What are "emotional methodologies" for dealing with tough climate feelings and how can they help?

Recapping new research about programs for helping people prioritize change in their life, take action, and alleviate burnout

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This week we’re looking at some new research from Jo Hamilton around what happens when we come together to support each other with the difficult feelings that the climate crisis creates. Hamilton recently completed her PhD in the Department of Geography and Environmental Science at the University of Reading. Her dissertation looked at what she calls “Emotional Methodologies” for dealing with the complicated feelings, such as grief, fear, despair and guilt, that climate change kicks up. As she writes in her thesis, “When unexpressed, these emotions can contribute to emotional paralysis and systems of socially organised denial, which can inhibit engagement and action on climate change at individual and societal scales.” Therefore, it is important that we express these feelings, and do so in ways that can ultimately help us work towards climate and other justice oriented goals. The guides, programs, and curricula that help us do this are these so-called emotional methodologies.

A variety of Emotional Methodologies (EMs) have emerged over the years to help people connect with and process these feelings in ways that build courage, acceptance, and resilience. To the best of my knowledge, Hamilton is the first person to study the effect they have in the lives of the individuals who engage with them. Specifically, she has been looking at the ways in which they help people prioritize change in their life, take action, and alleviate burnout that is so common in activist work.


Examples of emotional methodologies

Each EM is different from the next. They can vary in depth, duration, scale and accessibility. They can also be practiced on one’s own or in a group. A well known example of an EM is Joanna Macy’s The Work That Reconnects (TWTR) and related book Active Hope. Another one, which I’ve done (and loved) is The Good Grief Network’s 10 Steps to Personal Resilience & Empowerment in a Chaotic Climate program. (While Hamilton’s thesis looked at TWTR, she did not study the GGN’s step program). Others include Carbon Conversations, Inner Transition, Mindfulness Based Interventions, Social Permaculture, Deep Adaptation, XR Regenerative Culture, Carbon Literacy Project, various forms of nature connection, faith based approaches, and more. Despite their differences, what all EMs do is generate emotional reflexivity. Hamilton describes emotional reflexivity as “an embodied and relational awareness of and attention to the ways that people engage with and feel about issues, how this influences the actions they take, the stories they inhabit and their perceptions of individual and collective agency.” To clearly understand emotional reflexivity, we must acknowledge that emotions can both be transformed, as well as transform us. 

How emotional methodologies work

According to Hamilton, EMs provide safe spaces to acknowledge painful emotions (and therefore create a ‘container’). Inside the container, climate-related emotional struggles are acknowledged, legitimized and supported, so that a person can process them, and ideally, connect with their own capacity to take action. EMs do this by fostering connection and relationship:

  • Within (to an individual’s inner, emotional and affectual worlds) 

  • Between (creating safety for emotional vulnerability between participants)

  • Beyond (to the more-than-human world)

By reviewing the literature, conducting a survey, doing interviews with EM facilitators and participants, using autoethnography (Hamilton is a long-time EM trainee and facilitator herself), as well as observing EM participants, she found evidence for the capacity of EMs to help people broaden, deepen, and sustain their engagements with the climate crisis. And how do they do that, you might be wondering? “Just by naming and enabling people to loosen up that bit about their emotions, it makes people aware, like aha, this is actually influencing my stories of change and my perception of my own agency. They become aware of it and it becomes something that they can reflect on,” Hamiton told me. 

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There's something about going to those deep and dark places with others that holds weight. Coming together via an EM doesn't guarantee that participants will take any particular pro-environmental actions, and that is absolutely fundamental to the EM’s power. When I told Hamilton about my own positive experience with the Good Grief Network 10 step program, she told me that the open-endedness of their 10th step - “reinvest in something meaningful” -  is key. By not prescribing a specific kind of action for people to take, this leads participants to respond in a way that feels purposeful, authentic and meaningful to them, whatever that might be. That in itself is empowering, and makes whatever action they’ll take more likely to last. Often, this can then lead to what she calls “deep determination”, which is a kind of ongoing commitment to act for environmental and social justice, “and to live the future worth fighting for in the present.” Importantly though, Hamilton points out some big limitations with the EM’s she studied, including the lack of diversity of facilitators and participants, and the lack of accessibility of some EMs. 


"A new dawn" by kern.justin is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There’s obviously a ton in her thesis that I haven’t been able to cover here. I recommend reaching out to Hamilton herself to ask if you can read it, if you think her research could benefit your own work (johamilton121(at)gmail.com). She has made a wonderful contribution with this research to a growing space of practice that is bound to expand as the climate crisis ramps up. Her thesis helps us articulate what we’re doing when we support each other around the existential feelings that these times activate, and why it matters. 

Let’s leave off with these last words from Hamilton’s thesis: 

“The practices and concepts in some of the EMs draw variously on the holistic interplay of western psychology, eastern philosophies and Indigenous wisdom traditions, and are grounded in the promotion of openness and feedback loops. They combine practices as old as the hills with the issues which threaten the very ground we stand on. None of the EMs discussed here are rocket science, yet ironically if they were they may have been afforded greater attention, but this new evidence shows the potential that just some of them have in being with the increasingly uncertain present and potential futures.”

Reach out anytime

As always, you can reach me - and each other - by commenting on this article. You can also hit reply to this email or follow me on Twitter and Instagram. I’m getting a lot of reader emails now, and I promise that I read each one, but it might be hard for me to adequately respond to every message. Thanks for understanding. 

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