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The Personal Healing Work of Sustaining All Life


We need to undo the damage done to each one of us by oppression, disconnection, and fear. As we do this work we will become more aware of the many aspects of the environmental crisis and growing climate emergency. We will find ways to form and sustain the united movements that we need in order to face and end this threat and create a just world. This personal healing work is the work done by Sustaining All Life.

Sustaining All Life views all human beings as inherently intelligent, cooperative, and good. We assume it is natural for a human to have good relations with all other humans, to think well, to act wisely and successfully, to enjoy life, and to preserve and protect the environment. We believe every human being acts and cooperates with others except when emotional hurts interfere. Then irrational behavior, negative feelings, and failure to cooperate or communicate replace the inherent human behavior. These “distress patterns”[1] are the scars of physical or emotional hurts, many of them dating back to childhood (and some passed down from generation to generation), from which we have never fully recovered. We are pulled to re-enact them when something in the present reminds us of the earlier times of distress.

The effects of past distress experiences could have been recovered from quickly and permanently, at the time we were hurt, through natural channels of emotional release[2] (these include crying, laughing, and trembling). After emotional release, a person is able to think more clearly and re-think what happened in the distressing incident.

Social conditioning against showing emotion is part of our cultures and was rigidly inflicted upon us when we were children (“Don’t cry,” “Be a big boy,” and so on). This has interfered with, and prevented, recovery from our hurts, leading to an increasing accumulation of distress, tensions, and rigid behavior. By the time we are adults, this conditioning against the release of emotions has severely limited our original abilities to achieve good relationships with others, to enjoy life, and to think and act well in difficult situations. It also interferes with our collective progress toward a society that supports all humans to thrive in cooperative, respectful relationships with one another and with the environment.

We can regain the natural ability (that we had as infants) to heal from hurt. The main requirement for this is a listener/counselor who is sincerely interested, who will remain relaxed in the face of our difficulties, and who understands how the process of emotional release operates.

This is the personal work that must be done to free people’s minds from the accumulated fears, disconnection, and feelings of powerlessness, discouragement, and domination. Without this work it is difficult to effectively address and resolve the climate crisis.

Recovering from the effects of oppression

Many of our accumulated hurts result from oppression (racism, classism, and sexism are examples). Every adult in every present society has been conditioned, through distress patterns resulting from these hurts, into functioning in both oppressor and oppressed roles (for example, being in the oppressor role with regard to sexism but being oppressed by racism).

Oppression is neither inevitable nor inherent in human beings. It arises and operates only on the basis of distress patterns. No human being would ever agree to oppress or participate in oppressing another human being unless distress patterns of domination and oppression had been previously installed through significant emotional hurt. No human being would agree to submit to oppression unless a distress pattern of submission had been previously installed. Once these patterns are in place, we are pulled to act irrationally and oppressively toward others. And we are vulnerable to being hurt by oppression directed at our own group. Then we internalize the oppression and pass it on to people in our own group. All oppression hurts all people.

The processes of emotional release can free people from the damage caused by racism and other oppressions. With healing, individuals organize more powerfully to eliminate oppression from the institutions of society.

The damage from oppression takes several forms.

One form of damage is the corruption of the minds and spirits of those of us who have been conditioned by society to be the agents of oppression. The damage that is done to and subsequently acted out by those in the oppressor role is reinforced by society. (The classic example is the man oppressed at work who goes home to oppress his wife. She reacts by hitting the child who then kicks the dog.)

No one is born with patterns of racism, classism, or sexism. All oppressive behavior is the result of previous mistreatment. Individuals who act as the agents of institutional oppression have been hurt into playing that role. People in oppressive roles do not have a better life in any human sense, though they often benefit materially.

A minority of the world’s population acts as the primary agents of racism, the oppression of Indigenous people, and classism. These oppressions dominate the globe and harm every person, every life form, our society, and the environment. Male domination supports and enforces these oppressions. Men are conditioned by the society to play the role of “enforcer.” Men are not born that way.

A second form is the damage done to the group that has been targeted by oppression. The damage impacts everyone in that group. Racism, classism, sexism, and oppression of Indigenous peoples are key examples. People targeted by these oppressions are systematically denied resources and targeted with violence. We are treated as inferior, less intelligent, less capable, and needing to be controlled and led by the dominant groups. People targeted by racism, poor and working-class people, are exploited for our labor and given inadequate economic and social resource. In oppressive societies land and resources are considered more valuable than the Indigenous peoples themselves who are then killed or removed from the land. The significant harm done by these oppressions can last for many generations.

A third form of damage from oppression is what happens to the oppressed group’s attitude toward ourselves. Oppressive conditioning is so widespread and deeply rooted in societies that oppressive messages are subconsciously absorbed by oppressed peoples as a true picture of ourselves. This can cause us to believe the misinformation about ourselves and other members of our group. It can lead us to treat ourselves and others in our group in a manner similar to the messages dictated by the oppression. Re-evaluation Counseling calls this internalized oppression.[3] Some of us can reject these lies intellectually, but we still struggle not to feel inferior and to treat others in our group well. For example, people targeted by racism may end up belittling and invalidating ourselves and each other. We may act out on each other the violence historically used to oppress us.

All three forms of damage can be healed if we can be listened to well and supported to release our accumulated distress. We become able to cooperate across lines of oppression.

Recovering from discouragement and grief

Oppression causes people to feel powerless and discouraged. An oppressive society conditions us to fit in rather than think about how things can be better. It tells the common people that we aren’t fit to lead—that we should leave big issues to the authorities. The majority of people are left feeling like they aren’t smart enough to think about climate change. We feel too small and insignificant to make a difference. And each of us has a long history of trying to make changes in our lives that we lacked the understanding or resources to bring about. We have internalized feelings of powerlessness from these experiences of living in our current oppressive society. These feelings interfere with clearly thinking about the environmental crisis and making steady efforts to change things for the better.

But these feelings are more a reflection of how we have been treated than the actual situation facing us at any moment. If people have a chance to be listened to about these feelings, they can recover a sense of power and hope. They can be supported to join others to bring about change.

People also need to be listened to about the grief we naturally feel from having caused this damage to our planet and its life forms. We all need chances to grieve about the losses that have occurred to people around the globe, to the many species we have lost or that are endangered, and to the Earth. When people hold a lot of grief inside, life can feel difficult or meaningless. It can be hard to see that all is not lost. Emotional release of grief frees people from these heavy feelings that can keep us from seeing future possibilities and moving forward toward them.

The impact on activists

Many important changes have been brought about in society by people coming together, speaking up, and uniting around common demands. Environmental activists have much to be proud of. We have made many important gains. But our successes and accomplishments are easily forgotten in the daily struggles of organizing. We are taking on oppressive forces that fight back and attack activists and activist organizations in every possible way. They launch direct attacks on activist leaders and organizations. They lie, and they buy experts to support their lies. They flood the media with these lies. Their access to enormous profits gives them ongoing resource for their efforts to maintain the status quo.

Environmental activists care deeply about the Earth, its inhabitants, and our work. We are under great pressure. We are working on enormously important issues with deadlines that cannot be ignored. These stresses wear on us. We try to ignore our feelings of discouragement and despair as we work for change on a daily basis. But without addressing these feelings, many of us give up being activists. We “burn out.” We criticize, get angry at, and undermine each other. We need tools to stay united. Strong movements depend on strong relationships, which make it possible to pay attention to difficulties as they arise, overcome them, and move ahead.

To sustain ourselves in the long haul, we need to grow and thrive as we do this work. To face the challenges of ending climate change year after year, activists need a strong support system. By releasing distressed feelings in a supportive network we can stay united, hopeful, thoughtful, and committed. Our efforts in undoing this and our resulting hopefulness and joy in doing this work will attract others to the movement. Our example can be a contradiction to the numbness, urgencies, and discouragement of those not yet able to join in. The tools of Sustaining All Life can be used to address these issues and revitalize our efforts for change.

The Tools of Sustaining All Life

Healing from the hurts that drive damaging behaviors and oppression is not quick or easy work. Many of us resist it. We may feel that we have been able to succeed in life only by not showing anyone how much we were hurt. We may feel ashamed or embarrassed by our feelings. We may feel it would be unbearable to look at and to feel those hurts again. Perhaps this is because most of us have had no opportunity to tell our stories. Or we have not been treated well when we tried to tell our story. We may have survived by numbing ourselves to the damage we still carry and accepting the idea that we will never be free of it. Sustaining All Life thinks that it is possible to free ourselves from damaging painful emotion, damaging behaviors, and the effects of oppression.

Sustaining All Life co-counseling sessions

The basic tool of Sustaining All Life is engaged listening that supports us to review our past experiences, of both hurts and successes, and release emotional distresses. These listening sessions, also called co-counseling sessions, can be used by anyone who would like to be free from the effects of past hurts and oppression and recover her or his full initiative and intelligence.

A co-counseling session consists of two people taking turns listening to each other. It’s simple to get started. It just takes two people. Find a friend (or co-worker or spouse) who will try it with you. Agree that you will take turns listening to each other without interruption for an equal amount of time, and agree how long that time will be. Then decide who is going to talk first. That person talks about whatever she or he wants to talk about (but does not complain about or criticize the person listening or mutual acquaintances). We refer to this person as the client. We refer to the person listening as the counselor. The counselor pays attention, tries to understand fully, and doesn’t interrupt to give advice or comment or tell how she or he feels about what is said. The counselor can help the client turn her attention to the painful parts of her past (or good times that help the person notice that all of her past has not been painful) and encourage emotional release. After the agreed-upon time, the client becomes the counselor, and the one who listened first now talks. Thus the term “co-counseling” session.

It is important to agree that whatever is said by either person, when in the client role, will not be repeated by the counselor outside of the session. We refer to this as confidentiality. This makes it safe to talk more fully. The whole process becomes more effective the more you use it. Sustaining All Life sessions can be as long or short as you have time for. Even a few minutes being listened to can make a big difference in how you are able to think and function. Each person having an hour to talk is even better. Use a timer to keep each person’s turn of equal length. Since only time is exchanged this process and these resources are widely accessible.

Sustaining All Life support groups

It also works well to get a small group of people together to take turns listening to each other. In Sustaining All Life we call this a “support group.” Each person gets an equal amount of time to talk while the rest of the group listens. One person acts as leader of the group. She or he helps the group decide how much time each person will get and who will go first. The leader makes sure that no one’s turn is interrupted. A timer is used to make sure that each person gets equal time. The leader can actively support each member to speak, in turn, and encourage the release of painful emotion. The leader can also remind the group about the importance of confidentiality, assist the group to schedule its next meeting, and so on. Four to eight people seems to be the best size for a group. Groups can meet as often or as many times as the group members wish.

People of any similar background or interest can use a support group to talk about what we like about being from that background (in other words, what we like about being female, Black, young, climate activists, and so on), what has been hard about it, what we wish other people understood, and so on. When each person has had her or his turn to be listened to, the meeting can be ended with each person getting a chance to say what she or he liked best about being in the group meeting, or something she or he is looking forward to.

What can happen in a co-counseling session or support group?

Being listened to with caring and respect as we tell the stories of how living in our oppressive society has affected our lives begins the healing process. The client in a Sustaining All Life session may choose to respond to questions such as:

  • “What did you love about the environment around you when you were young?”
  • “Did you have a favorite place in nature?”
  • “What is your earliest memory of being a member of your oppressed group?”
  • “How has oppression affected your life?”
  • “When were you pleased with yourself for speaking up about injustice?”
  • “What are your earliest memories of being aware that people are mistreated because of their skin color or class?”
  • “How were you treated when young that left you feeling powerless or discouraged about making change?”
  • “What’s one of your biggest successes?”
  • “What are your earliest memories of feeling isolated from other humans?”
  • “What are your earliest memories of feeling better than others or entitled?”
  • Tell your life story.

Or the client may want to simply follow her or his mind wherever it goes when being listened to on the topic of climate change, the environment, oppression, our society, and so on.

Healing begins when we are allowed and encouraged to fully talk about our lives, the current situation, and how oppression has affected us and the environment, with others listening and giving their full attention. We become more powerful and have deeper connections with others and the natural world. All of the emotional effects of living in an oppressive society can be healed and intelligence recovered, if the person is given enough time, attention, and understanding.

Sustaining All Life sessions are done primarily for the benefit of the client. As the counselor in a session, the attitude and attention you bring to the listening will make a significant difference in how safe your client feels and how openly she or he can reflect and share. You will be most helpful if you listen with respect and interest in the person, while assuming that your client is intelligent, powerful, and loving. Be sure to keep the focus on the client, keeping your memories of similar experiences and your emotional reactions, to yourself. Don’t try to analyze, interpret, or give advice. Communicate relaxed confidence in the client, in yourself, and in the importance of the session.

We have been conditioned to try to solve problems for anyone who is expressing a difficulty. You might want to resist this tendency by deciding to say very little or even nothing in the session. You will often be surprised at the good use your client can make of just your warm attention. Attentively listening to someone with complete respect while holding out that everything about the person matters deeply is a powerful force against oppression.

Sometimes the client may begin to laugh or cry or show anger, or sometimes tremble or yawn. Once again, these forms of emotional release are a natural human process for healing emotional hurts. To heal fully from oppression and to live in an oppressive society we need to release the emotional tensions left from early hurtful experiences and oppression. While this expression of emotion may initially make you uncomfortable, it is actually a sign of progress. It simply means that you are feeling some old embarrassment, grief, rage, or fear and are becoming “un-embarrassed,” “un-sad,” “un-afraid,” or are healing the anger. The person listening can feel pleased if this happens and should continue to pay attention to the client with calm interest and without trying to stop any emotional release that is happening.

How do you use your turn in a session or support group?

You can start your turn by telling your counselor about good things, big or small, that have happened lately. It could be a beautiful sunset you saw, meeting a friend, or solving a problem. The idea is to give yourself a chance to notice the things that are going well. This is particularly important if you feel discouraged. Focusing only on “bad news” and misinformation keeps us discouraged. Painful feelings can pull our attention into paralyzed (hopeless) inaction or frantic action. Neither is the focused, purposeful clarity and movement that is needed to end climate change and restore our environment.

You can then talk about recent events that have been upsetting. Often you will find that being listened to about them, without someone trying to give you advice, allows you to get a better perspective on them. Often you can think of a good solution, if you have someone hear you out and show confidence in you while you feel upset and talk about the problem.

It can also be useful to ask yourself what earlier experience the current situation reminds you of, or when you felt this way before. You will almost always think of some situation from the past that was hurtful or upsetting in a similar way. Talking about it and releasing painful emotions will help you think more clearly about the current situation. Sessions can also be used for telling your life story, appreciating yourself, reviewing successes, or setting goals.

At the end of a session, especially if you have been talking about something difficult for you, take a few moments to redirect your thoughts to something pleasant in the present. For example, you can tell something you are looking forward to or mention something simple you don’t feel tense about, such as a favorite food, scenery, and so on.

The process is simple and effective but it is often not easy for us as counselors. Since we have not been listened to enough, it may be difficult to listen to someone else. Because we were stopped from releasing emotion, we may feel uncomfortable when someone else shows their feelings. For us as client, talking and sharing our stories may be challenging at first since we have had few or bad experiences trying to do this. And, because we all have had hard, inhibiting experiences around emotional release, that too can be challenging. But we can get back our ability to listen and support emotional release as well as share ourselves and show and release our hurts. Try it out and see if it makes sense to you.


Working together

Many movements world-wide are doing excellent and important work on climate change and environmental degradation. Many members of Sustaining All Life and the Re-evaluation Counseling Community are involved in these groups and support their efforts.

We hope the ideas in this pamphlet will help individuals and organizations improve relationships, communication, the work on oppression, and everyone’s enthusiasm for the work.

We would like to be in contact with you and look forward to working together. For more information or to find a local co-counseling group near you, contact:

Sustaining All Life
19370 Firlands Way North
Shoreline, WA 98133 USA
Telephone: +1-206-284-0311

1 A distress pattern is a rigid set of “thoughts,” behaviors, and feelings that is left by an undischarged hurtful experience (or experiences).

2 (Emotional) release—called emotional discharge in Re-evaluation Counseling—is a process inherent to human beings that heals the emotional damage from distressful incidents. Outward signs of this process include animated talking, crying, trembling, expressions of anger, perspiration, and laughter.

3 Internalized oppression is false and hurtful attitudes of invalidation about oneself or one’s group that were originally imposed as oppression from the outside, but which the target has “taken to heart” and believes (until these attitudes can be healed).

Last modified: 2024-05-27 17:01:51+00