by Bud Nye
Most people find the idea of the extremely high probability of near term human extinction (NTHE) as a result of global heating with its associated abrupt climate change, general ecological collapse, and nuclear power plant collapse very frightening and anxiety provoking, if not outright terror provoking. This high probability of NTHE shakes many people to their psychological, emotional, philosophical, and existential cores, and many find themselves moving back-and-forth among the various stages of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s model of five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Largely because of the profound, pathologically alienated and disconnected nature of our society, I think that many of us, perhaps most of us, find ourselves for the most part alone in trying to grasp and cope with these terrifying, unpredictable, and irreversible issues and processes. It all clashes severely with the naïve, human supremacist beliefs that our culture deeply programmed most of us, from our earliest childhood, to believe. Those of us who have worked through some of our denial, and thus find ourselves in this predicament, can find the support of others extremely helpful. For these reasons, a group of us formed an extinction support group in Tacoma, Washington, two years ago.
In proposing the model that I describe here, I wish to create a document that ESG members can read in order to construct an understanding, common among the group’s participants, of the kinds of interactions that 40 years of detailed, scientific research demonstrates produce loving, mutually supportive relationships among people. I draw, here, heavily on the relationship and emotion research of John Gottman, Paul Ekman, and Susan Johnson, but especially on Susan Johnson and her book, The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, 2nd Ed, 2004. This model comes from the previously mentioned two years’ experience with our Tacoma ESG, my taking a weekend workshop from The Gottman Institute titled “The Art & Science of Love” presented by Dr. John Gottman and his wife, Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman, and significant reading of a number of authors regarding relationships and what the most recent scientific evidence suggests makes relationships work well, versus not working well.
In my opinion, and it remains only my opinion and judgment unconfirmed by any research that I presently have any awareness of, the principles that Gottman and Johnson describe in their books largely apply to all relationships, not just to couples and children. I think that this includes friendships, business relationships, and relationships among participants in ESGs. The model I present here comes quite directly from Susan Johnson’s previously mentioned book. I have freely used and translated some of her couples work, which she describes in The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, into an ESG context. I have done this based on my possibly mistaken assumption that the principles she describes apply as well, or nearly as well, in this different context. I strongly recommend that anyone having an interest in this model, or the research basis for the many claims made here, read at least Johnson’s book for much more information and detail than I have presented. I have listed other books that I think strongly support this ESG model, and that present many additional research references, in a recommended reading section below.
Adult love and attachment theory
When researchers ask clients about the basis of happy, long-term relationships, they inevitably answer with one word: love. However, most research has focused on power, control, autonomy, and mediating conflict while excluding nurturance and love. The recent application of attachment theory to adult relationships has proven revolutionary because, for the first time, it provides a coherent, relevant, well-researched framework for understanding and intervening in adult love. The 10 tenants of attachment theory include:
- Attachment works as an innate motivating force. Seeking and maintaining contact with significant others works as an innate, primary motivating principle in human beings across the life span. Dependency, often treated as a pathology in our culture, works as an innate part of human behavior rather than as a childhood trait that we outgrow. Attachment and the emotions associated with it serve as the defining core feature of close relationships. As such, it lies at “the heart of the matter” for ESGs. This theoretical perspective claims considerable cross-cultural validity. It also links to the evolution of humans as social animals, and offers a universal perspective. We find the fear of isolation and loss in every human heart. When the wind of loss and isolation blows, it stings the eyes of all.
- Secure dependence complements autonomy. According to attachment theory, no such thing as complete independence from others or overdependence exists. We have only effective or ineffective dependency. Secure dependence fosters autonomy and self-confidence. Secure dependence and autonomy then work as two sides of the same coin, rather than as dichotomies. The more securely connected we find ourselves, the more separate and different we can become. Health in this model means maintaining a sense of interdependency, rather than considering oneself as self-sufficient and separate from others.
- Attachment offers an essential safe haven. Contact with others works as an innate survival mechanism. The presence of an attachment figure, which usually means parents, children, spouses, and lovers, but also friends, provides comfort and security. The perceived inaccessibility of such figures creates distress. Proximity to others relaxes the nervous system, serving as the natural antidote to the inevitable anxieties and vulnerabilities of life, including the extremely high probability of NTHE. For people of all ages, positive attachments create a safe haven that offers a buffer against the effects of stress and uncertainty.
- Attachment offers a secure base. Secure attachment also provides a secure base from which people can explore their universe and respond most adaptively to their environment. Importantly for the purposes of an ESG, the presence of such a base encourages exploration and a cognitive openness to new information. It promotes the confidence necessary to risk, learn, and continually update models of self, others, and the world, thus facilitating adjustment to new contexts, including NTHE. Secure attachment, perhaps with an ESG group, strengthens the ability to stand back and reflect on oneself, one’s behavior, one’s mental states, and the meanings one might construct for their life. When relationships offer a sense of felt security, as can occur in ESGs, people find themselves better able to reach out to and provide support for others, and deal with the conflict and stress in more positive ways. This seems especially valuable with collapse and the prospect of NTHE. People then tend to find relationships happier, more stable, and more satisfying. The need for a secure emotional connection with some others, a connection that offers a safe haven and a secure base, seems a central theme for ESGs.
- Emotional accessibility and responsiveness build bonds. In general, emotion activates and organizes attachment behaviors. More specifically, emotional accessibility and responsiveness compose the building blocks of secure bonds. We can find attachment figures physically present but emotionally absent, and separation distress results from the appraisal of the inaccessibility of an attachment figure. Emotional engagement proves crucial, with the trust that we will find that engagement available when needed. In attachment terms, any response, even anger, works better than none. With no engagement, no emotional responsiveness, the attachment figure says “Your signals do not matter, and we have no connection between us.” Emotion remains central to attachment, and this theory provides a guide for understanding and normalizing many of the extreme emotions that accompany distressed relationships with people, as well as our relationship with Earth’s biosphere. Our strongest emotions arise from and seem to have the most impact on our attachment relationships. Emotions tell us and communicate to others our motivations and needs; they serve as the music of the attachment dance.
- Fear and uncertainty activate attachment needs. When people find themselves threatened, either by traumatic events, the negative aspects of everyday life such as stress or illness, or by any assault on the security of the attachment bond itself, powerful emotions arise and attachment needs for comfort and connection become particularly important and compelling. Attachment behaviors, such as seeking closeness with others, become activated. A sense of connection with a loved one serves as a primary, inbuilt emotional regulation device. Attachment to key others serves as our “primary protection against feelings of helplessness and meaninglessness.”
- We can predict the process of separation distress. If attachment behaviors fail to evoke comforting responsiveness and contact from attachment figures, a process of angry protest, clinging, depression, and despair occurs, ending eventually in detachment. Depression works as a natural response to loss of connection. In secure relationships, people recognize and accept protest with an inaccessibility of connection. An emotionally focused ESG group participant sees the basic dramas of distress, such as demand-withdraw, as variations on the theme of separation distress. These dramas will surely become increasingly common as global heating with its associated abrupt climate change, ecological, and nuclear collapse continue at an ever-increasing rate.
- We can identify a finite number of insecure forms of engagement. Human beings have a limited number of ways to deal with the unresponsiveness of attachment figures. Only a few ways exist for coping with a negative response to the question “Can I depend on you when I need you?” Attachment behaviors can become heightened and intense as anxious clinging, pursuit, or aggressive attempts to control and obtain a response from loved ones. From this perspective, most criticism, blaming, and emotionally loaded demands in distressed relationships, including our relationships with Earth’s biosphere, serve as attempts to deal with and resolve attachment hurts and fears.
- Attachment involves working models of self and other. We define ourselves in the context of our most intimate relationships, including our relationship with Earth. As stated above, attachment strategies reflect ways of processing and dealing with emotion. Unfortunately, for most civilized people today, attachment does not include Earth’s biosphere. We find secure attachment characterized by a working model of self as lovable and cared for, confident, and competent. Research has found secure attachment associated with a stronger sense of self-efficacy. Securely attached people who believe others will respond when needed also tend to have working models of others as dependable and meriting trust. These models of self and other grow out of thousands of interactions and become expectations and biases that carry forward into new relationships. They do not work as one-dimensional cognitive outlines, but as procedural scripts for how to create relatedness and ways of processing attachment information. These models all involve goals, beliefs, and attachment strategies, all heavily infused with emotion. We form, elaborate, maintain, and most important for ESG participants, change these models through emotional communication with other people and other life forms on Earth. Once ESG participants step beyond their denial and angry protests, for example, they often begin to disclose fears about their own lovableness and “worth” within the drama of life and death.
- Isolation and loss have inherently traumatizing effects. It proves important to recognize that attachment theory remains essentially a theory of trauma. Attachment theory describes and explains the trauma of deprivation, loss, rejection, and abandonment by those we need the most and the enormous impact it has on us. These traumatic stressors have tremendous impact on personality formation and on a person’s ability to deal with other stresses in life. When someone has confidence of the availability of a loved one when needed, “a person will be much less prone to either intense or chronic fear than will an individual who has no such confidence”. An ESG can help provide participants with such needed relationships. As a theory of trauma, attachment theory specifically helps us to understand the weight behind emotional hurts such as rejection, perceived abandonment by, or loss of a loved one, all of which we will soon find ourselves overwhelmed by as a result of the self- and other species annihilation trap that we have created on Earth. Distressed participants dealing with the traumatic helplessness induced by isolation and loss tend to adopt stances of fight, flight, or freeze that characterize responses to traumatic stress.
In summary, Susan Johnson: “…it makes excellent adaptive sense to react with anxiety and protest to even the temporary ‘loss’ of an attachment figure who is the primary source of emotional and/or physical security.” This surely must include our attachment to Mother Earth, our attachment to Earth’s biosphere, which we find ourselves rapidly losing. Attachment serves as a theory that takes the mystery out of adult love and shows us the plot underlying the drama of distress so that we can redirect this drama most effectively for our psychological and emotional wellbeing insofar as that remains possible during collapse and NTHE. The trauma perspective, with its focus on the power of helplessness and fear, helps ESG participants tune in to the reality of distressed others and deal with that reality constructively.
Changing inner experience
This ESG model works largely as a humanistic approach to support, recognizing the importance of emotion and focusing on it more systematically as part of the change process than other models and approaches might. The main tenets of a humanistic experiential approach to support include the following five points:
- A focus on process. Human beings constantly process and construct their experience, symbolizing that experience from moment-to-moment as words, images, and sounds, and creating meaning frameworks. Each group participant remains the expert concerning their own experience. The participant’s role in helping others lies in their own experience, attempting to help each other participant expand his or her awareness of their experience in the present moment in the meeting, integrate aspects excluded from awareness, and create new meaning frameworks. The focus of the meeting then lies on present process. It involves how we process events, which matters most from this perspective, not simply the content or facts of an event or experience. Each participant serves as a process consultant. The meeting then works as a collaborative process of discovery for all and the process remains unique for each person. This experiential perspective respects individual differences and views each person and their relationship with the group as a unique culture that all need to get to know.
- A focus on the necessity for a safe, collaborative alliance within meetings. We view people as primarily social beings who need to belong and feel valued by others and best understood in the context of their relationships to others. It does not seem surprising, then, that we consider the acceptance and empathy of other participants a key factor that fosters a reprocessing of experience, the construction of new meanings, and a new sense of agency relative to the NTHE theme. The acceptance of each other, or what Carl Rogers termed an “unconditional positive regard”, allows participants to encounter their experiences in new ways. Rogers suggested that empathic reflection of a person’s experience, for example, does not in fact work as a reflection but as a “revelation” that more fully orders and structures this person’s experience in a way that allows them to encounter and deal with the “frightening crannies of inner experience”. Participants attempt to behave in egalitarian, authentic, and transparent ways so as to create a safe haven in the meetings. In this safe haven, people can begin to see the choices they make in their relationships, such as to shut down and shut out others, and take responsibility for the impact of those choices on themselves and others. In meetings, creating safety involves a conscious effort to validate each participant’s experience with the trauma of NTHE and with other participants, without invalidating or marginalizing the core elements of the experience of others. The ultimate goal also involves creating a safe, accepting connection with other participants.
- A focus on health. Human beings naturally orient toward growth and development, and in general have healthy needs and desires. The constriction, disowning, and denial of these needs and desires, as happens so often and so strongly in an industrial, capitalist society, creates often severe problems. This view of problems arising out of a narrowing or rigidity, a “stuckness” in processing experience, parallels a more interpersonal systemic perspective that focuses on the problematic nature of narrow patterns of interaction. Health in this experiential model, as in systemic models, lies in openness to experience and responsive flexibility that allows for new learning, new choices, and adaptation to new environments. The experiential approach, then, does not make emotion and experience a pathology. The focus remains on growth though new experience and new ways of processing that experience, rather than on correcting alleged inherent deficits or deficiencies. The approach assumes that the ways people cope in dire circumstances with few choices, such as global heating with associated abrupt climate change and NTHE, often become limiting and inadequate for creating positive relationships and lifestyles. All ways of responding can help in psychologically and emotionally adaptive ways, providing these ways can evolve in response to new contexts.
- A focus on emotion. As in attachment theory, in this approach we give emotion a prime place, and we see it as essentially adaptive. Emotions can tell us and others what we want and need and motivate key actions, especially relationship responses. Recent experiential theorists suggest that we construct emotional frames or blueprints in relation to situations that frustrate or satisfy our needs and goals. These frames then guide us in differentiating and classifying experience, and in organizing expectations and reactions. These frames help us predict, interpret, respond to, and control our experience. As Albert Ellis often insisted, we do not so much store emotions as we reconstruct them by the appraisal of a situation that activates a frame, an organized set of responses. In ESG meetings, such blueprints may become activated and made available for exploration and development; we may then also modify them by new experience. We access, develop, and restructure emotion, and also use it to transform ways of constructing experience from moment to moment and in responding to others. Emotion serves as both a target and an agent of change.
- A focus on corrective emotional experience. Change occurs, in the present, as a result of the expanded processing of experience and the generation of powerful new corrective emotional experiences. Change does not then occur primarily as the result of insight, the ventilation of emotion, or improved skills. It arises from the formulation and expression of new emotional experience that has the power to transform how the individual structures key experiences, views him- or herself, and communicates with others. ESG participants who use an experiential approach then:
- Focus on and reflect each participant’s emotional
- Validate and accept that experience, rather than trying to marginalize or replace it.
- Attune to and empathically explore that experience, focusing on what the person’s experiences as most alive and poignant.
- Expand others’ experiencing by questions, usually process questions such as what and how and using conjectures.
- Encourage other participants to engage in tasks that foster a new kind of processing of experience and their NTHE knowledge, and broadening and deepening this awareness until new facets emerge that reorganize the experience as a whole.
The goal for exploring intrapsychic experience involves fostering a new kind of contact with group participants and others. This goal influences the kinds of experience the participants will choose to focus on. In this ESG process, a balance must occur among exploring each participant’s intrapsychic experience, validating each person’s very different experience, and encouraging interaction between participants. All participants need to remain aware that everyone witnesses and reacts to the various processes among each other, and remain acutely sensitive to how others hear and process various comments. Participants need to make sure, for example, that in validating one person’s experience they do not discount another person’s experience.
The primary assumptions of this ESG model
Using attachment theory as the basis for understanding adult love and an experiential as well as systemic approach to change, what main assumptions does this ESG model make?
- The most appropriate model for adult intimacy involves that of an emotional bond, and a key issue in conflict relates to the security of that bond. We create such bonds in ESG meetings by accessibility and responsiveness, by emotional engagement. These bonds address our innate need for security, protection, and contact.
- Emotion serves as a key factor in organizing attachment behaviors and the way we experience the self and others in intimate relationships. Both attachment and experiential theory stress the importance of emotional experience and expression. Emotion guides and gives meaning to perception, motivates to action, and communicates to others. It serves as both a crucial target and agent of change in extinction support groups. We consider creating new emotional experience the most important factor in both intrapsychic and interpersonal change.
- We maintain problems in relationships by the ways we organize interactions and the dominant emotional experience of the participants in the relationship. These elements operate in a reciprocally determining way, and we can use them in groups to mutually influence and redefine each other.
- We consider the attachment needs and desires of participants essentially healthy and adaptive. Unfortunately, we often find these needs and desires enacted in a context of perceived insecurity that creates problems. Both attachment theory and the experiential view of human functioning emphasize the potentially adaptive nature of most needs and desires, and see problems as arising from disowning and constriction of these needs. We consider the recognition and validation of these needs as a key part of healthy ESG functioning.
- We find helpful change in ESGs associated with accessing and reprocessing the emotional experience underlying each participant’s position in their relationships with others. Creating new elements of emotional experience and new ways of expressing that experience tend to modify the positions participants take with each other, and allow for key new interactions to occur that then redefine the bond between participants in ESGs and others outside of these groups. Change does not occur primarily through insight, through some kind of catharsis, or through negotiation. It occurs through new emotional experience and new interactional events. As Einstein suggested, “All knowledge is experience: everything else is just information.”
Empathy plays a key role
An attuned, accurate empathic response can:
- Reassure a person that their experience makes sense to another human being. We then find it easier to grasp and own our less articulated experience. Increased openness to experience promotes the ongoing revision of this experience.
- Encourage participants to listen in a more attuned way to themselves and to loved ones. An empathic response from a participant models an accepting stance toward other participant’s experience, which enhances the recognition of and engagement in new elements of the experience and new ways of seeing. As participants attune to each other and do not judge, people tend to feel safe lessening the need to defend against difficult experiences as they come into focus. Empathy works as a necessary precursor to the validation that serves as one of the hallmarks of this ESG model.
- Focus attention on processing and unfolding specific experiences, and slow this processing so that participants can “hold” experiences in awareness and process them further. Participants can then see things in a new light and engage in ongoing experience on a deeper level.
- Organize and order chaotic or ambiguous experience, or put elements of such experience into an integrated and meaningful whole.
- Comfort and reassure participants so that they do not feel overwhelmed by difficult emotions. Empathic responses can modulate the intensity of a meeting and so maximize participant engagement. We can see empathy as the primary way participants create a “working distance” from emotion. Empathic reflections hold, support, and contain overwhelming experiences. To a large degree, what we can share we can bear.
- Allow feeling the meaning of key experiences, checked, explored, differentiated, and revised.
In general, then, sensitively communicated empathy enhances a participant’s sense of safety, promotes a focus on the construction of experience and its meaning, and so enables new responses. Each participant then can serve as a processing partner who, through various forms of empathic responsiveness, orders and deepens other participant’s experience. This enables each person to connect with another while staying engaged with their own emerging realities.
People can find empathic attunement and responsiveness a demanding task. ESG participants then need to have a willingness to engage with and attune to other participant’s experiences and to resonate with this experience.
Creating and maintaining an interpersonal alliance
Within this ESG model, an alliance forms characterized by participants having the ability to stay with each other as they encounter their emotional responses. Each participant serves as a collaborative partner in piecing together and processing experience, as well as a guide in creating a new relationship dance among themselves and with the planet that produced and sustains them. Participants serve as process consultants, not as experts on the contents of anyone’s psyche, or on “the right way” to construct meaningful, intimate relationships. The following characterizes the ESG process:
- Empathic attunement. Participants continuously attempt to empathically attune to each other, and to connect on a personal level. We can describe empathy as an act of imagination, an ability to inhabit each other’s world for a moment. Empathy reduces participant’s anxiety and allows for a more complete engagement in ongoing experience. Participants do not evaluate other’s comments in terms of truth, realism, or dysfunction, but rather attempt to make contact with the other person’s world. We focus on what this person’s world feels like in this context, and the essence of their experience. A participant’s ability to listen, to connect what they hear with their own experience, and then to stay with this subjective perspective enables them to answer this question. This often involves a focus on a speaker’s nonverbal messages and an imitation or reflection of these physiological cues and the emotions implicit in them. (Thus the importance of Paul Ekman’s work and his book, Emotions Revealed, Recognizing Faces and Feelings To Improve Communication and Emotional Life.)
- A nonjudgmental stance proves essential in creating a powerful ESG alliance. This stance comes from participants’ awareness of their own human frailties, but also from the theories and beliefs they hold. If one adheres to a model that views people as deficient or defective, they will find it difficult to hold and communicate a nonjudgmental stance. We need to honor and prize all participants as they exist, not as we demand that they presumably “should”. We need to have the ability to tolerate ambiguity and aspects of participants as fallible human beings that even they themselves do not prize or accept. This stance of respect and acceptance allows ESG participants to face, with each other, what they could not face alone, or reveal to others. Times occur when participants find themselves hard pressed to honor another participant’s specific behaviors, but they can honor the emotional reality that motivates these behaviors. Attunement to and acceptance of what remains true for a participant comes before any attempt at change or finding remedies. This acceptance occurs actively rather than passively; it involves not just nonpathologizing but explicitly framing negative behaviors as creative adaptations to impossible circumstances, and a willingness to learn as bravery and strength.
- A crucial aspect of the alliance involves the genuineness of the participants, how real and present they remain. This does not mean impulsiveness or always self-disclosing, but remaining accessible and responsive to others in a way that others can trust. Participants can then admit mistakes, and allow other participants to teach them about their experience. In short, the ESG meeting occurs as a real human encounter, which participants take on with integrity. Part of a participant’s genuineness also involves a certain transparency or willingness for others to see them.
- Continuous active monitoring. To maintain this kind of alliance throughout and between meetings, participants must take an active, deliberate role in monitoring, probing, and, if necessary, restoring this alliance. Each participant monitors their engagement with others, actively seeking and processing other’s responses to him or her. If a participant has any hint that a rupture of the alliance may occur, then mending this alliance becomes an immediate priority. A participant might ask questions as to other’s reactions to their comments or actions, encouraging others to express their views and desires. An empathic question can prevent a rupture in the alliance and/or strengthen it. For example, at the end of an exchange, a participant might state that the others worked pretty intensely and invite their reactions, particularly concerns about the process or content of the exchange. Participants then explicitly encourage those involved to give feedback.
- Joining the system. Participants engage not only each other but also the ESG group’s relationship system. In systemic terms, the participant joins the system. The participant reflects the sequence and pattern of interactions, in an empathic and respectful manner, helping others to take a broader perspective on their interactions. They can then begin to own a part in creating the pattern. Participants need to have the ability to validate each participant’s experience of, and position in, the relationship in the presence of others, without in any way invalidating the other’s experience.
Emotion in ESGs
With this model, the ESG group focuses on emotional experience, expanding on, reformulating, and restructuring it. Expressing new and/or expanded NTHE-related emotions then allows for a reorganization of positions participants take with the self-annihilation predicament and, importantly, with each other. Accessing loneliness, for example, creates a new meaning context for oneself and others, allows reprocessing of any rage, hostility, or desperation, and challenges many perceptions.
In this model, we do not see emotion as a primitive, irrational response, but as a high-level information processing system (as Gavin de Becker describes in his book, The Gift of Fear). All emotions make sense when placed in context. The term here refers to the seven basic, universal, biologically predisposed emotions that Paul Ekman focuses on: anger, fear, surprise, joy, disgust/shame, contempt, and sadness. These emotions each involve a unique and universally recognized facial expression, an inborn neurological foundation, a social function that helps us survive and have effects on others, a quick and compelling onset, and early development soon after birth. We see these emotions as an integration of physiological responses, meaning patterns, action tendencies, and self-reflexive awareness of the experience.
We see emotion as a rich source of meaning: It gives us powerful, compelling feedback as to how our environment affects us. This feedback regulates our responses and organizes our behavior. Emotional expression, by communicating with others, also regulates social interaction. The primary social function of emotion perhaps involves mobilizing us to deal rapidly with important interpersonal encounters. In general, emotions, like an internal compass, orient us to our world and provide us with crucial information about the personal significance of events. They tell us what we want and need. Indeed, it proves almost impossible to make action decisions without reference to emotion. They serve as a primary and compelling motivating force. Anger energizes us for a fight, intimidates attackers, and defends against injury. Sadness protests loss and evokes nurturing and help from others. Shame bids us hide from others and retreat so as to keep our place in a social group. Fear energizes us for fight or avoidance and evokes protection. We see emotion as basically adaptive, providing a response system that can rapidly reorganize a person’s behavior in the interest of security, survival, or the fulfillment of needs. In ESG relationships, emotion tends to:
- Focus attention and orient participants to their own needs and particular environment/social cues.
- Color perceptions and meaning
- Motivate and organize responses, particularly attachment behaviors.
- Activate core beliefs concerning self, other, and the nature of relationships, including one’s relationship with the planet.
- Communicate with others. Emotion serves intrinsically social ends. It serves as the primary signaling system in relationship-defining interactions. Emotion works as the music in the dance of interpersonal intimacy. When we change the music, we change the dance.
We can differentiate emotion into primary, secondary, and instrumental responses. Primary emotions occur here-and-now in direct response to situations; secondary emotions occur as reactions to, and attempts to cope with, these direct responses, often obscuring awareness of the primary response. For example, we may see angry defensiveness occurring in a meeting, rather than hurt, fear, or some other primary emotion. We use instrumental emotions to manipulate the responses of others.
Emotions can also have maladaptive effects or enhance problematic behaviors in the following ways:
- If they remain unprocessed, they may arise out of context and constrict processing of present situations.
- Overwhelming emotion that one cannot regulate can flood the senses and narrow focus. Intense fear, in particular, exercises such tight control over information processing that it often eliminates all parts of the perceptual field that do not seem to offer a direct escape route.
- Limitations of emotional awareness or expression can limit responsiveness and trap a person into spirals of negative emotions and interactions. Distressed people generally interact on the level of secondary reactive emotions that then pull for negative responses from others and so maintain negative emotions within an emotional trap.
ESG participants work to focus on the primary emotional responses that often remain unattended to, undifferentiated, or disowned, although meetings often begin with participants reflecting and validating the secondary responses that participants habitually present as part of the cycle of distress. In the ESG meeting process, participants process emotions and regulate them differently, resulting in more adaptive responses. Participants can acknowledge and clarify constricted, overwhelming, or unprocessed emotional responses in the safety of the meeting. As change occurs, the participant’s relationships become a place where they can regulate difficult emotions in a different manner, express them in an adaptive way, and eventually reorganize them. For example, when a participant can acknowledge to self and others the panic that arises when thinking about global heating with abrupt climate change, this often evokes compassion and comforting behavior from the other participants, allowing new healing emotional experience to occur in the present relationships that reduce and change the nature of the panic response.
It seems important to clarify issues concerning the level of emotion and how we use it in ESG meetings. We can outline these issues as:
- Generally, we do not discuss emotional experience from a distance with limited involvement. Labeling emotions and discussing them from a distance has no effect. For these reasons, in meetings we evoke and experience emotion as vividly as possible. This engagement with emotional responses allows for the discovery of new aspects of each participant’s emotional life and the reorganization of emotional responses. If an emotion begins to become overwhelming, we create a safe working distance from it.
- The goal with exploration lies not to place labels on experience or teach participants “better” ways to express themselves. Rather, we engage in a process of emotional exploration and discovery that expands each participant’s experience of self in relation to each other and Earth.
- New emotion. In ESG meetings, we do not use indiscriminate ventilation of negative emotion to create catharsis. This can prove detrimental. Distressed people often repetitively express secondary reactive emotions as problematic interactions in their day-to-day lives. Instead, participants find the discovery and development of new or unrecognized emotional experience helpful.
Which emotion do we focus on? We have three general guides:
- Participants focus on the most poignant and vivid aspect of experience that arises in the meetings—for example, the tear, the dramatic nonverbal gesture, the potent image or label.
- Participants focus on the emotion with most salience in terms of attachment needs and fears. This may involve anger. Sadness and grief, as well as the anguish of loss and helplessness often follows. Shame often proves key. However, fear and vulnerability lie at the heart of attachment theory and, probably most often, the core negative emotion regarding NTHE.
- Participants focus on the emotion that seems to play a role in organizing negative interactions.
- Participants attend to, focus on, and reflect present poignant emotion, conveying understanding of the other person’s experience and directing that person’s attention to that experience. Reflection here does not just echo and paraphrase another person’s words, but instead provides an empathic absorption in their experience.
- ESG participants convey to others their entitlement to their experience and their emotional responses.
- Evocative responding: reflections and questions. These responses focus on the tentative, unclear, or emerging aspects of another participant’s experience and encourage exploration and engagement. Here, one bypasses the more superficial content issues in a conversation and responds to the emotions of the other person. We offer these reflections tentatively, for the other person to taste, try on, correct, reshape, or take on, not as an expert synopsis of their responses.
- As participants track the internal and interpersonal processes within others, they may try to highlight and intensify particular responses and interactions. Participants can use this heightened emotion to help others engage with their emotional experience in a new way, and create a different kind of dialog with others, including Earth. We may use several processes for achieving this:
- Repeating a phrase to heighten its impact.
- Intensifying the experience by saying it in a particular way, for example by leaning forward and lowering and slowing one’s voice.
- Using clear, poignant images and metaphors that crystalize experience.
- Directing participants to enact their response, turning intrapsychic experience into an external behavior or interpersonal message.
- Maintaining a specific and sometimes relentless focus, thus blocking exits or changes in the flow of experience that will likely lessen the emotional intensity of the moment.
- Empathic conjecture/interpretation. Here, the participant makes an educated guess about another’s current state and experience from nonverbal, interactional, and contextual cues to help them give color, shape, and form to their experience and take this experience one step further. The aim here does not involve commenting on causes or patterns, or helping the person interpret their experience in a “better” way, but to extend and clarify that experience, so that new meaning can naturally emerge. Such conjectures do not occur as cognitive labels that categorize and therefore provide closure to experience, and not meant to give participants new information about themselves. The goal involves facilitating more intense experiencing from which new meanings spontaneously arise, not to create insight per se.
Inferences in ESG meetings might typically concern defensive strategies, attachment longings, and core catastrophic attachment fears and fantasies. These conjectures may take the form of statements concerning the need for self-protection, and formulations of attachment responses such as helpless mourning, the longing for comfort, or the classic human fears of engulfment/subjugation, rejection, and abandonment.
- Self-disclosure. We use this to build alliances, validate other participant’s responses, or as a form of joining with other participants to help them identify elements of their own experience.
Perhaps someday research will support or deny the validity of this proposed ESG model in helping people support one another through the unfolding collapse processes. Unfortunately, given the rapid nature of global heating with its associated abrupt climate change, as well as ecological and nuclear collapse, I doubt that anyone will ever do that research.
This model comes almost entirely from Susan Johnson’s, The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, 2nd Ed, 2004, through my translating from the couple’s context into a more general group context. Other books that strongly relate to and, I think, support this model and otherwise would prove helpful for ESG participants include: Principia Amoris, The New Science of Love by John Gottman, 2015; Emotions Revealed, Recognizing Faces and Feelings To Improve Communication and Emotional Life, 2nd Ed. by Paul Ekman, 2003; Trauma and Recovery, The aftermath of violence—from domestic abuse to political terror by Judith Herman, M.D., 1992; and The Gift of Fear And Other Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence by Gavin De Becker, 1997.
Extinction Support Group (ESG)
Meeting once a month in order to provide social and emotional support for those who understand what we experience happening in the world with global heating and its associated abrupt climate change, ecological, and nuclear collapse, the Tacoma Extinction Support Group has met for two years. Very easy to manage, the Tacoma group agenda works informally and with continually changing meeting facilitation. If anyone would like a copy of our most recent Agenda, Tool Box, and this Proposed ESG Model as templates for help in starting a similar group of your own, I will feel glad to send you copies. Just send an email request to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.