering to live our lives in the only moment we ever have, which is this one.
In meditation practice, you get to watch your mind, which is more interesting, compelling, and enlivening than watching 500 channels of the best cable television. And it’s right inside your own head and never ends. And while it’s always the same thing, it’s never the same thing. Mindfulness enables you to have a chance to develop a wiser relationship with all of it.
Mindfulness is never about the objects of attention or an ability we have to acquire. It’s something we have already. But what we can learn is how to recognize it, befriend it, and inhabit it in a certain way. It’s entering into a domain of fuller being as opposed to what we do most of the time, which is thinking, thinking, thinking—and then the emoting that goes along with the thinking.
Mindfulness is especially important for people who are in medicine and the mental health field because, when push comes to shove, what people want from us isn’t to be advised, but to be seen, met, heard, and felt. And we can’t do that if our own instrument is lost in thought or preoccupied with some therapeutic agenda about what’s supposed to happen instead of taking in the human being in front of you. What we most need to give the people we work with in medicine and psychotherapy is the full dimensionality of our presence. But to do that can be hard.
You want to play Mozart? You’d better practice. Do you want to play human? Better practice. Because we can all slip so easily into what’s called the Default Mode Network in the brain, which is the perpetually self-centered narrative that plays over and over inside us. Mindfulness training isn’t about suppressing that network, but moving into other networks in the brain that bring us more into the present moment with a sense of the breath and the body as a whole.
In closing, I just want to bow to all of you and acknowledge the importance of the challenging work that you do. And I hope you remember that there’s no one right way to bring more mindfulness into your work. It’s not like we should all genuflect to some catechism like MBSR or some hero of the moment like Deepak Chopra or Jon Kabat-Zinn. There’s only one hero of the moment, and that’s you—but not if you think you’re a hero.
on the Inner Game of Psychotherapy
More than any other therapist practicing today, Richard Schwartz, the developer of Internal Family System (IFS) therapy, has broken through the crusty myth that we’re all single, monolithic personalities. In his featured address, he outlined the fundamental principles of his clinical method.
It’s my belief that the natural state of the mind is to be subdivided into parts, which carry the memories, beliefs, and emotions that make up what we call our personality. The trouble is that some of these parts are harder for us to be around than others, especially when we’ve experienced trauma. Sometimes we even try to lock certain parts away inside us because we fear we can’t function if we feel the shame, worthlessness, terror, humiliation that they carry with them because of what they’ve experienced in the past. I call these especially sensitive parts exiles. These are the young, avoidantly or insecurely attached parts of us that, in order to heal, need to find a trusting relationship with someone. Usually, we think of that healing relationship as involving an intense connection with a therapist.
But what if it’s possible for clients to find that good attachment figure within themselves, rather than with a therapist? What if clients could become the primary caretaker of their own exiles? If that were the case, the therapist’s role would shift profoundly, and the client would feel empowered and less dependent on the therapist. But for that to be possible, we need a different model of psychotherapy, which is what guided me in developing IFS.
Central to IFS is the conviction that—in addition to parts that are needy, lonely, ashamed, or protective—there’s an essence within even our most difficult or disturbed clients that already has the qualities of a good attachment figure and can become a good internal parent to their exiled parts. In IFS, we call that the Self. The process of therapy involves helping clients access that Self and embrace their exiles, so they can unload the extreme beliefs and emotions that they got from their traumas and attachment injuries. When they do, they transform, often immediately, and begin to reclaim the wholeness, creativity, and joy that were available to them before they were wounded. And the good news is that developing such secure inner attachments can happen much more quickly than is usually the case with building external attachments, which can take months or years.
What do these exiles need to heal? The client needs to really get what happened in the past when the exiles were hurt, where they remain still frozen in time and stuck in the past. In other words, clients need to become a compassionate witness to their own pain. Then there’s a process by which we can take those exiled parts out of those traumatic scenes to safe places. But most of all, people need to learn how to access the Self, that essence in each of us that can’t be damaged and, once accessed, can allow the inner qualities like curiosity, compassion, calm, and confidence that were there all along to finally emerge.
John Gottman and Julie Schwartz Gottman
on The Myths and Realities of Couples Therapy
The hallmark of the Gottmans’ work is taking the rare step of actually observing the broadest sample of couples they could find, rather than relying on personal intuitions about the world. Their keynote focused on using four decades of research findings to distinguish myth from reality in the field of couples therapy.
John: As we study couples from their first dates through old age, and death, what have we learned about the meaning of love over the course of a lifetime? We’ve learned that it has three distinct phases. We know a lot about the first phase, which psychologists since Dorothy Tennov have called limerence. In this phase, our brains are dominated by a cascade of highly selective neurotransmitters and hormones that only certain people can set off. They have to look right, smell right, and feel right when you hold them. Then there’s a second phase around building trust, which is also highly selective. And there’s a third phase that’s about commitment and loyalty, without which a relationship is often headed toward betrayal.
In the first phase, the neurotransmitters and hormones include DHEA, a natural amphetamine that makes falling in love feel like a high. There are also pheromones, those sex scents that we’re all pretty unconscious of. And perhaps most powerfully, there’s oxytocin, the cuddle hormone that helps generate bonding. Oxytocin shuts down the amygdala and reduces fear, so it’s also the hormone of very bad judgment. If you spray oxytocin up your nose and go on a date, you can miss lots of red flags. Then there are the other hormones: estrogen, which is about softness and receptivity, and testosterone, which is about exploration, lust, and aggressive sexual desire. Both these hormones are secreted by males and females. Then there are the neurotransmitters like dopamine—which is about excitement, pleasure, and the feeling that something wonderful is about to happen—and progesterone, which is calming, and prolactin, which reduces aggression.
The second phase is really focused on the question “Can my partner and I build a safe haven even as the oxytocin haze fades and buyer’s remorse sets in?” In this phase, couples often start arguing a lot, and sometimes the very sources of initial attraction become the sources of greatest irritability. The introvert and the extrovert who began by being attracted to one another start seeing each other differently. Now the introvert would like the extrovert to be a little more introverted and vice versa.
What’s behind this initial disappointment? It’s really the trust question: Are you there for me? Will you be there for me when I’m sad? When you’ve hurt me? When I’m angry with you? When you’re bored? When I’m horny? When I’ve hurt you? When I’m lonely? When negative things happen, can you really stay aware? Can you tolerate that there are two points of view and listen with empathy? That’s what builds attunement.
The third phase of love in a lifetime is about building commitment and loyalty one brick at a time. Loyalty is about really finding purpose in building a life together. Because when you have a lifelong relationship, you love this person above all others, and you have to learn what it means to sacrifice for the relationship. The word sacrifice is the underlying word for sacred—making the relationship a sacred journey by cherishing your partner’s positive qualities and nurturing gratitude for what you have. It’s at this point that romance and sex become truly personal. In contrast, betrayal occurs when partners begin to search for what’s missing in the relationship by looking outside it instead of trying to get their needs met within it.
Conflict is inevitable in all relationships, so couples therapy is best focused on conflict management, not conflict resolution. Sixty-nine percent of all conflict is perpetual. When you pick somebody to have a committed relationship with, you’ve automatically inherited your particular set of unresolvable problems. If you didn’t pick that person, you wouldn’t have those problems—you’d have another set of unresolvable problems. So pick the resolvable problems you can live with.
When we studied couples at 3, 6, 9, 12, 15, 18, 20 years together, they were arguing about the same stuff, in the same way. You could edit those video tapes together and it looks like the same conversation over and over again. Personality differences that oxytocin made us blind to in limerence emerge in phase two. Then couples either accept these personality differences and dialogue about them—not that they solve them—or they become gridlocked.
What do couples mostly argue about? Well, it turns out that most arguments aren’t about topics: they’re really about failed bids to connect. He has the remote, and they’re watching TV, and she says, “Leave it on that channel.” He says, “I will, but let me just see what else is on.” She says, “No, leave it on that channel.” He says, “Let me just see what else is on.” She says, “No, leave it!” He says, “Fine!” She says, “Well, the way you said fine hurt my feelings.” And he says, “I don’t even want to watch television with you.”
Now what are they arguing about? Failed bids to connect. What’s the purpose of conflict? We need conflict in relationships because it helps us learn how to love our partner better. It helps us to get deeper understanding of how we fail to connect. Behind every negative affect, there’s a longing. And within that longing, as every wise couples therapist knows, there’s a recipe for connection.
Julie: One of the most important findings of John’s research is that the negative communication patterns that spell disaster for relationships predict divorce with 90 percent accuracy. This is what John called the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. But there are research-based antidotes to the Four Horsemen—and here they are.
Criticism attacks the character of the recipient. Instead of focusing on specific behavior, the antidote to criticism is to talk about feelings using “I” statements that express a positive need.
Contempt is an expression of superiority that comes out of sarcasm, name-calling, eye-rolling, mockery, and hostile humor. Contempt is the greatest predictor of relationship failure and must be eliminated if a relationship is to survive. The antidote to contempt is to treat one another with respect and build a culture of appreciation within the relationship.
Defensiveness is self-protection through righteous indignation or playing the victim. Defensiveness never solves the problem. It’s really just an underhanded way of blaming your partner. The antidote to defensiveness is to accept responsibility, even if for only part of the conflict.
Stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from the conversation without resolving anything. It takes time for the negativity created by the first three Horsemen to result in stonewalling. But when it does, it can become an extremely destructive habit. The antidote to stonewalling is to break for at least 20 minutes, calm down, and then return to the conversation.
When it comes to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, it’s important to bear in mind that the Masters of Relationship also use criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. But what distinguishes them from the Disasters is that they recognize that all of us are going to make mistakes, so they focus on making repairs following ruptures in their relationship and making them early. They say, “What have I just said? Oh no! I’m so sorry. Let’s back up. What was that like for you? What happened?” Once that kind of slow start-up becomes a habit within a couple, the ability of partners to process the ups and downs of what happens between them can move to a very different level.
on The New Rules of Love and Commitment
Esther Perel’s provocative observations about the changing face of couplehood today have attracted growing attention both within the psychotherapy field and beyond. Her TED Talk, “The Secret to Desire in a Long-Term Relationship,” has been viewed by more than 5.8 million people. Her featured address offered a frontline account of the revolution going on at the heart of our most fundamental social institution.
Couples therapy has notoriously been a desexualized practice based on the convenient but erroneous belief that sexual problems are always the consequence of relationship problems. The idea has been that all you need to do is improve the relationship and the sex will follow. But in my practice, I’ve seen loads of couples leave my office feeling a lot better and more connected, but it didn’t necessarily change anything between the sheets. So that led me to take a broader view of the forces that underlie the struggle of modern couples to reconcile two fundamental sets of human needs within one relationship. How do we bring together our need for security, predictability, and reliability with our need for adventure, novelty, and mystery—and basically expect it from one person?
I’ve recently done a lot of work on the new world of millennial couples. In the 1960s, 6 out of 10 people in their 20’s were married. Today, it’s 20 percent. So while a marriage in your 20’s used to be the norm, at this point it’s the exception. That means that when people marry or enter committed relationships in their late 20’s, they’ve typically had about 15 years of sexual nomadism and relationships. Contrast that with a traditional marriage where we used to marry and have sex for the first time: now when we marry, we stop having sex with others.
What does the culture of consumerism do to relationships? For centuries, this institution called marriage was an economic enterprise, an exchange of property, an arrangement between families in which love could arise, but certainly was not on the forefront. There was a rather clear hierarchy and assignment of roles between the genders. Sex for procreation was a major part of the marital duty of women. Marriage was a lifetime enterprise with few options to exit. If you were unhappy, you were basically stuck and had to bury your misery.
In the last 150 years, we’ve left our villages and come into the cities, and we’re a lot freer. We’re no longer bound by this community that checks on us every minute but also gives us identity, continuity, and belonging—that is, every element of attachment. So I’m freer, but I’m also more alone, and the role of intimacy in marriage has changed completely. In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye says to his wife, “Do you love me?” And she says, “What do you mean, ‘Do I love you?’ I wash your clothes. I feed your children. I milk your cows. If that ain’t love, what is?”
Well, at best it’s domesticity, and at worst it’s age-old women’s oppression, but basically intimacy switches from this co-living together and sharing the vicissitudes of everyday life into this whole new thing that’s a discursive experience between me and you, in which I’m talking to you, my beloved, and you’d better look at me when I talk. When I’m sharing my most precious treasure, which is my inner life, my fears, my feelings, my ambitions, my fantasies, you need to validate me, and you need to help me overcome my existential aloneness. I expect you to be my best friend, my passionate lover, the most devoted parent, and my intellectual equal. Have I forgotten anything? Basically, we’re asking one person to give us what once an entire village used to provide.
In today’s world, filled with choices and such an immense array of images of other people’s lives, how do I judge whether my marriage is a good one? Maybe the neighbor has a better one. Maybe my friends have more communication than me. So today, we have a whole army of disenchanted people walking into our offices saying things therapists didn’t hear so much in previous generations: “I don’t get my needs met in this relationship.” “I really need to explore the cost benefits of this relationship.” “I just want to be happy.” “My children would want me to be happy.” Of course, this preoccupation with happiness is a new thing for people to talk about with such a sense of entitlement. For most of history, happiness basically belonged to the afterlife. Now it can sound like happiness is no longer an option in life: it’s a mandate. We used to divorce because we were unhappy. Now we divorce because we could be happier.
One of the striking features for millennials is what’s come to be called a capstone marriage, as opposed to the cornerstone marriage of the boomers, in which you married early and grew up together. When you marry in your early 20’s, you’re in a relationship that’s going to shape you in the most fundamental ways, but in a capstone marriage, partners come together far more fully formed.
Many people today approach capstone marriage as if they’re beta testing a website. You have it kind of half-official, and you do it for two years to see if it holds up and you can actually sustain it. “I’m already formed, so what I’m choosing you for is basically the one thing for which I still really need a committed relationship, which typically is the raising of children.” That’s where high-investment parenting comes in and the huge emphasis on raising children. In the traditional marriage, parents got work out of their children, which is why they needed so many of them. But the contemporary marriage doesn’t get work from their children: they get meaning. The result is often a sentimental idealization of these kids who are going to tell you that you are a good parent and that your life has meaning.
More and more, I’ve begun to get interested in what Gwyneth Paltrow has called “conscious uncoupling.” If over their time with each other, two people have built a home together and raised children together and buried their parents together and gone through cancer bouts together and then decide they don’t want to stay together, it’s profoundly short-sighted to consider that a failure.
It’s our responsibility to help them honor the life they’ve shared together and to help them clarify the lessons they’ve learned from it. But to do that, we must avoid focusing too narrowly on the issues in their relationship and instead help them gain some of the larger picture that I’ve tried to give you today. In that way, they can come to see how what goes on in their private world is so influenced by what goes on in the wider world. For me, that’s become a basic principle of doing socially responsible psychotherapy.
Diane Ackerman and Daniel Siegel
on Healing and Hope in the Human Age
What’s the point of doing great therapy and bringing hope into the lives of millions of clients if they’re doomed to live their lives on a planet that’s going down the tubes? That’s the challenging question that Diane Ackerman, author of The Human Age, and Daniel Siegel, the person chiefly responsible for psychotherapy’s embrace of neuroscience over the past two decades, boldly addressed at the plenary session of the 2015 Symposium.
Diane: At every turn, we’re immersed in the dangerous new reality of our global situation. It’s easy to forget that television wasn’t a widespread part of the culture until the 1960s. The nightly news is so commonplace, we think nothing of watching it. And yet we react emotionally to all these moving images of people starving, people fleeing, Ebola, ISIS, swine flu, the nuclear capabilities of North Korea, the fighting between Russia and the Ukraine. They all become part of our daily engagement with the world, but most of those horrors are so far away that we feel helpless to do anything.
Climate change, too, can feel overwhelming. Its magnitude is so huge, and a person often ends up feeling disengaged and helpless when reading about massive heat waves, extreme storms, flooding, ocean acidification, all of that. Pity the poor amygdala: it’s not designed for the global scale. It doesn’t know what to do, where to flee, whom to fight. These are brand-new, planet-sized stressors, and this can easily lead to a vicious cycle, in which people don’t get involved because they’re too depressed and feel too helpless, and then nothing positive happens and the situation gets worse.
Yet climate change is something that we can actually do a lot about. So what can you do? First of all, try to face your sadness at the destruction of the natural world and your grief at what future generations may have to deal with, and look at the light in the darkness. Many ethical decisions and responsibilities matter and can make a big difference—from buying food that’s been grown locally and recycling, to volunteering to help plant trees or create a wildlife corridor.
And what can you help your clients do? Talking about worldwide troubles makes people feel stressed and worried, but that’s exactly why you need to air them, why you need to talk about them honestly and positively. Because global issues are casting a long shadow over everyday life, it’s important to talk about any feelings of powerlessness and anxiety related to them.
Personally, I think the best response to such anxiety is to become actively involved in some local or global solution, however small. And it can be social, like volunteering locally. There’s no point at all in punishing ourselves for our past ignorance and failures, or our inability to do more. There’s no use refusing to allow yourselves joy in a sunset or delight in family or laughter with friends.
Despite the challenges ahead, there’s room for enormous optimism, excitement, and abundant curiosity. We’re alive at the beginning of a brave new era, one that may last for many thousands or millions of years, an era that will come to define us and whose fate is in our own hands. More than ever, we need people like you, who can help us find our inner courage, to imagine what we desire for our futures as individuals and as a species. We need people like you to help us try to understand our individual weaknesses and strengths and our incredible ability to create the positive changes that we wish to see in the world.
Dan: Recent studies have shown a significant difference between the processes of empathy and compassion. Empathy means feeling the feelings of another, but when you overidentify with the suffering of another person, especially if they’re deeply troubled and traumatized, you can burn out quickly. Responding with compassion means remaining attuned but differentiated. In brain studies, it’s been shown that when instead of simply identifying with another person’s suffering you ask the question “What was it like for that person to be having that experience?” you don’t flood and shut down the brain.
As therapists, it’s extremely important that we focus not only on feeling people’s pain, but on skillful ways to reach out to them in ways that actually help, whether helping means just listening to them and bearing witness or actually lending a hand. So when we talk about burnout, we should be careful of our language. Some people suggest that the term empathy fatigue be used instead of the common phrase compassion fatigue, which, in reality, may not even exist.
So when it comes to facing how overwhelming the reality of climate change can feel, it’s crucial that we recognize the things, no matter how small they seem, that we can do. We always need to bear in mind that we can help people develop a quality of integration and awareness in their lives that enables them to be more effective in having an impact on the world and making it a kinder, more compassionate place—a place where, in fact, there’s healing and hope.