Text of a Curiosity Conversation between Kris de Meyer, PhD, Director of the UCL Climate Action Unit, and Helen E. Lees, PhD, Editor of PARTS & SELF, Spring 2022
The following is a conversation that became surprisingly significant for the combination of IFS and climate change—and which grew perhaps, in importance (urgency that we attend to the issues involved), as it progressed. Kris De Meyer, PhD, is Director of the University College London Climate Action Unit, where his work is about “Changing how scientists, policymakers, businesses, communities & citizens engage with each other on climate change.” This conversation is in transcript form only.
Why did it become important for those interested in IFS and those dealing with climate change? It suggests there is a current global crisis occurring in the emotional lives of young people (aged around 14yrs to 25 yrs), that unless dealt with, will further handicap the world in dealing with the climate crisis. Young people may well be forming “exiles” (see glossary) at a crucial developmental stage due to climate anxiety. Such exiles could disable them from taking action to find planetary solutions. Given that we rely on today’s younger generations to be the most active and pro-active about the deepening climate crisis, this is a deeply concerning possibility. IFS is seen in this discussion as a positive intervention, potentially offering profound help to climate change. As a London-based neuroscientist specialising in belief and disbelief – and of interest to those involved in IFS and its work with internal polarizations, De Meyer states: “I also study how the entrenching of beliefs leads to polarisation in society about important topics such as climate change and Brexit.”
NB: If you’re an IFS practitioner and you’ve started to work on climate issues, get in touch with the Editor through our Contact Form. We’d like to pull your experiences together to report on them in PARTS & SELF.
Helen: First let me explain in brief Internal Family Systems. I will loosely call it a therapeutic model that deals with internal traumas—small and big. Let’s imagine everyone has got their own issues, okay? Internal Family Systems helps people to purify out of their system what IFS calls burdens—things that cause us to be paranoid, afraid, anxious, whatever it might be. I’m interested to feature in PARTS & SELF something about the climate. This is something you can’t ignore. You work with climate change attitudes, is that correct?
Kris: Yes, but over the last several years I’ve many times been pulled into conversations about eco anxiety as well because it is, of course, an attitude that people have towards climate change these days. So, the thing that sits in the article [shared with De Meyer in advance of the interview]: “‘I was enjoying a life that was ruining the world’: Can therapy treat climate anxiety?” felt very, very familiar to me. The narratives that are in there are very familiar.
Helen: When I saw that article, I thought, there’s one thing which is getting governments to change their policies—the whole political game. Then there’s getting people at a practical level to recycle and change their behaviours, consumer behaviours, travel behaviours whatever. Then there’s where IFS would come in, or see the thing perhaps. I think that people don’t care about the world because they don’t care about themselves. So, a process where they start to talk to what IFS calls their “Parts” (see glossary on this site) with a vision of the person as multiple or full of multiplicity, rather than as a unitary self and start paying attention with care to those Parts of their self. When people start talking to their Parts with care and paying attention to them, what happens is that people, IFS says, become more compassionate, more caring, then. Also calm, clear-headed, curious, connected, confident, creative, courageous. A good version of people, right! My idea then is that you can only get people to pay attention to the climate—to care about the climate or the outside world, the natural world—if they first care about themselves. IFS could help with that. What do you think about that?
Kris: Ohhhh! I don’t have an answer to that. I don’t know the answer to that question. I think though that any question that assumes that there is only that thing that works, for me is not right. Because there are multiple things that work for different people and so there are people who once they start caring about themselves, then start caring about nature and all of that stuff. But it’s not the only route to change for people. There are different things for different types of people. Now having said that, I’m going to rephrase what you just told me in a slightly different psychological language of the psychology of values. Values is the answer that people give to the question regarding what they care about in life. Values researchers have been asking that question of many people around the world and you get repeatable answers out of that question. These have given rise to researchers coming up with a system of universal values. One of them is called [Shalom H.] Schwartz’s “Map of Basic Human Values.” Now, what has also happened is that other people, other psychologists, other market researchers and so on, have been looking at combining those value-based answers—which is almost like survey research—with other psychological theories including Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs which you probably know about….So, if you map those two together, what it shows is that values-research, combined with a Maslowian developmental mindset, can show up in individual people’s lives as transitions in how they move through the hierarchy of needs and how they also express, in relation to that hierarchy, what they care about in life.
I’ll give you just one of the frameworks. There are many frameworks, but I’ll give you one of them which uses very simple language. It’s been translated via language from marketeers but it’s useful here. It’s a framework that has three categories. The first one is Settlers. Those are people that care about security, safety, locality, being part of a local community, keeping things as they are and so on, and so forth. The second one is Prospectors. Those are people who are motivated by esteem. First, esteem of others. They are interested in looking good in the eyes of others by having a big car, or because I have an important job, or lots of money. Later that can move to wanting self-esteem. Once you’ve got enough of that esteem of others you start doing things for yourself, not for others anymore. The third category is Pioneers. Those are people driven by curiosity and ideas and self-actualisation – and looking inside themselves.
Now, all of us are moving through these cycles as we are growing up, from Settler to Prospector, to Pioneer. Some of us get stuck a little bit. If certain of these Maslowian needs aren’t fulfilled at critical moments in our development we might get stuck in a phase where you’re so easily scared by people coming from outside into your community, etc., that you get stuck in that Settlerdom. Being comfortable in the community of people that you know is important and being a bit xenophobic becomes part of your defining value set. But if in your development you move through that because that basic security and safety of that phase is satisfied, then you can move into the next phase of the Prospector where you become interested in the esteem of others. Most of us as teenagers have that phase where we dress to impress our friends, because we want to be considered nice in some way by the people around us. In that phase you become the proverbial person who starts chasing after money and cars and big houses and important jobs and you can get stuck there too.
But, I already mentioned that if you move through that, and your need for the esteem of others is satisfied, you move to wanting self-esteem. There we see some of those billionaires who start doing things for themselves, they start giving money to charity, lots of money to charity, because they want to do good. They don’t do that just to look good in the eyes of others, but they do that to feel good about themselves. Then finally, if you’ve had enough of that, if you’re secure in your own self-esteem, then you move to that space which I think starts to correspond to that space where you start caring for yourself. So, in those initial phases of that Maslowian developmental path of building up the safety and security, and the esteem in the eyes of others, and your self-esteem, and then getting to that space where you start to really look at yourself to understand your own position in relation to that of others – this is where moral maturity comes into play. Where people first can develop a really strong sense of ethics, but then they develop a pluralistic sense of ethics where they understand that their own sense of ethics isn’t the only one that matters. It is those people, who in the values landscape, are moving from Prospectors to Pioneers, that start caring about their own view of themselves; it’s those people who are currently the ones who are developing the eco-anxiety. Those are the ones who are starting to look at what is happening and feel really disempowered by it. Then, they get stuck in this downward spiral of the horrible things that are happening in the world around them.
The answer to your question then is that it’s almost like, yes, you can’t start caring for the planet until you get to that space where you start looking at yourself—caring for yourself—but as a side effect, because all the pathways to meaningful action seem blocked for you and it looks like not enough is happening in society, etc., so you get immediately dragged into a cycle of anxiety. You can see it in the story of the guy that the article opens with. He said that he’d been trekking around the world. He was all about having these marvellous experiences and he satisfied his needs for self-esteem with those. Then he starts moving into that space where he becomes aware of the consequences of what he had been doing. It’s kind of like a double-edged sword at that moment. The second you end up mentally being capable of starting to care for yourself, by definition you start to care for other things than yourself. Then you get dragged into the maelstrom of eco-anxiety.
Helen: From an IFS perspective you enter into the C categories of how you are and how you experience your being: clear-headed, connected, calm, curious, creative, courageous, confident, compassionate—that state of mind which they call the Self is not anxious. That’s very clear. So, in their vision of things, the people who are experiencing the eco-anxiety are experiencing that because there’s a part protecting them from getting hurt, an exiled part of them; a traumatised part. The trip around the world and all the self-esteem stuff was trying to help to feel comfortable with oneself, one’s place in the world, one’s vision of the world, but nevertheless it didn’t work to assuage the original pain of the exile that was caused way back whenever in childhood. So, you get these people moving through your cycles or your stages in order to try and live, and to escape, to move forward as a person, to grow up actually, but nevertheless, unfortunately for them, the human system has hidden parts of it that still remain child-like. These require healing if they’re truly going to exit into this C space and not fall victim to eco-anxiety. In other words, eco-anxiety is a mistake. It’s a system fault. But it’s not actually what a person is in this vision. So, if they were to have some kind of healing—they find themselves to be eco-anxious and they got some healing of the part that is dealing with, creating or perpetuating, allowing eco-anxiety—then they would then be, let’s call it very loosely a “warrior for change,” without fear, without anxiety. They would just be doing positive action to make a difference, rather than being stuck in a feedback loop of “Oh my gosh, whatever I do, it won’t be enough.”
Kris: So, I think I’ll reframe that because I’m not in full agreement with the fact that there are these things that linger and because they’ve not been resolved those people are now getting stuck in eco-anxiety. The way that I understand this process to work, in that language of values and Maslow, is that you move to that next phase of, let’s call it “inner-awareness building and self-development” when those earlier things have been satisfied. For me, the guy travelling around the world did not stop doing that because he felt it wasn’t dealing with his pain—it could just as well, or maybe even more likely be, that his need for those kinds of experience was now sufficiently satisfied so that he was moving onto the next bit in his life. He was saying “Well, I’ve done this, I’ve done that, it was amazing. What is next on my agenda?” Very naturally people start caring about other things than the things that they’ve already felt safe and secure with.
I think that’s what is happening with these people who do move forwards, who do start paying attention to the consequences of their actions and to ethical questions—they now end up in eco-anxiety (I’m going to make a distinction between young people and people who come to this eco-anxiety a bit later in life—I’ll come to the young people in a second), feeling really scared, or feeling guilty because of what they did earlier in their life. They come to this space and start paying attention to all of these horrific things that are happening in the world. The media serves up more bad things that are happening in the world than in any other time of history we would have been exposed to. Our brains are sponges of that bad stuff hanging around us in the media. We’re absorbing it and we start to think that the world is as bad as the headlines that we’re reading in the newspaper. Against that background and the idea that there is nothing we can do that can deal with the threat of climate change, eco-anxiety sets in. The concern in society is rising and there is no outlet for action. People and the round-the-world-guy from the newspaper article get stuck in a new cycle of feeling powerless.
Helen: So, in the context of the “therapeutic,” that guy as our case study here would find himself becoming overwhelmed. He would be listening to the news, and he would be feeling helpless. Therapeutically the answer would come “You’re not taking care of yourself.” That’s what we need to change. We don’t need to change the climate—for a moment let me just posit that. We don’t need to change your anxiety. We need to change the level of care you are showing yourself, because if you keep watching the news you will become overwhelmed. That will generate an anxious state of mind. That’s not good for the climate, and it is not good for you. So, take better care of yourself in terms of what you expose yourself to. Set out a three-point plan of positive actions you can take for the sake of the maintenance of self-esteem, a sense of being active and useful etc., because these things give you a state of mind which is self-care. Then, once you have repaired your fractured state of mind caused by your exposure to the news and your eco-anxiety, you can then not only feel good and live a decent life, but you can also contribute to the climate in a positive way, because you’ve got the right state of mind to do so. Right now, you’re handicapped and paralysed by your anxiety. Do you see, Kris, how the self-care aspect would come in as an active principle for the climate?
Kris: Yes. If you’ve gone down the rabbit hole where you have started to pay attention to the headlines too much and it’s sucked you into the maelstrom then, yes, you can apply the self-care recipe, as you say, to get you out of that. I do this instinctively. I don’t read Guardian headlines that talk about biodiversity loss and extinction. I see the headlines and my reaction is “I’m not gonna read that because I’ve got a bigger job to do.” So that’s my own self-care mechanism in play. For those people who’ve gone down the rabbit hole, yes, the self-care is the way out of the rabbit hole. Some psychotherapists think that all of us need to go down the rabbit hole before we can start taking climate seriously. I don’t agree with that approach at all. I think that people can tunnel straight towards actions, straight towards doing stuff, that will make them not feel anxious and that will make them not feel powerless. So, there’s self-care, certainly, for those people who’ve entered the maelstrom of anxiety. For those who have not gone down that path, there is a path that takes you straight to a place of not feeling powerless. It’s the path that I took myself, and that I know other people take as well. I meet a lot of people who have not experienced anxiety and have gone straight to the place where they feel they are making a difference.
There’s something else here happening with the younger people. Actually this is perhaps where IFS is becoming really the most useful. For those young people who are going through that Maslowian development in the early teenage years, this I think is the moment that is most critical for that sense of existential threat to get focused onto something. I’ll give an example: whenever I speak to people who are five years older than me, they confess that during the early 80s they would wake up in a sweat at night with the fear of nuclear Holocaust. I think you and I are roughly the same age. We were out of that window. I don’t know if you had those feelings, but I never had them because my critical window for the existential threats to materialise was not open when Reagan was pushing the Russians into the standoff. There were earlier waves of nuclear anxiety in the 70s and 60s and 50s. I went back to that research literature and anxiety about nuclear Holocaust, was in those days, almost as large. It was not as universal [as climate anxiety]—it was more in the US and Russia and Europe. It didn’t exist in Africa and China and all of those places, but it existed in those communities that were really struggling with that question of nuclear weapons. So, there’s a critical development window. For all of these young people who are confronted with climate change within a critical development window, they’re not going through that normal Maslowian safety and security building phase. They’re not getting stuck in becoming climate sceptics—that’s relevant to some of these older Settlers who are climate sceptics for various reasons—but those young people get dragged into an anxiety that is starting to cause all the damage that they will carry with them throughout their lives. The IFS methodology that you described is healing that in people in other circumstances.
This conversation is really useful for me. I’ve mentally been making the distinction between younger and older people coming to eco-anxiety. But your description of IFS, of lingering hurts and wounds that you carry with you—for these young people… Now I’m also getting another thought which is when I say to older people that action and getting involved in stuff is the way out of dealing with the anxiety, I usually get a positive response from them…with younger people they say “yeah but what about my feelings? My feelings are here. What do I do with them?” Then my answer usually is “Well, there are people working on that, it’s not my area of expertise, I’m not a therapist, so for that problem you need to go to therapy.” But now with what you just told me there’s a more important path, or there’s a more important task for the self-care and the therapy within the space of the younger people than there is for the older people. For the older people it’s not wounds of when they were young, it is present wounds that are emerging from looking at the world with different eyes than when you were younger. For the younger people, climate change anxiety is causing all the damage that any other trauma can be causing to a young person in their lives.
Helen: You’re saying that climate change anxiety is harming the younger generation for the long term. The implications are that young people in the future will be stunted, or stuck as you said before—in the Settler phase. IFS as an intervention with this young window of people could enable the next generation to not handicap itself for the rest of their lives, to allow them to jump over the phase of damage, to become productive adults for the sake of climate change. Maybe that is an interesting thing for us to discuss further as a connection, given the severity of the problem that you identify and the potential of IFS as an intervention for such sadness. The issue is to avoid young people creating what IFS calls exiles because of their eco-anxiety at that crucial Maslowian stage of development. Or else the hurt and fear will get buried, potentially causing chaos for the rest of their lives, unless they are lucky enough to get healing at some therapeutic future point. I assume an anxiety response at that stage of their lives with their “feelings” not being addressed might also cause them to become Settlers? Settlers are not those who take action, so that’s a big problem. That’s the Pioneers who are a few stages down the road of safety and security realisation. So, the young people now facing climate change worries are going to get stuck and not go through those stages of maturity. Yikes and crickey, what we need is our youth to all become pioneers! This is a big problem you’re outlining. By implication, I’m playing the part here of saying offering IFS concepts to these eco-anxious youths could enable them to feel the safety and security they need to move forward through the stages and be climate change warriors. Therapeutic assistance for loss of security and safety caused by eco-anxiety in early teenage years is needed. That’s new. It follows that, if this isn’t occurring, we are more doomed than we are right now, given we do hold some hope that the youth will be better than us older ones at trying to sort this mess out?
Kris: Dealing with this eco-anxiety is never going to be the focus of the Climate Action Unit because we are not there to provide therapy. But my personal view is that there isn’t enough therapy in the world to deal with the havoc that is coming our way. I’m focusing on the action. Most of our work is with experts who are working with policy and science and businesses, and who are feeling that eco-anxiety on a personal level and don’t find a way out for it in their professional roles. We are helping them to create—it’s almost like the digging of canals for all of that mental energy that gets created by the climate crisis—to find a useful route towards action. That’s what we are doing and focusing on. But I get dragged so often into conversations about eco-anxiety at the moment. I don’t like most of the therapy that is being described to me because usually it is about just dealing with the emotion, and “staring into the abyss” is how it is sometimes described. I don’t like any of those things, but I did like the self-care aspect of your IFS model.
Helen: IFS isn’t pathologizing. IFS doesn’t label or denigrate. There’s a book by Richard Schwartz, who’s the guy who started it, called “No Bad Parts” (Schwartz, 2021) and that pretty much sums the IFS approach up. It links to A.S. Neill in alternative education saying, a child is born good and then, roughly speaking, their parents mess them up. Also, a brilliant thesis I once examined (Clark, 2018) that said the only way to tackle homophobia was to focus on the positives of what it means for people to be gay: e.g., by pointing out what generous, thoughtful individuals people who are gay can be. Heterosexual people being politically correct and silent as a way to avoid being rude and homophobic wasn’t changing attitudes away from hatred and phobia. The thesis was showing it was just a whitewash. We can translate this principle of focusing on the positives of any given scenario, usually mired in negativity into climate change issues linked to anxiety. You can say the world will be fine, but we need to take care. Erm, I’m not sure the world will be fine…but we do need to take care. The only way is to tackle climate change—according to the ideas of that thesis, of Schwartz’s no bad Parts, of Neill’s insistence people are originally good—is to focus on the positives. It’s a technique for changing mindsets. This is how IFS can help quickly and accurately target climate anxiety: it tells and teaches people they are ok—they have no bad Parts—and can thus be positive. In other words that they can take positive action because that’s who they are. This would launch them into Pioneer status.
Kris: That explains why I intuitively liked what you were saying. In the Climate Action Unit we are also focusing on the positives, but we are focusing on the articulation of the positive things that are happening to tackle climate change. We’re not focusing on the positives for the sake of therapy but to create a self-fulfilling prophecy in society that we are going to resolve this. Because the outcome of handling it as a negativity leads to the self-fulfilling prophecy of Merton where things become a reality because we keep on repeating them to ourselves. For example, in the 1980s because of Thatcher or Reagan and all the economic theories that they were listening to the world started to tell itself that greed was good and that we needed to be greedy and that led us to 30, 40 years of rampant capitalism as a self-fulfilling prophecy because we are not uniquely greedy and we are not uniquely selfless—there’s a push and pull between those two. I’m a big fan of focusing on the positive.
Helen: Before you go, I want you to know that IFS is seemingly quick. That’s what first impressed me about it: the speed at which it moves. You’re looking for quick solutions. Compared to other therapeutic approaches IFS seems quick.
Kris: Are there any IFS practitioners working on climate change?
Helen: About climate I don’t know, but once this piece is published, they’ll come out of the woodwork, so I can let you know.
Kris: You almost have to put an ask at the bottom of the article and say, “if you’re an IFS practitioner and you’ve started to work on climate, get in touch because we want to pull your experiences together.” And then you do a special issue on the kind of things that are happening. And then if they don’t come out of the woodwork, there is a job to be done, basically.
Kris: Really super-exciting. Do keep prodding me with questions and conversations about this. We’ll find a way to make this work.
Clark, N. (2018). The LGBT+ Pupil as the abject: An ethnographic exploration of subjectivity and discourse in UK secondary schools. Chester University, Chester.
Schwartz, R. (2021). No Bad Parts: Healing trauma and restoring wholeness with the internal family systems model. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.
Helen E. Lees, PhD, is Editor of PARTS & SELF and based in Italy.