Anthony Rankin Wilson

Psychotherapy and the Earth

Who IS The Patient? Part III
Posted 27 September 2013 by Anthony Wilson |

His fear that I would use this against him as evidence of my environmental superiority was not fully realized so he was cushioned from sinking into well-known states of gross inferiority. His cohesion was enhanced. This therapeutic experience has remained an oft visited reference point for him where, as Frank puts it, “you put me put me before your beliefs...I knew you were upset...I felt like I existed in myself...I didn’t have to fix it for you...”.

Since, Frank has been able to speak more of his rattlesnake remorse without feeling significantly diminished and inferior. He has even begun to open to his own identification with the snake as a way to access how he felt when facing his father’s sudden enraged attacks. However, as much as this is a good news vignette, my environmentally-minded self remains vigilant with Frank knowing that without my sensitivity to his patterns of accommodation, his gradual autonomous shift towards authentic self and environmental concern will be impeded.

This vignette illustrates that analysts and psychotherapists need to bring an increased sensitivity to how their environmental beliefs and concerns impact the relational field, particularly with patients with pervasive patterns of pathological accommodation. These patients could have yet another reason to idealize, hate, and distance the analyst who makes no secret of their environmental concern, while configuring themselves into false shapes to stave off relational ruptures and disintegration.

The environmentally-minded psychotherapist listens for the voice of the earth. With the earth in mind we will be more able to link the attacks on external environments with what may be occurring within patients internal environments. My patient Kim, who’s dream of having to experience the forest “before it was gone”, not only associated this image with her repeated experiences of premature separation from her mother and the resultant expectation in her therapy that I would “kick her out before she was ready”, but also with her felt concern for the disappearing landscapes around her. She recalled in this session how viscerally disturbed, and almost sick to her stomach, she’d been after seeing a clear-cut landscape (or “moon scape” as she described it) in British Columbia.

I have little doubt that Kim included the eco-interpretation in the session to hopefully please me, and we’ve spoken about this trap in the work. However, there seemed to be a clear demarcation between the personal-historical and the environmental in the tone of her narrative. There was a sense of differentiation between the two. She suggested further that though her mother-wound likely yielded susceptibility to experiences of premature loss, perhaps this had its’ painful advantage of making her more open to the reality of the worlds’ myriad environmental losses. This notion seems to have redeemed her mother-wound in some way that enabled it to transform from being solely a debilitating narrow symbol of deficiency and disconnection to a more complex symbol of connection to the wider world.

Questions and Listening

The environmentally-minded therapist has a wider repertoire of concern evidenced in possibly unthought questions like, “how much time in the week do you spend out of doors in nature?” Or, “do you remember a special place in nature; and what did you experience?” Or, “what of your bonds with animals; with plants?” Or, “what was the childhood landscape of your parents and did they speak about it, and how? What are their stories of the land?”

Such questions are subject, of course, to timing and context. It is through such sensitive, well-timed interest that we may help create a safe space for our clients to verbalize, and through this articulation, validate their intimate, formative experiences with the more-than-human. A psychologist wrote in a June 2010 IARPP seminar post:

“my practice has been transformed in recent years by experiencing the breadth of selfobject support some clients have received in nature...Once I had twigged that some people have had significant relationships with nature from an early age, and it is that that has kept them sane, I became actively open to any mention of nature in the consulting room.”

A number of environmentally-minded clinicians write of the need to hear patients‘ accounts of experiences in and with the MTHW as authentic in their own right and not just as a degraded replacement of a human selfobject. Analyst and author Jerome Bernstein writes of the importance of not interpreting such experiences, “certainly not in the moment...[and] to hold [such] an experience that can feel between language...To not seek the comfort of rational understanding, but to come to some kind of knowing through a holding and wonderment.”110


Another IARPP seminar participant who works with children wrote:

“I have been writing about the effect of the environmental crisis on the mental health of children, taking notes immediately after sessions that are particularly poignant. So far I have not read any posts about this topic. But perhaps we do not want to know the minds of those who will inherit this very difficult situation, dealing with it (hopefully) long after we’re gone...”.

This same participant added:

“Children have never before been enlisted in a project as daunting as rescuing their very means of existence...Children currently are aware of other children so allergic to environmental allergens that their lives depend upon avoidance. I think few of us my age saw the environment as potentially toxic in this way....How should we respond to our child patients’ environmental anxieties? Are they different from our own?”

The writings of Richard Louv (“Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder”) are pertinent here but beyond the scope of this paper. But I did want to include some mention of our young who will inherit from us our attitudes of denial, or perhaps, some of our awakening capacities. Our themes are clearly no less relevant to children and those that work with them than they are to work with adolescents or adults, though how we handle these issues clinically will obviously differ.

And certainly these themes are highly relevant to our adolescent youth who will likely be living in a world of increasingly degraded environments and will be called to significantly adjust their lifestyles. It may be vital to help them work through de-idealization experiences and mourn what they thought was their future. For example, following their de-idealization of eco-heroes and sustainability’s progress, they could split from admiration and hope and turn towards the negative in rage, depressive apathy, and blame. Psychologist Tim Kasser asks: “ are we going to prevent that sort of move - just giving up on nature as young people begin to encounter the struggles that they are no doubt going to encounter?”111

Self Criticism and Grandiosity

It’s likely that our patients will increasingly bring us their angst about the state of the natural world and their complicity in its’ abuse. As well as our listening to, recognizing, and serving a holding function for their anxieties and valid concern, they may need us to see their self-torment and help them moderate harsh self-criticism and states of despairing helplessness. Patients may express such affect laden statements as “I should be doing more...nothing I do will make any come I’m not doing anything?...I’m going to make a big difference.” Guilt, impotent outrage, self attacks, and grandiose expectations of saving the world require our attunement, otherwise they may spiral towards intensified overwhelm, depression, and the paralysis of apathy.

Thomas Doherty

Doherty is a Portland ecopsychologist with a practice he calls “sustainable self”. Some of his latest work is published in the May-June 2011 special issue of the American Psychologist - “Psychology and Global Climate Change”. His 4-stage model of addressing environmental concerns with clients - 1) recognition and validation; 2)centering and acceptance; 3) nurturing and celebration; 4) grounded action - neatly sums up his approach:

“...impulsively moving into lifestyle changes or activism regarding environmental issues can be counterproductive without a better understanding and acceptance of the personal meaning of these issues and plans for self-care...It is important to note that this is not about mental health professionals pushing an agenda. The assumption is that we may be dealing with individuals who are experiencing consciousness-raising regarding environmental issues, dissonance between their lifestyle and developing ecological values, and possibly clinically significant health symptoms....It is not necessarily our job to educate people about environmental issues...but it may be unethical to avoid or mistakenly redirect clients away from these issues.”112


identity: “Being oneself or itself and not another; who or what one is...”113

Tom Compton and Tim Kasser in their book, “Meeting Environmental Challenges: The Role of Human Identity”, offer some important reminders for the aspiring environmentally-minded clinician. They write of identity being comprised of two elements - 1) a person’s values; and 2) their goals. They also focus on how we cope with experiences of environmental threat. The authors highlight:

“with regard to values, one of the things we know from the research is that the same values and goals that tend to promote positive environmental outcomes are the same values and goals that also tend to be associated with personal well-being. On the flip side, the same values and goals which undermine ecological outcomes also tend to be associated with being less happy and having more distress.

“...and...many of the same kinds of defense mechanisms...that people engage in that are problematic for the environment - things like denial or...projection or...apathy - not only hurt the environment, but they are the ones that most psychotherapists recognize as also damaging to people’s well-being.”114

“Who or what one is” in our culture is pervasively defined by consumption, economic growth and success, and individualism. The authors challenge this socio-cultural norm and propose “a different kind of identity that will help us feel meaningful and have relationships and be sustainable...”.115 How do we clinicians foster with sensitive sophistication such a needed identity shift towards a sustainable self-concept or identity: day by day with ourselves, session by session with our patients?

Rosemary Randall provides an illustrative account of one such symbol of identity, the car:

“Take for example a young woman whose car is her cocoon. She has chosen it for its color and style. She fills it with personal comforts - her CDs, a favorite rug, a mascot, water bottle, and tissues within easy reach, radio tuned to her favorite station. Snug inside, she feels safe. At the start of the day, it helps her make the transition from sleepy, child-like dependence to independent, responsible, working woman. At the end of the day, its’ privacy and containment comfort her from the bruises of working life. Its’ outward gleam and shine speak of her success. Its inner warmth and comfort acknowledge her fragility. It both protects and expresses her identity. The suggestions that she might take the bus or lift-share with colleagues will not be appealing.”116

I included this quote in its’ entirety because of the descriptive detail that highlights how delicate and complex the environmentally-minded clinical territory is for us. We must understand how deeply rooted our identities are in early 21st century socio-cultural patterns of belief and behavior. Decentering from these will enable us to make our own shifts toward sustainability. Making the effort to groundedly embody these shifts in our personal and professional lives will benefit the psychological and physical health of our patients’ who come to us with their personal suffering, and as human expressions of social and ecological dis-ease.


Once Again, Loss

My mother died in the midst of writing this paper, 8 days shy of her 99th birthday. Grieving my last surviving parent has opened me once again to the stark experience of deaths’ absoluteness. Strands of denial continue to weave their way through my mind and heart: “how is it possible that I can’t talk hockey with can it be that I won’t hear her living voice again?”

This current experience of grieving my personal mother has also mercilessly, and mercifully, opened the door wider to other losses. My father. Grandparents. A marriage. Friends and pets who are no more. Formerly-imagined futures. Landscapes I no longer walk. Woodlots paved over. The ongoing news of other species diminished and disappearing.

It seems there is one great grief river fed by human and more-than-human tributaries.

I am realizing anew the importance of opening to this grief and articulating my lived experience of loss. I am reaching to realize, without idealized sentiment, the significance of telling the story of the river and the valley and mother loss, no matter how anticipated, and the story of losing Mother Earths’ ecological certainties, no matter how unimaginable. Such realizing must be necessary for the soft, slow dissolution of shock and denial...and for a freshly imagined future.



Will we hear the credible news of these great losses? Will we bear witness? Will we dare to further imagine what blind destructiveness we are capable of? Will we dare to re-imagine the future? Will we ask ourselves what we stand for and answer with truthful depth? Will we consult our bodies about what lifestyle makes sense to us?

And so the grief river must wind its’ way though our hearts and minds as we continue to turn towards the reality of environmental crisis and its’ many faces.
And so the grief river must wind its’ way through our hearts and minds as we confront the defenses that are part of our lifestyles.
And so the grief river must wind its’ way through our hearts and minds as we face the reality of losing the comfort of who we thought we were.

We need each other. We need to talk with each other of these losses. We need to feel and think of these things. And we need to feel and think about these things together.

We analysts and psychotherapists have much to offer the collective tasks of grieving and transitioning to a sustainable future. Through our passionate search for depth understandings of healing relatedness we can become a voice of, and for, the earth.


So, who IS the patient?

When you sit in session with a patient, or a couple, a family, or a group, and during some of your clinical theory reflections, I have a hope, maybe it’s a prayer of our planet, that you will permit that question to persist and awaken.




1 Lertzman, R., ‘Shrinking’ the Climate Problem, Dot Earth, The New York Times, Oct. 28, 2010.

2 Bodnar, S., Wasted and Bombed: Clinical Enactments of a Changing Relationship to the Earth, Psychoanalytic Dialogues, July 2008, p. 484.

3 Atwood, GE, Stolorow, RD, Contexts of Being: The Intersubjective Foundations of Psychological Life, The Analytic Press, 1992, p. 49.

4 Wallin, DJ, Attachment in Psychotherapy, The Guilford Press, 2007, pp 82-83.

5 Nicholsen, SW, The Love of Nature and the End of the World: The Unspoken Dimensions of Environmental Concern, The MIT Press, 2002, p. 47.

6 Atwood, Stolorow, Contexts of Being, p. 7.

7 Nicholsen, The Love of Nature..., p. 49.

8 ibid., p. 49.

9 Macy, J., World as Lover, World as Self, Parallax Press, 2007, p. 150.

10 Jensen, D., How Shall I LIve my Life? On Liberating the Earth From Civilization, PM Press, 2008, p. 239.

11 ibid., p. 213.

12 ibid., p. 222.

13 Bodnar, Wasted and Bombed...,pp. 497-498.

14 Bernstein, JS, Living in the Borderland: The Evolution of Consciousness and the Challenge of Healing Trauma, Routledge, 2005, p. 9.

15 ibid., p. xv.

16 ibid., p. 81.

17 Diamond, J., Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail or Succeed, Penguin Books, 2005, p. 490.

18 ibid., p. 495.

19 McKibben, B., Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, Alfred A. Knopf, 2010, p. 10.

20 State of the World, Into a Warming World, The Worldwatch Institute, W.W. Norton and Company, 2009, p. 6.

21 Ayres, E., God’s Last Offer: Negotiating for a Sustainable Future, Four Walls Eight Windows, 1999, p. 24.

22 ibid., pp. 12-13.

23 CBC on-line News, Climate change science sound: researchers, May 6, 2010.

24 Harvey, F., Worst ever carbon emissions leave climate on the brink,, May 29, 2011, p. 1.

25 ibid., p. 3.

26 Mitchell, A., Sea Sick: The Global Ocean in Crisis, McClelland and Stewart, 2009, p.8

27 ibid., p. 11.

28 ibid., p. 12.

29 ibid., p. 12.

30 ibid., p. 8.

31 ibid., pp. 90-91.

32 LaChapelle, D., Sacred Land, Sacred Sex, Rapture of the Deep: Concerning Deep Ecology and Celebrating Life, Kivaki Press, 1988, p. 10.

33 Roszak, T., Gomes, ME, Kanner, AD, (ed.), Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind, Sierra Club Books, 1995, p. 6.

34 Roszak, T., The Voice of the Earth: An Exploration of Ecopsychology, Simon and Schuster, 1992, p. 245.

35 Roszak, Gomes, Kanner, (ed.), Ecopsychology: Restoring..., p. 21.

36 Jensen, How Shall I Live My Life?, p. 53.

37 Roszak, The Voice of the Earth, p. 320.

38 Buzzel, L., Chalquist, C., (ed.) Ecotherapy: Healing With Nature in Mind, Sierra Club Books, 2009, p. 36.

39 Roszak, Voice of the Earth, p. 321.

40 ibid., p. 321.

41 Smith, DB, Is There an Ecological Unconscious?, NY, January 31, 2010.

42 Fisher, A., Radical Ecopsychology: Psychology in the Service of Life, SUNY Press, 2002, p.xiv.

43 ibid., pp. xiv-xv.

44 Freud, S., Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. J. Strachey, W.W.Norton, 1961, p. 14.

45 Roszak, The Voice of the Earth, p. 17.

46 Shepard, P., Nature and Madness, Univ. of Georgia Press, 1982, p. 1.

47 Jensen, D., How Shall I Live My Life?..., pp. 54-55.

48 Freud, S., The Future of an Illusion, W.W. Norton, 1961, pp. 15-16.

49 Rust, Mary-Jayne, Climate on the Couch: Unconscious Processes in Relation to Our Environmental Crisis, Psychotherapy and Politics International 6(3): 2008, p. 161.

50 Roszak, Gomes, Kanner, (ed.), Ecopsychology: Restoring..., p. 56.

51 ibid., p. 59.

52 ibid., p. 60.

53 ibid., p. 61.

54 ibid., p. 61.

55 ibid., p. 66.

56 ibid., p. 67.

57 Lertzman, R., The Myth of Apathy, Ecologist, June 19, 2008, pp. 16-17.

58 Searles, H., Countertransference and Related Subjects, International Universities Press, 1979, p. 229.

59 ibid., p. 232.

60 ibid., p. 232.

61 ibid., pp. 232-233.

62 ibid., p. 234.

63 ibid., p. 237.

64 Atwood, Stolorow, Contexts of Being..., p. 8.

65 Jensen, How Shall I Live..., p. 217.

66 Buirski, P., Haglund, P., Making Sense Together: The Intersubjective Approach to Psychotherapy, Jason Aronson, 2001, xiii.

67 Brandchaft, B., Doctors, S., Sorter, D., Toward An Emancipatory Psychoanalysis: Brandchaft’s Intersubjective Vision, Routledge, 2010, p. 223.

68 Roszak, Voice of the Earth, p. 320.

69 ibid., p. 302.

70 Brandchaft, Toward an Emancipatory..., p. 223.

71 Atwood, Stolorow, Contexts of Being..., p. 35.

72 ibid., p. 35.

73 Brandchaft, Toward An Emancipatory..., p. 223.

74 Roszak, Gomes, Kanner, (ed.), Ecopsychology..., p. 107.

75 Atwood, Stolorow, Contexts of Being..., p. 35.

76 Brandchaft, Toward An Emancipatory..., p. 224.

77 Atwood, Stolorow, Contexts of Being..., p. 35.

78 Brandchaft, Toward An Emancipatory..., p. 224.

79 ibid., p. 229.

80 ibid., p. 229.

81 ibid., p. 232.

82 Atwood, Stolorow, Contexts of Being..., p. 27.

83 Shepard, Nature and Madness, p. 7.

84 Jensen, How Shall I Live..., p. 240.

85 Atwood, Stolorow, Contexts of Being..., p. 41.

86 ibid., p. 47.

87 Buzzell, Chalquist, (ed.), Ecotherapy..., p. 88.

88 ibid., pp. 240-241.

89 ibid., p. 124.

90 Bodnar, Wasted and..., p. 484.

91 Buzzell, Chalquist, Ecotherapy.... p. 125.

92 ibid., pp. 125-126.

93 ibid., p. 126.

94 ibid., p. 126.

95 ibid., p. 127.

96 ibid., p. 127.

97 ibid., p. 128.

98 Randall, R., Loss and Climate Change: The Cost of Parallel Narratives, The Ecologist, September 2009, p. 119.

99 ibid., p. 119.

100 ibid., p. 118.

101 Gale Dictionary of Psychoanalysis,

102 Weintrobe, S., On Runaway Greed and Climate Change Denial: A Psychoanalytic Perspective, paper - IARPP June 2010 web seminar, p. 4.

103 Freyd, Jennifer, Denial, Wikipedia, Sept. 29, 2011.

104 Bodnar, Wasted and..., p. 484.

105 ibid., p. 486.

106 ibid., p. 509.

107 Buzzell, Chalquist (ed.), Ecotherapy..., p. 64.

108 ibid., p. 68.

109 Brandchaft, Toward an Emancipatory..., p. 245.

110 Bernstein, Living in the Borderland..., p. 73.

111 Doherty, T., Kasser, T., Crompton, T., Ecopsychology Roundtable: Identity, Well-Being, and Sustainability, Ecopsychology, Dec. 2009, Vol. 1, No. 4, p.172.

112 Doherty, T., Nurturing the Sustainable Self: Talking to clients about environmental issues, The Oregon Psychologist, 25, p. 17.

113 Gage Canadian Dictionary, Gage, 1983.

114 Doherty, Kasser, Crompton, Ecopsychology Roundtable..., p. 170.

115 ibid., p. 173.

116 Randall, Loss and Climate Change..., p. 120.


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