Austin Group Psychotherapy Society

Interview with Workshop Leader Anna Graybeal by Gianna Viola

Friday, April 19, 2019 10:27 AM | Anonymous

AGPS is eagerly anticipating our Spring Workshop titled Our Emotional Resistance to Climate Change. The workshop will be presented by Anna Graybeal, a longtime AGPS member, a past board member, and a climate activist. I enjoyed sitting down with Anna recently to discuss her passion for this topic and her plans for the workshop.

Gianna: Would you say a few words about your professional history and your current therapy practice?

Anna: Before becoming a psychologist, I spent 10 years as a biologist: I got a PhD in evolutionary biology, moved to Austin for a postdoc in zoology, and briefly held a curatorship at the Field Museum in Chicago. I have a great love for animals, and my training helped me understand the history and diversity of life on this planet and gave me a deep appreciation for the interconnectedness of its ecosystems.

During my job in Chicago, I faced the realization that I really wanted to be a psychologist. Although I am happy to talk more about my reasons, for now I’ll just say that the basic story is more about my unconsciously resisting this choice for years, rather than that I was suddenly changing my mind about my interests.  

I got a second PhD (not necessarily a path I’d recommend, but not one I regret either!) in psychology, and now work in private practice with individuals, couples and groups. One of the best things I did was to join a training group early on; this group has been my bedrock–the home base where I have developed as a therapist and as a person. Partly because of it, I have become more and more passionate about group over time, starting a group in my practice 7 years ago and more recently starting a co-led group with Rhea Pledger.

Gianna: Can you talk about the history of your engagement with the issue of climate change and any ways in which it dovetails with your work as a therapist?

Anna: I first learned about global warming during biology grad school, although back then it seemed like a distant problem. I began to feel more anxious about it in the early 2000s, especially with the birth of my first child and the release of the film An Inconvenient Truth in 2004.

That anxiety continued to build, and then in 2011 or so, I read Bill McKibben’s Eaarth. I was horrified by his depiction of the changes already underway, and I recall phoning my brother and literally bawling on the phone with him, saying “why isn’t every headline in every newspaper about this?!” A friend of mine suggested I volunteer on the issue, arguing that perhaps taking some kind of action would help with my anxiety. I found a wonderful organization, Citizens’ Climate Lobby, and learned that they were eager to start a chapter in Austin. Another friend agreed to help, and together we founded the Austin CCL chapter in 2012. By 2017 we had enough regular members that we were able to subdivide into 5 local chapters, organized by congressional district.

So far, I have not actually seen a lot of overlap between this work and my work with clients. Most of my clients rarely mention climate change. I do think this will change fairly quickly, however, in all of our practices. Also, I have seen how my therapist training helps me be a more effective climate change leader and activist. For example, I am skilled at leading lobbying meetings on Capitol Hill because I know how to invite dialogue and allow for differences, which allows for the development of mutual respect and deepening understanding.

Gianna: What suggestions do you have about how we as therapists can better serve our clients and our world around this issue of climate change?  

Anna: I believe that we are ALL feeling the underlying anxiety about our world being out of balance, and that we would all benefit, individually and collectively, if we were putting words to those feelings. And what better place to do that than in therapy? Accordingly, I believe that therapists themselves need to do their own work to put their feelings into words, so that they are positioned to help their clients talk about their feelings as well.

I also believe that the principles of group therapy are powerful aids to moving us forward together as we confront the changes and the decisions ahead. As a society, we collude with each other to avoid difficult feelings, and we scapegoat and marginalize those who threaten our perceived interests. As group therapists, we are ideally positioned to recognize such processes and to help our society navigate them.

Gianna: In your view, how does resistance play into our relationship with climate change, speaking to your own struggles and/or what you’ve witnessed in others?

Anna: I think resistance is probably the most important aspect of our relationship with climate change. The feelings it induces are impossible to stay with for long. The terror, the impotence, the frustration, the guilt…if one is really opening up to feeling at the level the problem deserves, the emotions can become overwhelming very quickly.

I believe that this is now the principle reason for our collective inaction. Climate change is no longer a scientific problem: the evidence for it is overwhelming. It is no longer even a technological problem: we know what to do and we have all the capability needed. It is instead, fundamentally, a psychological problem: in the near term it feels easier and more comfortable NOT to think about it, and it seems like we can get away with that. But if we are to avoid catastrophic outcomes in the future, we actually have to take action as soon and as powerfully as we can.

Gianna: For those who might be on the fence about attending, what would you like them to know about your upcoming workshop?

Anna: I want them to know that I do not want or intend to push anyone to feel anything they don’t want to feel (and that includes guilt!). I want this to be a space where we can gently begin to consider what we might be thinking and feeling and–even more importantly–why we might not want to feel or think such things, and how we might work to avoid.

Gianna:Thank you so much for taking the time to have this conversation with me, Anna. I am grateful for your leadership on this issue, and it’s a great gift to our community that you’re offering this workshop to invite us to explore our feelings and possible roles in confronting climate change.

Anna Graybeal, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice, working with individuals, couples and groups.

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