Anthony Rankin Wilson

Psychotherapy and the Earth

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

English psychotherapist Nick Totton wrote about apathy and the underlying cause of overwhelm in several posts during the IARPP online seminar. I agree with his belief that many are deeply affected by the environmental crisis either directly, or indirectly through the now steady flow of information about the various symptoms of the crisis, like climate change. So it seems that apathy is not about not feeling. It is about feeling overwhelmed.

He refers to overwhelm operating at three levels: 1) the scale and complexity of the crisis; 2) personal life ie. “In advanced capitalist culture nearly all of us are on the edge of being able to cope, to do what we have to do and process what we have to process while also handling our internal emotional states”; and 3) cultural - “the result of many generations of trauma through war, famine, disease, and abuse.”

Totton wrote insightfully about how we try to “protect a fragile bubble of personal reality which makes life bearable...[which includes] fun, freedom, status-based identity, and most fundamentally, relaxation...Hence for large numbers of people it is not climate change itself which appears as a threat, but news of climate change, which threatens to break into their fragile bubble of emotional survival...In particular, many people freeze: they use the response reserved for desperate situations where we are completely hopeless and our best option is to turn off, go into trance, and hope to be overlooked...This is what is also called dissociation.”

I close this section with some of Harold Searles’ psychoanalytic contributions. Searles began writing in 1960 about the environmental crisis and the absence of references to the MTH environment in developmental and psychoanalytic theory (“The Nonhuman Environment in Normal Development and In Schizophrenia”); and about apathy in “Unconscious Processes in Relation to the Environmental Crisis” from his book “Countertransference and Related Subjects” (1979). He suggests in this chapter that “analysts are in the grip of this common apathy”.58 Perhaps we do fear being diagnosed and judged by colleagues if our felt environmental concerns and reflections are brought to clinical conversations. Perhaps we also fear being ostracized from our human groups by expressing our feelings of grief for other creatures and degraded landscapes.

Searles offers several insights towards understanding apathy. First, that it is based upon unconscious defenses against such universal human anxieties as fear of loss and death; the vulnerability of helplessness and powerlessness; and our own envious and murderous feelings. It may also be an “unconscious defiant refusal”59 of environmentalisms’ perceived moralistic message, as well as a rejection of the stated or implied demand to relinquish “hard-won genital primacy”60 concretized in whatever treasured trappings of success might serve our identities and self-esteem ie. cars, air travel, jet skis.

Searles proposes that: “our fear, envy, and hatred of formidable oedipal rivals makes us view with large-scale apathy their becoming polluted into extinction...Our unconscious hatred of succeeding generations, of our progeny and of their progeny in turn, our vengeful determination to destroy their birthright through its neglect, in revenge for the deprivations, in whatever developmental era, we suffered at our parents’ hands, includes and extends beyond the oedipal conflict.”61

Further, Searles wonders whether “there is something so unfulfilling about the quality of [contemporary] human life that we react, essentially, as though our lives are not worth fighting to save...”.62 He muses that in the transition from our hunter-gatherer bodies of sensual connectedness to the natural world to our current urbanized technology-dominated environments “that we have been able to cope with it only by regressing, in our unconscious experience of it, largely to a degraded state of nondifferentiation from it. I suggest...that this “outer” reality is psychologically as much a part of us as its poisonous waste products are part of our physical selves.”63

And now, from this review of ecocide and apathy, we move to a reexamination of our concepts of the unconscious and the self in light of intersubjectivity theory and ecopsychology.


The Unconscious, Intersubjectivity, and the Self

The others who are none other than myself
include mountains, rivers and the great earth.

--Dogen Zenji

One could accuse therapeutic psychology’s exaggeration of the personal interior, and aggrandizing of its importance, of being a systematic denial of the world out there, a kind of compensation for the true grandness its theory has refused to include and has defended against.”

--James Hillman, Ecopsychology

I am writing this in the midst of a July heatwave. My experience of the air in my unairconditioned study is like being immersed in body temperature water where the boundaries between skin and liquid disappear. With the steady heating, my body and the surroundings of desk, keyboard, and book seem to melt into each other as we all move towards approximating each others temperature. There is a humid sensuality that draws down my experience of thinking about the self, the unconscious, and intersubjectivity, into a more carnal deliberation of where to start, and what to leave in or out.

It strikes me as the perfect climate for writing to you about the self: a self that is fundamentally co-extensive with the human and more-than-human environment; a self that is continually co-arising within human relationships, AND, within relationships to the inanimate and animate MTH-other. What follows is an attempt at sketching the psychological and clinical practice map of intersubjectivity with the MTHW included. This map includes the ecological unconscious together with other conceptions of the unconscious.

I eagerly welcomed Atwood and Stolorow’s book, “Structures of Subjectivity: Explorations in Psychoanalytic Phenomenology” in 1984, and their subsequent title, ”Psychoanalytic Treatment: An Intersubjective Approach”. Their ideas encouraged a movement away from the Cartesian underpinnings of my ego psychological framework, opening up new streams of thought and ways to experience the creation and mutuality of the therapeutic alliance.

Several years after the release of their 1992 book, “Contexts of Being: The Intersubjective Foundations of Psychological Life”, and subsequent to reading several ecopsychological titles, I was somewhat stunned to come across this passage:

“...the image of the isolated mind represents modern man’s alienation from nature...This distinction diminishes the experience of the inescapable physical embodiment of the human self and thereby attenuates a sense of being wholly subject to the conditions and cycles of biological existence. These conditions include absolute dependence on the physical environment, kinship to other animals, subjection to biological rhythms and needs, and, perhaps most important, man’s physical vulnerability and ultimate mortality...Insofar as the being of man is defined and located in mind, existing as an entity apart from the embeddedness of the body in the biological world, an illusion can be maintained that there is a sphere of inner freedom from the constraints of animal existence and mortality.”64

Afterwards I said to myself, “hmmm, they didn’t take it quite far enough.” I felt teased into an epiphany and then left hanging in mid-air. Why not continue to emphasize our “absolute dependence on the physical environment, kinship to other animals” and the significance THESE have for the self? As a systems theory, why not stretch out the boundaries of the intersubjective self to include the MTHW?

Intersubjectivity theory focuses on mutual reciprocity. There’s hope here, I thought. But the theory, in light of the environmental crisis, now, more-than-ever, needs to reach out to the streams, the oak, and the disappearing amphibians, and not only point to mutual reciprocity between humans, but also between us and all that we depend upon to make and sustain us AS human. Twentieth century science has dispelled the notion of a self that is distinct from the world it observes and acts upon. The uncertainty principle showed that the self’s perceptions are changed by the act of observation. And systems science further broadens the notion of self.

The perspectival realism that Donna Orange and others describe as the primary philosophical stance of intersubjectivity theory attempts to promote a more conducive atmosphere for the experience and recognition of mutuality in analysis and psychotherapy. Analyst and patient each have a subjective self perspective and these interact to create a field experience that will hopefully be mutually beneficial, especially to the patient.

Kindred to intersubjectivity theory’s stance of perspectival realism is the ecopsychological perspective, a modern voicing of aboriginal wisdom that says,

“wait, the MTHW also has a subjectivity. True, some subjectivities like those of plants and rocks, are quite unlike humans. And some, like those of dolphins and chimpanzees, may not be so unlike. A tree has a perspective. The oak has a form of perspectival awareness.

The tree does not think like a human but it has an innate, wordless knowing of what is enhancing to its’ life. This knowing includes the rights to have its biological needs respected and experience human gratitude for its’ gifts.

If we can conceive of this, and feel what it’s like to think like this, maybe we would ask these more-than-human others some of the questions of regard that we sometimes ask fellow humans, such as:

“how can I be in a mutually enhancing relationship with you?;
“how are we alike and unlike, and how de we intersect?;
“how can I practice acknowledging that my self experience rises and falls through identification and intimate unspoken dialogue with your MTH self?”

Ecopsychological perspectival realism respects that all members of the animate and inanimate world have experiences of something that is perhaps detectable only at the microscopic scale. Members of the MTHW have points of view. They have rights to exist independent of human assumptions. There is much in the ecopsychological literature that addresses suchmaking sense together(D. Orange).

For example, David Abram notes:

In our culture [post-industrial Western] we speak aboutnature...Mature cultures speak to nature. They feel the rest of nature speak to would make much more sense for our sciences to study the world from our experienced place within the world -- using our experiments to discern how we might establish a more sustaining relationship with a particular species, or with a particular wetland...rather than trying to just figure out how that species or that wetland works in itself, as though we were somehow not participant in its processes.”65

Stolorow writes:

we are recasting psychoanalysis as a contextual psychology, which recognizes the constitutive role of relatedness in the making of all experience...Unlike Cartesian isolated minds, experiential worlds, as they form and evolve within a nexus of living, relational systems, are recognized as being exquisitely context sensitive and context dependent...inner and outer are seen to interweave seamlessly.”66

Environmental-mindedness reads “contextual and relational systems”, and “context sensitive and context dependent, and includes the wetland and the frogs that live within it. The MTH world is THE fundamental planetary “context” for humans. We are exquisitely sensitive to the ancient wordless presence of the natural world, more-than-human and human ultimately dependent on our egalitarian acknowledgement of each other and what optimizes our well-being.

Let’s turn now to examining the three domains of the unconscious as described by Atwood, Stolorow, and Brandchaft, and how including the notion of an ecological unconscious may further fulfill our current theory building.


Bernard Brandchafts’ writings attempt to outline Intersubjectivity theory’s three realms of the unconscious and includes in one vignette an informal implicit reference to the ecological unconscious.

His memory of talking to his colleagues Atwood and Stolorow “on the veranda of my ranch home amidst the live oaks and chaparral overlooking the Pacific north of Santa Barbara” 67 is a reference to the MTH context of their collaborative conversations. I suggest that it may be more than a poetic device. I imagine that this interesting choice to include a description of the MTH context helps to humanize Brandchaft for the reader who is working towards understanding his theory building. Including the oaks and chaparral and Pacific also may help to locate or embody Brandchaft for the reader. And who knows, these MTH references may also help the reader to ground in oak memories of their own amidst the rarefied air of crafting theory.

The notion of an ecological unconscious, what ecopsychology might call the “core of the mind”68 born of our “archaic prehuman experience”,69 and evidenced in our innate affinity for river and robin, represents a logical progression out of Cartesian dualism. This has been the journey of psychology’s paradigmatic movement from Freud’s intrapsychic framework of interior drives to object relations’ prioritizing the interpersonal world in human development, and then to general systems theory’s inclusion of the family and social systems. The inclusion of the ecological into intersubjectivity theory’s first realm of the unconscious, the “prereflective unconscious”,70 grounds it in the reality of our immersed dependence upon the natural world.

Utilizing Stolorow and Atwood’s analogy of a multi-story building with a basement, the prereflective unconscious is seen as the “architect’s blueprint”71 that operates as a “set of organizing principles that specify a pattern of relationships between the various parts of the building [self experience]...not specific subjective contents, but...the principles that organize those contents into characteristic patterns.”72 These organizing principles come to shape our experience unconsciously. As Brandchaft writes: “prereflective unconscious principles organize life as it is experienced, that is, as it is assimilated into a person’s own psychic structures without his being aware of the shaping process taking place.”73

The MTHW is the other holding environment for the human infant and for the mother-child dyad. The child’s bodily experiences of water, air currents, animal fur, and bird song have for millennia shaped her experience of becoming a human self. It appears so obvious, yet the significance of this ecological dimension of the prereflective unconscious has been so diminished in our thinking as to almost disappear. “At its most reductionistic, analytic theory would trace all experience of oneness, merging, interpenetration, and awe to preverbal experience of the personal mother.”74 I suggest that it would be helpful to elevate this realm of the child’s MTHW experience into a prominent location when imagining the prereflective unconscious.

Intersubjectivity’s second realm of the unconscious, the dynamic unconscious, also can be helpful in thinking about our experience of the MTHW, particularly in the formative years of childhood. Returning to Stolorow and Atwood’s use of a building analogy with the prereflective unconscious representing the blueprint, the dynamic unconscious

appears in the basement of the structure below ground and out of sight. Here lies the contents that are driven out of conscious awareness because of their association with intolerable conflict and subjective danger...”75 “...central affect states of the child cannot be integrated because they fail to evoke the attuned responsiveness the child needs, these unintegrated affect states become the source of lifelong inner conflict because they are experienced as threats both to the person’s established psychological organization and to the maintenance of vitally needed ties.”76

Example: a mother’s unexamined fear of insects causes her to become anxious whenever her curious child begins to crawl towards the ant that’s been scurrying all morning across the kitchen floor. She hurriedly picks her daughter up and discouragingly scolds. The child’s curiosity about the MTHW is derailed, as is any innate excitement and pleasure for the child at discovering something that autonomously moves and appears so different from the human form. There is conflict between the child’s curiosity and the mothers fear. There is danger for the child in becoming entangled in an anxious energy field and arousing her mother’s disapproval and perhaps, eventual punishment and physical distancing, or the opposite, protective smothering.

Central affect states involving the MTHW, in this example, the ant, aren’t integrated because they do not evoke a responsiveness that expresses with animated ease, “yes, it’s an ant...look how it’s small but very strong and look how fast it runs...let’s see if we can catch it and take it outside where it belongs.” The child’s excited vitality affect of curiosity is attuned to and mirrored. This curiosity about the MTHW can then remain integrated and accessible as a conscious memory that connects the child to her MTH environment. This child’s spontaneous expression of “biophilia”, or natural affinity for the natural world, does not need to be relegated to the basement of the dynamic unconscious. Expand this out from the ant to include any fear of the outdoors and imagine the impact on children of such failures in attuned responsiveness regarding the natural surround.

The third realm of the unconscious, the unvalidated, may be even more pertinent to our age of nature deficit disorder. In the building analogy, the unvalidated unconscious is “unused materials left lying around the building and in the basement, materials that were never made part of the construction but that could have been.”77 Brandchaft writes: “the child’s conscious experience becomes progressively articulated through the validating responsiveness of his early surround...[and]...aspects of the child’s experience...are simply excluded from processes of articulation. In systems of pathological accomodation, the unconscious thus potentially becomes the repository for whole sectors of the child’s experiential world, sectors the development of which it has surrendered in order to protect the tie it cannot do without.78”

Let us return to the ant and “whole sectors of the child’s experiential world”.

A father may not be overtly phobic but behaves in an ignoring, uninterested way, as though the child’s interest in the ant does not warrant a response other than irritation at being distracted from his task. This may reflect the fathers overall attitude towards the outdoors and the MTHW, which in turn reflects the Cartesian cultural perspective that the more-than-human is there to be controlled, dominated, and to serve human desires. Nature is to be tolerated and sometimes enjoyed as a commodity for pleasure. Its’ domination a method of denying dependence and a renunciation of the truth that the state of the ecosystem ultimately determines his own state of health.

However, the child’s experience of excited interest as she pursues the scurrying ant is more about an innate desire to know, and to know herself in relation to the ant-other. If the father does not share in this excited interest then the ant becomes an object that has no intrinsic value and is robbed of its’ potential to arouse curiosity. Unlike the mothers fear, the fathers absence of engagement with the child and the ant, perhaps eventually resulting in an irritated stepping on the ant, says to his daughter, “I do not recognize your experience with the ant as having any value, nor do I acknowledge that my stepping on the ant and your identified antself would effect you. The ant, your antself, and your feelings hold no real importance to me other than my experience of having my superior interests obstructed.”

I suggest, together with this imagined child, we have all surrendered whole sectors of our experience of the natural world, not only to accommodate and appease early parental ties, but also to protect links to our Cartesian culture that fails to recognize, and devalues, the role that the MTHW plays in sustaining our engaged humanity. The unvalidated unconscious grows. And with it grows the list of questions about what to do with our garbage!


Do you have a sense of there being whole sectors of your experience of the more-than-human-world that were, in childhood, and are now, unvalidated and “excluded from processes of articulation”? In occasional moments of reading this paper, are your unarticulated experiences of the MTH somehow becoming articulated and validated? Try pausing on these questions. See what comes.


The intersubjective analyst/psychotherapist no longer regards the unconscious as having a fixed, intrapsychic boundary. The boundary is “fluid and context dependent”79 and in a statement that applies to our ecopsychological understanding of the unconscious, Brandchaft writes that the analyst “will grasp more readily that he plays a continuing role in its permeability or impermeabiity.”80 It is how I think about and perceive the MTHW that will determine how I relate to it, and therefore whether I will experience my psychological and physical skin as permeable or impermeable to the various animate and inanimate skins of the MTH.

Further to the issue of boundary, as Brandchaft says, “the organization of subjectivity determines what is real”.81 If the real does not include my extended or ecological self, nor my ecological unconscious, then my skin-encapsulated body that is co-extensive with my ecosystem-encapsulated body is rendered unreal. What becomes most real is self experience emerging from the perspective of the isolated mind. This leads to a prereflectively unconscious experience of alienation and estrangement from the MTHW and a view that only human relationships and artifacts are real. The MTH, if experienced as real at all, is real only to the extent it is in service and subservient to my needs, which, in a twist, makes it unreal at the same time. Such is the co-dependent reenactment of sado-masochism acted out upon the land.

Alternately, if “reality...crystalizes at the interface of interacting, affectively attuned subjectivities”75, and we acknowledge the complex, sensitively reciprocal web of relationships with the more-than-human, then reality springs from far more than the dissociative myths of the isolated mind. For most of our evolution as a species our formative reality was “a surround of living plants, rich in texture, smell, and motion. The unfiltered, unpolluted air, the flicker of wild birds, real sunshine and rain, mud to be tasted and tree bark to grasp, the sounds of wind and water, the calls of animals and insects as well as human voices...that which-will-be-swallowed, internalized, incorporated as the self.”83


“If we remain open to our own breathing bodies, and to the imaginative life of our bodily senses, then these open us up to everything else. If that door is closed...then we have no way to orient ourselves in the awaken to this awesome beauty we must give up our spectator perspective, and the illusion of control that it gives us...because to renounce control is to notice that we are vulnerable...The wild world to which our senses give us access is an inexhaustibly beautiful realm, but it is hardly safe...”84

Before we move from the above discussion of the unconscious, intersubjectivity, and the self, to our clinical explorations, a brief and necessary mention is needed of the “mind - body problem”.85

Stolorow and Atwood write of this with much that is relevant to us here. They point to two broad classes of mind-body separation which apply to the human-earth separation we have been discussing. The first is an “initial failure to achieve the sense of psychosomatic indwelling...that leaves the person vulnerable to states of severe depersonalization and mind-body disintegration...[and secondly]...those reflecting active disidentification with the body in order to protect oneself from dangers and conflicts associated with continuing bodied existence.”86

I suggest that the deficits in early affect attunement to the child’s ecological self, and possible intrusions into the child’s explorations of the natural world, promote not only the failure of psychosomatic indwelling, but as well, a failure, which is proving catastrophic for the ecosphere, in the sense of eco-indwelling. This is the felt experience of living within and belonging to this planet.

And is it too much to suggest that active disidentification with the body may be increasingly the norm in our culture? And perhaps body disidentification becomes more ubiquitous with the growing consciousness of environmental crisis, a crisis that poses a variety of unprecedented threats to our habitats and physical selves.

In PART ONE I’ve attempted to provide information and historical context for the crisis, including my own personal reflections on what draws me to these explorations, I’ve introduced you to the basic tenets of Ecopsychology, which as a systems psychology speaks to the fundamental fact of our embeddedness within the ecosystems of Earth; and that our psychologies and their clinical applications, until recently, have largely ignored this. Ecocide and its’ symptom of apathy are consequences of this ignorance. I’ve proposed that freeing the concept of self from the myth of the isolated mind, and opening it up to include Ecopsychology’s ecological self and ecological unconscious, will enable us to re-orient our analytic paradigms towards service to 21st century contemporary clinical practice; and towards service to sustainability’s integrity. I also attempted a beginning articulation of how intersubjectivity theory’s perspectival realism may support the understanding of ecopsychology’s clinical efforts.

And now, in PART TWO, let’s look more specifically at some clinical implications of the environmental crisis in session, and what it might mean to practice as an environmentally-minded analyst/psychotherapist.


Once again...try pausing. And try reflecting on your bodily state in this moment. What feelings, sensations, and thoughts are you aware of? Your breathing? Your internal weather?




“I sometimes think that if psychoanalysis can free people’s repressed or dissociated relationship to the environmental world, it might help people change the current course of civilization. I don’t mean this to sound grandiose. I mean only that unless people feel the earth, its’ creatures and their connection to other forms of life, they will never be motivated to give up excess’s gratification in favor of authenticity’s modesty.”

--Susan Bodnar,IARPP seminar


“Last night I dreamt that global warming was happening sooner than anyone expected, like not 100 years from now. But now. And I felt a kind of passive resignation. That this big thing was happening and I could do nothing about it.”

--Caroline, psychotherapy patient, 2011

“When I was 10, after my brothers and sister had left home, my father worked all the time, so when I wasn’t with my mother I spent a lot of time alone. And these were the years that my best friend, honestly, was my dog. I often remember sitting on the curb of our street and talking out loud to her. She was the only one who heard what I was really thinking about and felt. I don’t know what I would’ve done without Sniffy.”

--Carl, psychotherapy patient, 2009

Today, in these times of environmental crisis, what do we analysts and psychotherapists do with such narratives? How do we and our patients’ make sense together of such content? How does meaning-making relate to our own beliefs and defenses regarding the crisis? How do we merge with our patient’s unconscious organizing principles regarding the MTHW? How do we help our patients relate to material that may include both the personal and the ecological unconscious? How do we collude with our patient’s defenses, or organizing principles, that exclude from the session room memory, thoughts and feelings about the MTHW and the environmental crisis, thus failing to recognize possible associated symptomatology?

Returning to Jack (pp. 7-8), the jet ski client. In the paradigm of my 2001 practice there was no possibility for dialogue about what had entered the room between us. Perhaps, contained within my conflictual subjectivites, there was his own unconscious ambivalence about his individual pursuits and their impact on others. His childhood autonomy had been severely restricted within the dynamics of a demanding, anxious mother and a passive father, and he’d emerged as an adult with a decidedly me-first attitude masked by an easy going, you-first demeanor. I saw no way to be true to his treatment, to myself, and to the earth. I didn’t know how to hold in mind and body what was becoming increasingly real to me - that an individual’s personal psychology not only impinges upon relationship to self and other, but also upon the MTHW.

We clinicians espouse knowing more than most that personal reality is a subjective matter, dependent upon what shapes our perception of it, and no doubt most of us have experienced the phenomenon that when we are sufficiently decentered to dissolve and expand our points of view in a treatment, our patients may respond in vitalizing, unexpected ways.

A 45 year old dissociative woman, Sally, had been sexually abused as a child and adolescent by her step-father, and emotionally and physically abandoned repeatedly by a narcissistically cantankerous mother. She’d seen me in psychotherapy for 8 years when she began speaking about the last time she could remember living inside her body and feeling unconflicted pleasure. She had lived her early years on a small horse farm and recalled walking the fields and feeling the tall grass brush her bare legs, the sun on her bare skin, sometimes spinning and falling exhilarated to the ground, then finally lying in stillness while gazing up at the brilliance of the blue sky.

Sharing this memory and experiencing curious and sustained interest in her experience of the MTHW, which prior to my environmental awakenings would have gone virtually unnoticed or been overshadowed by the exploration of family dynamics, enabled subsequent memories of felt delight in the land. New and treasured body-memories followed of what it was to sit on a tractor on her beloved non-abusive father’s lap before he died when she was 7. In subsequent years of psychotherapy she has often returned to these early memories of communion with sun, grass, and sky to embody and cohere, and has turned what once was the chore of her backyard garden into a source of pleasurable retreat, and a means of introducing her children to the flowers and vegetables.

Ecopsychologist Sara Harris writes: “As I became more open to the importance of the role of nature in my work, my clients began to respond. I had not fully heard these kinds of stories before. It wasn’t that the clients were different, but that my own unconscious filters had kept me from understanding their importance.”87

Let’s have a look at some of the filters we, and our patients, may employ to manage our knowing and our anxiety.


First, a socio-cultural eagle-eye over-view reveals that in the early 21st century the Western conventional idea of the self, in eco-philosopher Joanna Macy’s analysis, is being undermined by shifts such as “living systems theory and systems cybernetics...a process view of the self as inseparable from the web of relationships that sustain it...”.88 Intersubjectivity theory is one psychological representation of this shift, as is ecopsychology. This undermining of the encapsulated ego/isolated mind paradigm is an underlying and continuous stress to our hard-won individualistic structures of self organization, not to mention our culture’s economic organizing principles rooted in a Darwinian survival of the fittest ethic.

Second, note that references to such defenses as denial, projection, and acting out (behavioral enactments), though originally explicated by Freud as intrapsychic drive issues and then by ego psychology and the British object relations theorists like Melanie Klein and DW Winnicott as intra/interpersonal dynamics, are considered in this paper primarily from an intersubjective point of view. In other words, defenses and enactments arise within an intersubjective field that provokes patterned reactiveness. Alternately, a field with optimal attunement will invite more novel, creative responsiveness and less patterned defensiveness. And...this intersubjective field of human relations arises within the broader intersubjective field of the more-than-human-world.

Let’s descend closer now to psychological ground and become like the mouse. From here we examine the smaller details of inner terrain.


“You may lose your wife, you may lose your dog, your mother may hate you. None of these things matter. What matters is that you achieve success and become free. Then you can do whatever you like.”

--TV business guru, Kevin O’Leary, The Globe and Mail, Sept. 24, 2011

Ecotherapists Sarah Edwards and Linda Buzzell, regarding the environmental crisis, write of the “waking up syndrome”.89 It unfolds in stages like a grief cycle though not necessarily in any order. This reference is to their own awakening as psychotherapists but it is equally relevant to what our patient’s may experience.

Denial may be the first defensive reaction to a dawning awareness of the environmental crisis and its’ possible implications for economies, societies, and daily lives. One voice of denial expresses an “I don’t believe it” stance mixed with a gravitation toward climate-change skepticism. Another may be, “It’s not a problem”, with concomitant beliefs that nothing more is occurring than the usual cyclical ups and downs of economics and weather. Another defense may be the “someone will fix it” stance where a regressive child-like attitude dominates the psyche - mommy and daddy know best and won’t let anything really bad happen. And last, there’s the fatalistic, ”It’s useless to try to do anything” stance, that may feed what Susan Bodnar writes of as “obliterative drinking and dissociative materialism.”90

Secondly, Edwards and Buzzell write of the semiconsciousness stage where a “vague sense of anxiety”91 is experienced as denial becomes less effective at blocking mounting evidence. This may occur, for example, through directly experienced extreme weather events or through escalating media coverage of human-caused near-extinctions. Anger, or mocking any mention of the crisis, or displacement of the anxiety onto other parts of life such as relationships and work may occur.

The third stage, awakening, emerged full blown at times in the writing of this paper. I had a hunch that this was one of the latent personal reasons for taking on the task but had no idea what this actually would mean. The night after speaking to my wife about just this - vestiges of crisis denial being continuously bombarded by my research, reading, and writing - I dreamt:

my wife and I are staying near a large body of water...big winds and waves are becoming larger. Suddenly the waves breach a breakwater and flood the land...I am watching now from a distance and see the water lapping at the door of a friends house who reassures me that things haven’t gotten too bad yet.

Dreams have a multiplicity of unfolding meanings. This dream, given the strong feeling content of the previous days communication with my wife, speaks to me of states of emotional flooding and overwhelm. These states likely accompany such awakening. It is visceral. It is not intellectualized. There is no turning away. Importantly, the authors write that at this point “our genetic wiring kicks in, and our physiological and emotional threat responses”92 arise in various forms: obsessive reading and news watching and/or doom and gloom expressions of our mounting anxiety. Loved ones may wonder about our sanity.

More subtle forms such as the crisis honeymoon may arise where “It’s all going to be fine if we just...change a few lightbulbs, buy a hybrid...”.93 The authors warn that this glow wears off when the magnitude and depth of the needed yet unwanted changes continue to accumulate. More fragile self structures or those with histories of trauma may experience increasing panic attacks and PTSD reactions.

Then shock. Denial has mostly been vanquished. Our concerns in this stage may lead to feelings of disconnection and aloneness. “We now inhabit a reality we can no longer ignore, but it’s one that few others seem to notice.”94 I often experience what Edwards and Buzzell refer to as a “bizarre sense of the surreal”. We may have a difficult time communicating our sense of the unreal in the midst of the business-as-usual world. Do we act as if nothing has changed? Do we reach out to others? Do we withdraw into sentiment about the past or into the virtual worlds of cyberspace?

Despair, the fifth stage, is a low-point in the awakening process. “The realization that one person, or even one group or community, can’t stop climate change, the depletion of resources, economic instability, species loss, or the multiple threats to human survival often leads to hopelessness, a sense of powerlessness, and even guilt.”95 Akin to the depression stage of grieving a singular loss, there is a difference that the authors highlight: “It’s more like the process of accepting a degenerative illness - a chronic permanent state that will continue to worsen, probably for the entire lifetime of most people alive today...[what] social critic James Kunstler calls...‘the long emergency’”96 And perhaps during this stage, insult is added to injury as concern is judged as pessimistic negativity and doom-saying.

Last is the stage of empowerment, where the distressing feeling states associated with despair are more able to be experienced and related to, while limitations of “what to do” are more accepted. Gratitude for the present and what means most to us grows as does what Kunstler calls “‘the intelligent response’, seeking and taking whatever creative, constructive action will best sustain those aspects of life that are most important to us.”97

Nick Totton, in a post to the IARPP web seminar, writes: “we need to do the work of mourning...and reach an acceptance of reality....Then we can ask ourselves: What is still worth doing? What can be preserved, both materially, and in terms of ideas? What can we pass on to the unknown future? And how can we help other people to make this journey of acceptance?”


Do you recognize yourself anywhere in the above stages of environmental grief? If you do, have you spoken of this to anyone? Try pausing long enough to at least briefly contemplate these questions.


“I remembered a dream this morning where I was in a forest but the land was being sold and I somehow had to experience this forest before it was gone.”

--Kim, psychotherapy patient, 2011

We continue our exploration of loss related to the environmental crisis and of the defenses utilized to manage the associated anxiety and avoid the difficult mourning process. Rosemary Randall, psychotherapist and Director of Cambridge Carbon Footprint, writes of the parallel narratives associated with climate change. One narrative concerns the problems of climate change and frightening images of the future, and the other narrative concerns mitigation - what can be done.

In the first narrative, loss is the predominant theme: loss of bio-diversity, extinction of species, loss of water and soil, loss of fuel, and loss of livelihood to mention just a few. However, for us in the developed world these losses appear remote in location and in time - it’s happening to someone else, somewhere else, or will happen sometime in the future - which makes the loss feel “unreal”.

Randall makes the point that in the second narrative about the crisis and climate change, loss is usually ignored. “Although [the solution narratives] imply that if we do not act now, then catastrophic losses will occur, they do not raise the possibility that we might already be experiencing losses or that the actions that need to be taken to avert catastrophic losses themselves involve loss.”98 Referencing Melanie Klein and DW Winnicott, she writes further about the defensive process of splitting where “good and bad in both self and other are deemed to be separate, unrelated experiences...unwelcome knowledge can be split off and projected into other people, other times or other places...What we see in the treatment of loss and climate change is a process where fear of loss leads to it being split off and projected into the future. The present continues to feel safe but at the expense of the future becoming terrifying.”99

Randall suggests that loss and mourning need to be restored to our own environmental crisis and climate change narratives in order to reduce the split between what we know and how we act upon what we know. She believes this may encourage acceptance of “changes that may threaten aspiration, culture, security, and identity.”100

From an intersubjective point of view, without the attunement of others or by the culture at large, central affect states related to the experience of environmental crisis and climate change, with the associated losses, may be relegated to the dynamicunconscious. Here affect states potentially become a source of haunting internal conflict. These states of anxiety about what is happening and what might happen in the future to the very ground of our existence go largely unattuned and consequently, unintegrated. They threaten not only one’s own internal psychological organization but also external ties to significant others and connectivity to the current norms of society.

Perhaps of even more concern, given the notion of “nature deficit disorder” and our centuries-old growing disconnect from the natural world, is what resides in intersubjectivity theory’s unvalidated unconscious. Recall that this is the realm where unacknowledged human experience resides. I suggest again that increasingly the unvalidated ecological unconscious has become a phantom. We are forgetting that we have forgotten. The subject of our grief no longer has substance. The loss unreal and therefore meaningless. Our mourning, a ubiquitous dis-ease. This means that concern for the MTHW has no ground from which to grow. And if there is validation, and one somehow dares to think or speak passionately about their inchoate experiences and feelings of affinity, love and concern for polar bears or family farms, what has been unvalidated may then be attacked and ridiculed.

A client recently spoke of her childhood experience with ants. With a narrative of little maternal and paternal emotional warmth and physical affection, as a pre-schooler she discovered the pleasure and stimulation of ants scurrying across her hands and through her fingers. Too ashamed of her physical need and the means she’d found to meet it, she had never spoken about this prior to its’ emergence in therapy. Understandably she expected the story to be met with a pathologizing, humiliating, or disinterested attack. When that didn’t happen she was freer to describe her memories in more detail and restore the experiences to their rightful place in consciousness. As well, this helped her understand more deeply the depth of some of her feelings for the natural world and how troubling it currently is that her suburban grandchildren have become terrified of “bugs”.



Let’s look more closely at various forms of denial.

Freud saw two broad forms, negation or the denial of a fact - “climate change doesn’t exist”; anddisavowal, where the fact is held but the meaning is erased - “climate change is happening but at the same time it’s not happening because it has no meaning.”

Some describe disavowal as a defense where the self seemingly splits into two: one part sees and experiences a disturbing reality and the other part denies the seeing and experiencing. Disavowal has particular meaning at this time where climate change has reached a critical mass of belief. Few argue convincingly, except for fringe group deniers, against the reality of climate change. In a February 2011 CBC reported poll, 80 percent of Canadians, and 58 percent of Americans, believed climate change was real. Yet, as has been discussed, we, our political representatives, and the economic systems proceed as though climate change is not real.

Coincidentally, while I wrote this morning, the following appeared on google - CTVNews (Sept. 29/11):

“Climate change will cost Canada about $5 billion a year by 2020, a startling new analysis commissioned by the federal government warns...Though the researchers came up with a range of estimates, they point to the same conclusion: the longer the effects of climate change are ignored, the costlier they become....The group also warns that while many of the costs of adaptation can seem large at the outset, the cost of not adapting could be more expensive...The highest costs result from a refusal to acknowledge these costs and adjust through adaptation...”.

“Startling”? Denial of cycle. “It just happened out of nowhere.”
“...the longer the effects...are ignored...”? Denial of impact. “This really has nothing to do with me.”
“...a refusal to acknowledge these costs...”? Denial of responsibility. “It’s not that bad and besides, it’s not my fault.”

Are these all expressions of disavowal; or a combination of denial and disavowal?

A Wikipedia excursion into the meanings of disavowal uncovered a possibly relevant finding. This source reported that Freud’s illustrations were rooted in the disavowal of absence. Whether his references to the woman’s absent penis or the death of the father have enduring clinical importance is another story. What is pertinent to our explorations is the idea that the critical creative action of symbolization is based to some degree on being able to imagine and keep in mind that that is absent....”the ability to represent the object to oneself as something that can be absent.”101

My question is this. Have we been brought by historical forces to the brink of a new reality where natures’ absence must now be imagined? It is hard to conceive that such a notion would have entered our hunter-gatherer ancestral minds, except on occasion when water and food were scarce. But even then, it is doubtful that they could imagine that species would disappear forever, or that water would be used and poisoned at such a rate as to endanger future access? But we CAN imagine it if we dare. The environmental crisis narrative, as we are acknowledging, is full of loss, abundant with absence. The disavowal of these environmental absences then creates an obstacle to constructing psychological reality. If we can’t imagine these losses and hold them in mind then we regress to the more primitive denial, negation; or, we walk around in a fragile bifurcated reality accompanied by an ongoing sense of unreality.

Perhaps it is within the perverse realm of disavowal where we, along with our patients, want to leave the thinking about the unthinkable to someone else, in another time, in another place, in another session, in another profession. Psychoanalyst, Sally Weintrobe, wonders “if we deny this piece of external reality, are we on the road towards accepting it or are we disavowing it and turning even further away from it? Indeed, are there circumstances where each may be happening, or a mixture of the two? It is very difficult to distinguish between these different forms of denial in practice and on the ground, but I suggest it is important to make a start at conceptually distinguishing between them.”102

Denials’ other forms, minimization and projection, also play a part in managing the overwhelming idea of mass environmental degradation. “It’s not that bad” and “technology and the future will take care of it” are common examples of these forms. Both deny either the seriousness or the responsibility.

Considered to be one of the pathological defenses, one has to wonder what the ongoing effect on self structure might be of this more primitive and urgent imperative to deny or disavow the knowledge of what is occurring to the world that breathes us.

Finally, we understand that denial plays a large role in addictions and abuse. The incidence of which has not only risen in public awareness but has metastasized into ubiquitous societal symptoms. Psychologist Jennifer Freyd writes of the common strategy of the abuser. Listen for the parallels between the abusers stance and our own denial of the effects we are having on the natural world. Common attitudes and behavior towards concerned citizens may take this abusive form.

“...I have observed that actual abusers threaten, bully, and make a nightmare for anyone who holds them accountable or asks them to change their abusive behavior. This attack, intended to chill and terrify, typically includes threats of law suits, overt and covert attacks on the whistle-blower’s credibility, and so on. The attack will often take the form of focusing on ridiculing the person who attempts to hold the offender accountable...The offender rapidly creates the impression that the abuser is the wronged one, while the victim or concerned observer is the offender. Figure and ground are completely reversed...The offender is on the offense and the person attempting to hold the offender accountable is put on the defense.”103

There is no doubt a host of defenses at work attempting to manage our anxiety about current and future effects of, and our responsibility for, the crisis: acting out; fantasy; passive aggression; somatization; displacement; dissociation; intellectualization; and regression, to name a few. Our living systems paradigm reminds us that such defenses, including denial/disavowal, co-dependently arise to varying degrees within an intersubjective field. This helps ground us in non-blame, dismantles another defense, projection, where the patient, or the politician, becomes the self-contained locus for our abrogated responsibility and we, once more, the objective, superior observer.

Before this paper’s last mile discussion of what it might be to become an environmentally-minded analyst/psychotherapist, a brief exploration of enactment.



Intersubjectivity theory proposes that human conduct may be patterned in order to perpetuate a particular organization of experience, or to maintain psychological organization, or to defend against threatening subjective constellations from emerging into conscious experience. Psychoanalyst Susan Bodnar explores the notion that “aspects of obliterative drinking and dissociative materialism may be enactments of a changing relationship between people and their ecosystems.”104

Reflecting on her treatment of three twenty-somethings, she wonders whether these enactments are “bipolar enactments of an increasingly bipolar earth whose boundaries have not been respected by the society it supports?”105 I have wondered, like Bodnar, particularly with certain patients aged twenty to forty who were born after the first Earth Day in 1970, whether patterns of unregulated drug taking, drinking, and sexual activity were somehow related not only to personal histories, but also to the unregulated abuse of the earth. Were these young people acting out, with a vengeance, patterns of conduct embedded and rewarded in our culture of consumption, exploitation, excess, and denigration of the natural world?

I recall a woman patient in this age range who spoke to me about her years of attending raves, taking ecstasy, and being, as she put it, dissociated for 5 years. Along with her belief that these repeated experiences of trance music and tribal, chemically-induced altered states somehow kept her from falling apart, she also wondered in a revealing question, “whether it was also a way to numb out from knowing how we’re fucking the earth...and a doing to myself, my body, what I see us doing to the oceans and the forests.”

Further clinical reflection is needed in this territory of enactments. I’ll complete this section with Susan Bodnar’s poetic summarization:

The freedom to negotiate our relationships with each other as well as the earth that homes us is hard to hold onto in a consumption-driven society. Most can survive the assault upon our bodily and psychic borders. Many easily dissociate any connection to nature. And some go along with the devaluation of the natural world even though they still feel the earth’s colors brushing their heart’s canvas. For those people especially, the wasting, the bombing, and the lack of balance in our world grips them in a personality organization that enacts all that chaos. But they may also be our prophets. Those who still hear the weeping earth, the mountain’s call, the desert’s sigh and the ocean’s aria may yet awaken the transitive imagination in us all.”106



The basic tenets of Ecopsychology - a metaphor of self that is co-extensive and co-arising with the human and more-than-human world; and the reciprocal relationship between the psyche, the land, and society - bring us face to face with the split between mind and body (including the body of the earth), and between theory and practice. These crisis times urge us to reduce these splits in our thinking and relating, and indeed, work towards healing them.

Our actions in our session rooms not only impact our patients but also the earth. And our behavior effects the societal waters within which the practice of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy swims. Not only does personal psychology reflect social, political, and economic patterns, personal psychology and socio-political patterns reflect our relationship to the ecological. Transitioning from the minds-eye being focused on human intrapsychic and interpersonal developmental vicissitudes towards seeing with the intersubjective-ecosystems-perspectival eye is disorienting. It is one thing to embrace intersubjectivity’s theoretical allegiance to human experiential worlds and intersubjective fields mutually organizing each other. It is quite another to open the field to include the cultural or societal, and most importantly for our theme, the ecological - the living earth.

If we do find ourselves awakening, we will then inevitably enter states of anxiety, overwhelm, loss, and sometimes, despair. The environmentally-minded clinician becomes personally acquainted with these states. And through this practiced acquainting will become more able to serve as a holding vessel for the similar experiences of patients. The environmentally-minded clinician will possess a clearer analytic vision that is more able to recognize the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, narratives and enactments arising from an ecosystem in escalating distress.

Opening to and becoming more acquainted with these states of response to a shifting environmental ground, however muted the states may be, may help us wake up from the spell cast by clinical theory embedded within socio-cultural habits of thinking and perception.

“...I don’t believe that greened-up psychotherapy constitutes the kind of counterinstitution we really need if we are ever to see the widespread shifts in culture and character we are dreaming of.”107

Andy Fisher, in his essay, “Ecopsychology as Radical Praxis”, has a point. He asks further, “Can our practice measure up to the kind of critical social theory that ecopsychology inspires?”108 If embodiedly embraced over time I believe it can lead us to “walk the talk”, day by day, clinical moment by clinical moment. We clinicians have a unique role and opportunity in these challenging times to have our finger on the human pulse of the environmental crisis and to listen for the voice of the earth. Attending to our patients’ subtle pathological structures of accommodation may be good practice for seeing their, and our own, accommodations to environmentally destructive, unsustainable structures of belief.

Let’s move in closer now to the clinical moment and illustrate how significant the concept of pathological accommodation may be for the environmentally-minded clinician. For Intersubjective analyst, Bernard Brandchaft, “The analyst must resist the temptation to fit the patient to a theory and instead strive to keep the process of discovery alive despite ways of thinking and responding acquired developmentally and during professional training, that may interfere with noticing crucial subtleties in the patient’s modes of organizing experience.”109 This has particular meaning for us here as we bring our environmentally aware self, implicitly or explicitly, into the clinical moment.

Pathological Accommodation

A husband, father, and businessman in his early 40’s, Frank was raised the youngest of three in material wealth and emotional poverty. He survived his father’s critical, belligerent distance, and his mother’s emotionally-absent presence, by becoming the “good” boy, ever-eager with his handy-man talents to fix things for his parents. Prone to inferior/superior splitting and though outwardly bombastic like his father, the good boy was adept at covertly reading cues so he could “fix things” between us. Five years into his psychotherapy, and after several experiences of seeing how anxious, and indeed terrified, the good boy would become when he disagreed with an interpretation or tuned in to a slight alteration in my mood, we had established enough of a working alliance that the following event could be held by both of us, though not without stresses at the relational seams.

Frank knew I was a a “greeny” canoe camper and that my yearly August vacation trips took place in the backcountry north of Toronto near his cottage. This area is known for being the home of the Massassauga rattlesnake, the only venomous snake in Ontario and a threatened species due to habitat loss and human persecution. He had spoken only briefly of his fear of snakes before this session. He told me how he had spotted a rattler near his cottage and in a fearful rage had bludgeoned it to death with a shovel. He was distressed that he had done this and the distress was compounded by his rudimentary but emotionally attuned knowledge of my environmental interests.

I experienced visceral shock and outrage as Frank told me his story and had to willfully direct my empathic focus towards him and away from the snake who, in those moments, became my primary figure of identification. I said that in spite of how I was feeling about the snake’s violent end, I was able to acknowledge how difficult it must have been for him to tell me, and that perhaps, in some way, our being able to relate to this experience together may help us look further at his terror and violence. Road rage was no stranger to Frank. There was visible relief in his demeanor as he saw my metabolization of the narrative and another step was taken in softening his defensive patterns of pathological accommodation in the therapy.

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