Picture the scene: It’s Monday night and you’ve just made your weekly pilgrimage to the supermarket. You’ve made the journey on foot, picked up a handful of locally-sourced, in-season veggies, and are headed to the checkout when suddenly you realize you’ve forgotten your reusable tote. Again. Guiltily, you pack your groceries into a plastic bag, knowing that you’ve missed an opportunity to do less harm to the planet.
This is eco-guilt—the feeling you get when you could have done something to help the environment but didn't, whether consciously or by accident. It can also creep up on you when making an array of environmentally harmful decisions, like forgetting to bring your KeepCup to work, failing to compost, or jetting off abroad.
“We all know there's so much more we could do to support the climate crisis if we had more time, money, and information,” says Pam Barbato, CEO of Action Net Zero. “This is why we experience eco-guilt. Even if we're doing great things, we think it's not enough because the climate crisis is a global crisis.”
Eco-guilt can actually motivate us to make some positive changes, but when it’s mixed with shame, it can have the opposite effect. “[Guilt] can make us become accountable for our actions and change our behavior in order to align with our values or universal moral standards,” says clinical psychologist Patapia Tzotzoli, CPsychol. “Shame, however, is a painful feeling because it leads people to believe that there is something wrong with them. It’s this feeling that leads to inaction.”
Fear-inducing climate crisis headlines are inescapable and with constant reminders that each of us needs to change our daily habits ASAP, you might find you’re chastising yourself for not doing things perfectly. So how can you nix eco-guilt, recognize the sustainable strides you’re already making, and embrace micro-habits that create a positive impact on our planet?
1. Know your carbon negatives
“Striking the balance between climate activism and trying to be perfect is all about knowing what your big carbon negatives are—whether that’s as an individual, a family, or in your place of work,” says Barbato.
That means looking at simple and effective changes to your daily routine that reduce your carbon footprint and create the biggest environmental impact. It could be cutting meat out of your diet two days a week, biking or taking public transit to work instead of driving, or turning your home heating down a notch.
Barbato says having a target can keep you on track—and may help you recognize just how much you’re already doing. “If we need to reduce carbon emissions in the world by half, then a good way to approach this would be to try and halve your own emissions,” she says. If you’re completely clueless about the size of your carbon footprint, the WWF calculator can help you work it out.
2. Embrace discomfort
If you're scarfing down a steak dinner, you may also try to squash feelings of guilt. But, says Dr. Tzotzoli, that helps neither you nor the planet. “By suppressing our discomfort, we end up giving more power to our emotions and as a result, this leads us to negative thoughts and unhelpful behavioral choices,” she says.
Instead of pushing away those feelings of guilt, Dr. Tzotzoli suggests leaning into them. “Being curious as to why we feel this way helps us learn valuable lessons and take appropriate actions that bring balance back into our world,” she says. In other words, when you do a little emotional digging, eco-guilt can be a good thing by helping you clarify your goals going forward.
3. Create a sustainable routine
Climate activism isn’t all “go big or go home” and no, you don’t have to completely overhaul your lifestyle to have an impact. According to both experts, micro-habits can really make a difference.
In fact, even seemingly insignificant acts like flicking the lights off in your home and ensuring your devices aren’t left on standby can go a long way to cutting your carbon footprint.
Make a mental note of some of the ways you’re already supporting the climate cause, and then find ways you can do more. Barbato lists ditching single-use plastics, having meat- and dairy-free days, and renting or repairing your clothes as small ways you can cut your carbon emissions.
Next, share what you’re doing. Barbato says sharing your environmental achievements with others is one of the best ways to nix eco-guilt. “It’s a reminder that you’re doing a lot more than you think,” she notes.
4. Make room for failure
No matter how committed you are to effecting change, you’re going to "slip up" at one point or another. Perfection is simply impossible. Cutting yourself some slack can be incredibly freeing.
“Allowing for some variability in your plan is important when you cannot follow through,” Dr. Tzotzoli says. “Giving yourself the flexibility to miss out on an action but returning to it soon after helps you avoid feeling ashamed and abandoning the objective entirely.”
Remember this: Progress isn’t always linear. It’s consistency that counts, so keep going.
5. Measure your progress
Set a goal—and mark your accomplishments as you get closer to reaching it. "It’s important to set specific criteria to measure your progress," says Dr. Tzotzoli, "as this can help you feel excited and enjoy a sense of achievement when you follow through on your plan."
The more you meet those criteria, the more intrinsically motivated you’ll feel to keep up your efforts, which in turn will keep those feelings of eco-guilt at bay. Start with a small goal, like walking or carpooling to work once or twice a week, or keeping reusable bags in your car trunk to use when shopping, and then reward yourself when you achieve it.
Whether you’re a committed climate activist or someone who’s only starting to understand sustainability, it’s easy to obsess over every choice you make while failing to recognize the progress you’re already making. But if you've made it this far into the story, you clearly care about the planet—so don't let eco-guilt stop you from taking action.
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