As a psychotherapist with a particular fascination about how we relate to our ‘animal selves’, I wanted to respond to the thought-provoking and insightful Outrage and Optimism podcast featuring singer, songwriter and activist Ellie Goulding.
Firstly, it’s clear that to feel motivated to shape our world in a way that supports the environment, we need to feel connected to it. I’m with Ellie when she says that ‘I still don’t think people are as connected to nature as we would like them to be’. Christiana Figueres then asked what we can do to engender that, given the vast majority (moving towards 75 percent) of people now live in urban areas.
In the discussion that follows, valid but familiar answers are offered. For example, the importance of children spending time in nature, and the value of using the arts for self-expression.
However, it was the following line, by Ellie Goulding, that really captured my attention. ‘We’re innately connected with nature. All of us have it in us.’ As in many conversations about the threats facing the environment, that point was not elaborated upon. For me though, in my psychotherapy work, an unpacking of what that means, is what I feel most passionate about.
Despite the phrasing of most conversations around climate change, it’s not a case of us human beings here, and nature out there. We are part of nature. It’s an indisputable scientific fact that we are, biologically-speaking, animals.
The reason it tends to be ignored, in my opinion, is that we don’t have a great relationship with those parts of ourselves we consider ‘animal’. You only have to think about how we use words related to nature in respect of ourselves.
‘You’re an animal’ when thrown at someone, is nearly always an insult, and of the worst kind. Equally, when we call someone ‘wild’ that often equates with negative traits such as chaotic, or out-of-control behavior.
I’ve seen time and time again when working with clients, as well as in everyday interactions, how we censor, and repress the animal parts of ourselves: the instinctual, emotional, and embodied. We see them as base, aggressive, unpredictable, and dangerous. We fear that, if released, the animal will destroy us, or those around us.
The problem is, that when we try and cut the animal out of ourselves, we cut off so much innate intelligence that would help us to function better in the world. It has significant adverse effects on our physical and mental health, as well as devastating implications for our relationship to the planet.
So, one powerful answer to the question- how do we make people feel connected to nature, is, via connecting them to themselves.
Secondly, I’d like to address another subject central to the Optimism and Outrage podcast. How can we be with the plethora of emotions we might feel at this time, including the two seemingly disparate entities of outrage and optimism? And, how can we convey the messages we wish to convey, in a way that it is heard?
In her title track for David Attenborough’s Netflix documentary, Our Planet Ellie Goulding voices, so eloquently, the complex feelings she has around what is happening to our planet.
I work with many writers through my project Wild words. When I read a piece of writing, or listen to a talk, I can usually tell if, and where, the writer/speaker has been unable to make good contact with the emotions they are trying to convey. Tell-tale signs include glossing over part of the story, or conversely, dwelling too long upon it. When there is no emotion in the words, the receiver feels disconnected. When there is too much emotion, the receiver may feel they’re drowning in it. They then switch off.
To find our voices around environment issues, and if we don’t want to feel that we’re beating our heads against a brick wall as we try to pass on our message, we have to first do the work to integrate those parts of ourselves, and those emotions, that we are afraid to look in the face. We have to build a good, containing, kind relationship with out animal fear, our animal anger, our animal joy.
The journey is to accept ourselves fully, and to delight in the unique mammals that we are. As Massimo Pigliucci puts it ‘We may be particular animals with very special characteristics, but we’re animals nonetheless’.
Photograph by Peter Reid