How did you feel the last time you tossed something in the trash, when you could’ve recycled it? Or walked out of a store with a plastic bag because you didn’t have a reusable one handy? Or ordered takeout that arrived in a bunch of disposable packaging?
In these moments, did you give yourself grace and consider how you could do better in the future?
Or did you dwell on it, and beat yourself up for not doing enough for the environment?
If the latter, you may be experiencing something called environmental guilt (also called “eco-guilt” or “green guilt”).
Feeling guilt isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, sometimes it’s just what you need to finally take action and right your wrongs.
But in many cases, guilt crosses the line from helping to hurting. Left unchecked, it can harm your physical and mental health just as much as other kinds of stress. And sometimes, the guilt is so overwhelming that it stands in the way of you taking action at all!
What is environmental guilt?
“Environmental guilt” is the guilt that arises when you do something that you feel is bad for the environment . . . regardless of whether you even had a real choice.
Environmental guilt often comes along with “eco-anxiety.”
“Eco-anxiety” is an ongoing fear of environmental doom. This fear is usually sparked by all the visible evidence of climate change and environmental destruction, feelings of powerlessness, and uncertainty about the future. The lack of action by governments worldwide doesn’t help, either.
Needless to say, guilt and anxiety aren’t pleasant feelings.
But they’re perfectly normal responses to very real environmental issues. And as noted above, these feelings aren’t inherently bad. Guilt is a signal that you’ve broken your own moral code. And anxiety is your brain’s way of warning you of a looming threat.
And because no one likes to feel guilty or anxious, these feelings can push you to take action. In the case of environmental guilt, that means you may be more motivated to take action for the betterment of the planet.
So if your green guilt is inspiring you to take healthy, meaningful action . . . by all means, embrace your feelings!
But there is a point at which guilt and anxiety can do much more harm than good.
How do you know when environmental guilt is a problem?
Environmental guilt usually starts out innocently enough.
When you first start learning about environmental issues, it can be exciting. You absorb as much as you can about how your behavior impacts the environment. And you begin making little changes here and there: You frequent farmers markets. You hop on the recycling train. You take super quick showers. Maybe you even start using a sweet new bamboo toothbrush.
You feel good!
But over time, you begin to realize just how big and urgent environmental problems are. And what started as awareness and a desire to help morphs into green guilt and eco-anxiety.
This trajectory is not uncommon.
While guilt and anxiety are normal responses, their effects are not always healthy. The key question is this: is your guilt and anxiety helping you make meaningful changes . . . or are they crippling you?
Obsessing over all the ways you could make better choices for the environment isn't productive. Your guilt shouldn't interfere with your daily life and activities. You shouldn't feel like you have to sacrifice things that you need or that bring you a lot of joy.
In short, you shouldn't feel like you’re constantly suffering.
You also shouldn't feel so overwhelmed that you feel like throwing your hands up all together! The feeling that you have to do everything can leave you unable to do anything.
If you’re struggling with any of the above, it’s a good sign that you should take steps to reign in your green guilt and eco-anxiety. Letting these feelings run free puts your mental and physical health at risk. It also stops you from being your most productive self!
Four ways to cope with environmental guilt
Freeing yourself from the grip of guilt or anxiety is no easy task. But with time and practice, you can train yourself to channel those feelings into meaningful action. Here are a few ways you can start.
Take it one step at a time with specific, achievable actions
Living a 100% plastic-free, zero-waste, sustainable lifestyle isn’t possible for most people.
Even with the best of intentions, every now and then you’ll likely make choices that don't line up with an eco-friendly lifestyle . . . whether that’s buying a plastic bottle of water, jetting off to a far-away vacation destination, or enjoying seafood without regard to overfishing or sustainability.
And there are likely many eco-friendly practices that may not even be possible for you. For example, you may not have a farmers market nearby. Or the grocery stores in your area may wrap produce in plastic. Or your local government may not have a good recycling program.
But here’s the thing: you do not have to be perfect to make a difference.
In fact, striving for perfection is a surefire way to set yourself up for failure . . . and the guilt that follows.
So get comfortable with the fact that perfect is not possible. There will always be more changes you could make to be more eco-friendly. There’s no need to make them all at once.
Instead, try to identify what triggers your guilt. Then tackle a few specific, achievable actions that mean the most to you. For example, if you’re worried about your plastic use, start by swapping a few household products for plastic-free versions — like shampoo bars, dishwashing bars, or beeswax food wraps.
And if a particular change isn’t realistic for you, cut yourself some slack!
Of course, this is easier said than done. But with time, you can learn to be kinder to yourself and use your feelings in a productive way.
Focus on the big picture — and brainstorm ways you can change it
Individual action is important. After all, every movement starts with a few. And the more people that rally behind a cause, the more likely that cause will gain momentum.
But it’s also important to keep the big picture in mind. No single individual created the world’s environmental problems. Humans as a whole created them. And some players are more responsible than others.
For example, studies show that 90 companies (BP, Shell, and ExxonMobil, among others) are responsible for two-thirds of industrial carbon dioxide. Should you shoulder the same amount of responsibility as oil giants? Of course not!
For every eco-friendly choice you make, there are global systems working against you. It makes little sense to beat yourself up or sacrifice your needs to solve a problem that's impossible to solve alone.
To make true progress, government and business priorities need to change. Remember this next time you feel guilt creeping up for “not doing enough.”
It's much more productive to make sure that those in power hear your voice. You can do this by voting for political candidates with a strong record on environmental issues. Or by voting with your dollars by supporting businesses that share your values.
By focusing on the big picture, you’ll be better able to keep your environmental guilt in check and use it as healthy motivation.
Link up with like-minded individuals
When you’re drowning in negative feelings, it can help to connect with people who share your worries. Sharing the burden with others will help you keep things in perspective — and remind you that you’re not in this alone! After all, tackling environmental problems requires collective effort and solutions.
So if you’re feeling overwhelmed by eco-guilt, consider joining an environmental group. There are many in-person and online options. You can also volunteer for group efforts, like a beach or park clean up. Seeing the impact of your community on these projects can be empowering and uplifting.
Give your mind room to relax
Sometimes relieving green guilt and eco-anxiety is as simple as pinpointing your triggers . . . and avoiding them. So be mindful of what you’re being exposed to, and how those things make you feel.
For example, are all the “doom and gloom” news reports about environmental degradation stoking your anxiety?
Are social media influencers’ images of perfect zero-waste lifestyles making you feel terrible about your own efforts?
If the answer is yes, the best course of action may be to take a break from those sources. Practice self-care in whatever form works for you. You'll do the most good when your mind is in the right place!
Celebrate your progress and keep moving forward
Green guilt and eco-anxiety can be useful emotions if they motivate you to take healthy, productive action. But if your feelings are paralyzing you, it’s important to take steps to manage them.
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, your guilt and anxiety may still spiral out of control. If you’re experiencing depression or debilitating stress, you should talk to a professional right away.
Also try to remember: if you’re trying your best given your circumstances, that’s all you can ask of yourself. Don’t be afraid to celebrate your progress, no matter how small! The most important thing is that you keep moving forward.