How To Hack Our Psychology To Take More Eco-Friendly Actions

Photo: Susana Ramírez

Mention of environmental threats can send us on an emotional roller coaster like no other. These days, hearing the latest news on trash-clogged oceans, decaying coral reefs, and warming temperatures can be scary, sad, and overwhelming all at once. The trick is harnessing these emotions to be motivating instead of crippling, but it's easier said than done.

That's where Renee Lertzman, Ph.D., an expert on the psychological impact of environmental threats, comes in. After years as a researcher, teacher, and communicator, she has gathered tons of insight on how we can use complicated, deep-rooted emotions as catalysts for change.

"To me, it's always been very obvious that the unconscious is a huge piece of this whole picture," she explains about why we all deal with these threats a little differently. "Now we know more than ever that our unconscious selves are often driving a lot of what we do."

From a psychological perspective, she says that making green changes comes down to being kind to yourself, identifying your strengths, and surrounding yourself with supportive, like-minded people. This five-step action plan can help you get you started:

1. Acknowledge how environmental issues make you feel.

Whether news about a warming world makes you feel concern, anxiety, or overwhelm, refrain from judging your emotions. Instead, show yourself the same kind of compassion you usually reserve for a friend or loved one. "Being compassionate is not the same as letting ourselves off the hook," Lertzman clarifies. "But it means recognizing that there is heavy stuff going on, and you may not know how to respond right now—and that's OK."

2. Don't judge your feelings as right or wrong.

Once you pinpoint your feelings, let them exist without trying to change them. Even if you feel different than those around you, remind yourself every perspective is valid.

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3. Find support with like-minded individuals who are looking to take action.

Lertzman says it's important to communicate with other people who hold space for you and your feelings and viewpoints. For example, if you decide to cut down on meat in an effort to lessen your impact, maybe plan a lunch with that vegan friend you haven't seen in a while. Or maybe you start to volunteer for an animal rights organization or join an online group of like-minded thinkers. The key is feeling supported and heard.

4. Take time to reflect on what green tweaks make sense for you.

In keeping with the theme of self-acceptance and community, the next step is pinpointing your specific gifts so you can share them with the world. Lertzman explains that everyone will respond to climate change differently, depending on their temperament, personality, schedule, etc. "Some people will find that it makes sense for them to become involved on a political level; others may be more interested in fashion and want to focus on engaging with sustainable clothes," she explains. "We need to recognize that every one of us has an incredibly powerful role to play. It's really personal."

Once you nail down an action you can take based on your interests and skill set, don't fall back to self-sabotage. "It's very easy to discount that and minimize that in comparison to the scale of the issue. Even if it seems small, it really does matter—it really does count. That's an idea we need to keep coming back to over and over again."

5. Commit to making a change that helps the planet, no matter how small.

Now, you're ready to step outside your comfort zone to enact real change. As evidenced by mbg's You. We. All. mantra, we all have a role to play in forging a healthier planet, and no first step is too small.

If you're having trouble choosing an action step to get started with, this quick visualization technique may help. Looking for more ideas on green lifestyle tweaks? Check out mbg's comprehensive guides to reducing waste at home, greening your beauty routine, and eating in a way that gives back to the planet.

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