Eco guilt: “The feeling you get when you could have done something for the environment but did not do it.”
With knowledge comes power, or so they say. Unfortunately, the more I learned about sustainability, the more powerless I was apt to feel. The urgency and scope of the environmental crisis can be devastatingly overwhelming sometimes. And while the environmental movement is picking up momentum, it remains incredibly difficult to navigate a society that isn’t (yet) designed around sustainability. So if you feel bad about tossing your plastic sandwich wrapper in the bin and not being able to go zero waste, or if you’re battling environmental dread every time you take a long shower, realize you’re not alone.
7 that can help you deal with your eco guilt
Don’t lose hope
As society is slowly waking up to the severity of the environmental crisis, people, and specifically young people, are taking matters into their own hands and are actively creating change. Take Greta Thunberg for example, who single-handedly inspired a worldwide school strike for the climate among children and young adults. Or the Extinction Rebellion movement, whose peaceful and effective protests show the promise of grassroots activism. Joanna Macy’s book Active Hope shows us how to develop the kind of communities and connections we need to navigate today’s environmental challenges. Rebecca’s Solnit’s book A Paradise Built in Hell deals with how people come together in times of crisis. So when you scroll make sure to include hope in your feed. Seek out the people, actions and communities that inspire and uplift you. Read about them, learn about them, support them in any way you can, and remind yourself of them every time you feel afraid or overwhelmed.
Embrace your emotions
As humans, we seem to have a natural tendency to want to run away from difficult emotions—we don’t like feeling uncomfortable. However, suppressing your emotions gives them more power over your thoughts and can lead to negative thought patterns and unhealthy behaviors. By acknowledging our emotions we are able to move forward and use these feelings as a motivator. Remember this: “There’s nothing wrong with guilt. It holds society together,” says David Amodio, assistant professor of psychology at New York University. “Without it, people wouldn’t be motivated to maintain social norms.” Even from a practical standpoint, it’s guilt that often drives us to change behaviors and take action.
Eco guilt can be a great motivator. Whenever you start feeling guilty or anxious, it’s important to realize what it is that is making you feel this way, vocalize it, and subsequently question yourself what you want to do to about it. Whenever my chest tightens because of guilt or anxiety, I try to write down or talk to my partner about what I can do to change that feeling and transform it into action. For example, I feel a lot of anxiety and guilt around the amount of plastic I use. I cannot eliminate plastic from my life—there is no bulk shop where I live—but I can look up a recipe for zero-waste toothpaste with baking soda and coconut oil, and take my reusable water bottle everywhere. Making a realistic plan and sticking to it will leave you feeling secure, in control and empowered. “Ask yourself, ‘What are reasonable goals for me, knowing that I can’t take care of everybody and everything?’ Once you translate the most important things into doable plans, you’ll feel a lifting of some of this moral weight,” says June Tagney, professor of psychology at George Mason University.
Join a community
It can be a great relief to share your struggles and victories with like-minded people, whether in real life or online. There are countless zero-waste, eco-activist, and vegan Facebook groups, all of them great places to ask for advice or derive inspiration from. Volunteering for environmental organizations might bring you a sense of relief and accomplishment because you are actively helping to solve the problem. Even simply setting up monthly eco-meetings with friends or family members could help you channel your guilt or anxiety, as they provide a safe space in which to discuss issues that are on your mind, share zero waste tricks, or take part in upcycling projects together. Remember that you have a voice in this community and that it deserves to be heard.
While it’s great to be part of the larger environmentally conscious community, it’s easy to get swept up in a competitive mindset or compare yourself unfavorably to people that are seemingly doing ‘more’ or ‘better.’ There will always be somebody who is ‘greener’ than you, but you can only make choices that fit your own life. Vice versa, simply because you are making ‘green’ choices doesn’t make you morally superior to anyone else. Again, nobody is perfect. Be gentle with yourself, compassionate towards others, and take your journey at your own pace.
Do what you can
You can’t do it all and perfection does not exist. For most of us, building a tiny off-grid cabin from the ground up, eating only self-grown produce and creating all other living necessities from scratch isn’t very realistic. We are working to change society, but we don’t have to step outside of society to do so. We aren’t (yet) living in a circular economy, so most things that are produced are meant up to end in the trash. It’s important to realize that we are working against a mass-manufacturing, capitalist system and that every step you take in attempt to combat this system is a good one. Choose a couple of things that you are passionate about and work on those. If you are physically and mentally able to do more, great. If not, also great. You can only do so much, so breathe in, breathe out, and release all else.
Focus on the now
Give your mind some well deserved peace and rest by noticing your surroundings. Your room, the light, the trees outside. Let go of your worries by connecting with yourself. Feel your body, notice the rhythm of your heartbeat and your breath. You won’t be able to make a positive change when worries about the future and should’ve’s and could’ve’s hold you in their grip. All we have is now, and all we can do is trust in the process, and choose what to do with this moment.