The world needs you to change it but burning yourself out will not change the world.
Adam Hammes talks in his book stress-free sustainability about how passionate environmentalists easily drive themselves into burnout. How our emotions affect our actions and how you could and why you should pick your battles. While reading this, I hope you can also reflect on your own life: Are you expecting too much of yourself? Are you feeling like every moment of your life needs to matter for your cause? In which things are you in contempt, curiosity, and commitment stages? (Hammes, 2015)
When it comes to us humans, we always have to remember that we’re emotional beings. When people think about environmentalists, the first image they get in their heads is not that positive. The word environmentalist is even being used in a negative tone. This comes from passionate people pushing the wrong people too hard and not communicating right. In the book Stress-free Sustainability, Adam asks you a question: When was the first time you felt threatened? It’s about being afraid of not being accepted as who you are, maybe having to hide your thoughts. (Hammes, 2015) This is something I’m familiar with, I did not share my thoughts on politics for my family for some time, because I was afraid of turning them away. I felt like my thoughts would not be understood. My sister would even make condescending comments about the political people I looked up to.
It’s like you’re battling with saying how you see things and risking not fitting in or playing it safe. You might feel guilty for not changing the world at that moment. Over time that battle might flip around, and you find your voice and start telling your thoughts. You kind of burst and it might seem that you’re never quiet again. You were silenced before so now that you’ve found your voice you start babbling in every turn you can. You feel like you did not work for your passion and express yourself before so now you have to make up for the lost time. Anger might replace your fear. You get pride for sharing your thoughts. You might even say that you’re being brutally honest, and people just can’t handle it sometimes. Adam asks again a question: When was a time you exploded your thoughts out and it backfired? (Hammes, 2015) I again have an example from my family: I started to share my thoughts and feelings about politics and even climate change more. My sister was sharing her political views and I answered back, very strongly with my views on the topic. It turned out to be a very heated argument that ended up us not talking to each other for a while. I explained to myself that my sister is just too shortsighted, too old-fashioned that she does not understand.
Adam talks about how oftentimes very passionate people when they get angry and through that anger try to spread their message, end up pushing people further away from their cause. This is because people feel attacked and when people feel attacked, they either flee or fight back, but they most certainly will not agree with you. You might accidentally end up making other people feel not enough and shame them, which will not lead to the desired outcome. This is how you violate the trust between you two and will not make any progress on making the other person see your point of view. This is why so many people have a negative view of environmentalists. Adam also reminds us that it’s okay to get angry, but not to be angry all the time. Wasting energy on anger will burn you out quickly and hold you back from making any actual progress when wanting to change the world. (Hammes, 2015)
Adam talks a lot about courage and what that is. It’s not just having the courage to stand up and speak, but also to sit down and listen. You need to listen to understand the person or community you wish to change for the better. It’s not about you, it’s about the community. You need to listen as much as you can and then try to find solutions. When talking to a person who is disagreeing with you on what you feel is important regarding sustainability, for example, listen to them. Try to find something in common with them. What values or interests do you share? Don’t focus on the differences, that will get you nowhere. You need to come from a place of acceptance and courage, not from anger and fear. Get to know yourself first, who are you, why are you doing this? If you seem to find all the negative in things, ask yourself: Is anything or anyone ever good enough for you? (Hammes, 2015)
Because global warming and the environmental crisis are urgent, it seems to us that we need to do everything here and now. We feel like we need to push, push and push! But if we work louder and more forcefully, we end up going slower and worse, eventually backward. Change takes time and as humans, we change very slowly. It can be very annoying to someone who already sees the danger of global warming, but for someone not believing in global warming, it’ll take time to come around. Adam talks about three stages: Contempt, Curiosity, and Commitment. (Hammes, 2015)
Contempt: A person who is against your worldview.
It is natural for us humans to protect our worldviews. We don’t want to feel like we’ve been idiots for believing in something. Our brain has been designed to protect our views. New and different though or ideas will be seen as a danger and thus rejected at first, fought against even. We label the people believing in this worldview as crazy and stupid. People in this stage are not ready to be convinced of your cause. Their brain is in defense mode and will not hear what you have to say. (Hammes, 2015)
Well, what can you do? You can help them to slowly move to the next stage which is curiosity. How do you help them there? Well first, you need to do what was mentioned earlier, try to find some common ground, shared values, interests, etc. Try to listen to them and understand where they are coming from. Why do they think the way they do? Do not attack or take part in an argument because this will turn them away. You need to put your cause in the backseat for a second and focus on building a relationship with them. You can show them the problem exists but avoid making them feel stupid. Try to make information available to them and let them decide whether to look into it or not. You can introduce them to people who used to think the way they did, or you can model the desired behavior yourself. You can also eventually start sharing your personal stories because no one can argue with those, they are yours.(Hammes, 2015)
In what area are you in this stage? How does it feel? What explains it to you?
I used to be very much against the idea that drinking milk would be harming our environment. I had been drinking milk since I was a little kid, and it was something very normal for me. It was something I even valued: To drink Finnish natural milk. When first in some schoolbook was mentioned the fact that X amount of pollution is caused by the cows, I laughed. I thought the person writing that schoolbook must be crazy. So now we need to kill all the cows, so they won’t destroy our world? This is literally how I saw it. I pushed the entire thought out of my head and did not want to have anything to do with people who would talk about it. I felt like I was surrounded by crazy people. It felt like my view of the world, my values were in danger and I needed to protect them. I explained to myself that our entire family has been drinking milk since forever and lots of it too. In the ads, milk was advertised as healthy for you and people had been drinking milk for hundreds of years at least. Why all of a sudden it would be not ecological?
Curiosity: A person who is willing to learn about your views.
Once we get inside our head that thought: could our worldview have been wrong all along? It is a very unnerving experience and in the back of our minds, we still think are we being fooled? People in this stage start to think about how this other world view would look like in action. They start to look for more information from people and sources they trust. This is why building trust with them is important to your cause. If people trust you, they are willing to see you as a reliable source when they enter the stage of curiosity. Once again be a good listener, offer them resources, information, and possibilities they would like to have. Don’t give them all the answers, because part of this stage is for the person to make their research too. Do not push them, because they are still very uncertain about their beliefs, so you might scare them away. Feed their curiosity by sharing your experiences and connecting them with your network of people and resources that could help them find the answers they seek. Remember: you are not there to fix them. Give them opportunities to try out themselves and feel proud. (Hammes, 2015)
Let’s get back to the milk case. I found my way eventually to the stage of curiosity. I started to look for more information. So many sources around me had started to talk about it, I thought there could be some truth to it. I did not want to talk to anyone about it. I felt a bit ashamed that what if I was wrong all along and would have to admit that to everyone, I had been so vocal about my views before. I guess you could say fear of losing your face. As I said I made research, read articles, and listened to ecological head figures talk about it. Slowly I had to admit that it made sense.
Commitment: A person who is open to action and first-hand experience.
When the needed research is done, we move to the stage of commitment. In here we are ready to give it a try so to say. We have been able to adapt this new view to our values without breaking them completely. Your view of the world makes sense, but with new extensions now. In this stage, people have seen that the possible threat they had before was an opportunity to grow. their mind can ease a little. They don’t have to be in constant battle anymore. They want to try out how the change would feel like in practice. This is where you can be an encouraging voice. Don’t leave them at this stage because they still need your support. Help with modifying their surroundings to fit this new view of the world. This is like the fun part because you get to explore your new common views together. Help them by removing barrios to their success and build positive support systems for them. (Hammes, 2015)
Again, with the milk case. I’m now in this commitment stage but at the very beginning of it. I’ve slowly started to use less cow milk, I have not given it up completely, but I’m replacing it on things that feel comfortable for me just now. I have almond milk for coffee and cereal and coconut milk for smoothies. I’ve started to replace some of the milk I’d drink with food for example with water sometimes. I can now have discussions with people who saw the milk case before me without feeling ashamed anymore. I’m finding new ways to improve myself on this matter.
What I loved about the book was when Adam says that: Not every conversation has to make a difference. This was about how often passionate people, especially the ones passionate about sustainability, can burn themselves out quickly by thinking that if they’re not changing the world every time, they talk to someone, they are a failure. You start to feel like you are running out of fuel. You might feel like you don’t have the freedom to choose, but you have to influence everyone and everything all the time. Maybe think about if the reflection of that conversation and interaction is leaving you feeling good or not? If you always correct people in every turn, you end up sucking the fun out of life and make those people resent you. You might mean good but meaning good can go wrong. Having to always influence someone in every conversation becomes exhausting and makes it feel like a job. You should be able to choose your battles wisely. It’s much better to influence one person that turns away hundreds. When you influence, make sure it’s in a situation and done in a way that you can get your point across. See in which stage that person is in, how can you influence them, or should you simply focus on someone else? You need to accept how things are and focus your energy on the future and finding solutions, not being stuck in the past. (Hammes, 2015)
One thing Adam mentions is family. He says that we have this false belief that if we don’t change the views and influence our own family and friends, we are a failure to our cause. This is what he describes as the recopy for a disaster. Putting your passion in the middle of your intimate relationship is a very bad idea. It’s much more important that you focus on having a good, healthy, and strong relationship with your loved ones. This brings happiness to you and calms you down. It’s what creates the base for you from which you can go out and change the world. If your intimate relationships are damaged, that will affect how you see all people and will prevent you from making any difference. Don’t see your family as an extension of your ego. You are not there to fix your family. No matter if someone would judge you by your family not living according to your values. Those people are not worth the time and energy it’d take to get them on board with your cause. It’s about focusing your energy right on the right people, the right communities, and working smarter. (Hammes, 2015)
I cried when I listened to this part of the book. For the longest time, I’ve felt like I’m a failure because my family does not see the world through my eyes. I’ve felt like I can’t be around my sister because she does not believe what I believe in. I’ve avoided her or confronted her very strongly and, in any case, it has not made any difference. After listening to this, I started to cry because I felt like a very heavy burden had been lifted off my shoulders. I did not have to fight with my own family to fix them. I could just simply enjoy our shared time together and not argue all the time. I don’t have to feel like a failure for not getting my sister on board with my world views. I can simply love her and spent time with her talking about the things we have in common, which are much more than what I remembered. I was so blinded by the differences between us that I already started to feel disconnected from my entire family because of it. I can focus my energy on other people when it comes to changing the world and just love my family as it is.
An interesting thought Adam also had was celebrating when you turn someone off. You can learn from it, think about what you did wrong, how could you improve. It is very comforting to hear the words that you don’t have to do everything. You can focus on the things you can change. The things that you feel most passionate about are the ones you should be working towards through your creativity. Be willing to let go of things that don’t matter. (Hammes, 2015) I think it was very important to note that if you burn yourself out by pushing yourself too much to make change constantly you will end up in burnout and end up helping no one and rather damaging the world. This will hurt your cause and yourself. We’re all works in progress and so is our fight for sustainability. The best part is that we don’t have to save the world alone, we can do that piece by piece together.
Hammes, A. 2015. Stress-Free Sustainability. Leverage your Emotions, Avoid Burnout, and Influence Anyone. Audiobook. Audible.com.