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The secrets to stress-free sustainability

Here's how to leverage your emotions, avoid burnout and influence anyone.

The following is an excerpt from the book "Stress-Free Sustainability," a stress management guide for "sustainability champions."

"I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear."   Nelson Mandela

In 1980, I was born in a small county hospital in Washington, Iowa. The town had approximately 7,000 people, but only because it was the county seat. Being in the southeastern portion of the state, it was still half an hour from Iowa City — a whopping 70,000 people.

My own hometown of Richland was too small (population 400) to have a hospital. I was raised on a beautiful little acreage five miles north of town, on a double dead-end road. Our farmhouse was on a hill overlooking the woods on the South Skunk River. The summers were humid and lush green — full of chirping crickets and hungry mosquitoes. The winters were frigid and powder-white with snow — deathly quiet.

Picture me, an ornery little 11-year-old who loved being outside and playing in the dirt. I would camp by the river, hike in the woods, and walk the fence rows and stream beds around our family’s property with my older sister, younger brother, cousins and friends. I had two classmates who lived within a few miles and would visit on ATVs. Occasionally we would ride our horses across the river to visit relatives.

Dad raised all kinds of animals while we were growing up: chickens, goats, sheep, pigs, hunting dogs, quail and even ostriches for a few odd years. Mom, a special kind of angel, worked with special needs children and adults. We didn’t have much, but we worked hard and got by.

My parents both came from large Catholic families. My dad’s family had 15 children, all of whom worked on their farm growing up. My mom’s parents divorced and each had five children in their respective families. Aunts and uncles and cousins were in abundance. We certainly had enough for two teams at any sport when it came to family reunions.

Richland was and still is a small farming community. On the odd occasions when I did sit down to watch the news, it was the local station. As far I could tell, George H. W. Bush was president.

At 11, I wasn’t very political, but it seemed to me like there was a lot wrong with the world. The first Gulf War was under way, and the conversation at our house was of a conservative nature, to say the least. My favorite movie was "Swiss Family Robinson." I felt that if the world was in such bad shape, what better way to spend life than far away from society on a desert island with only the ones you love. Having a kick-ass treehouse and riding around on ostriches sounded all right to me, too.

Our neighbors farmed the fields of seed corn and soy beans surrounding our acreage. Soon they began combatting their economic struggles by maximizing yields per acre. For me, that just meant that hundreds of trees were being bulldozed along my favorite fence lines and stream beds for a few extra rows of crops. The dead remains were piled high, left as an ugly reminder that I used to be able to play there.

I didn’t get into hunting. I enjoyed books more than guns. I liked art. Fishing not so much. And I thought that people needed to treat each other, animals and the planet with a lot more respect. I was 11 when I first remember hearing the word "environmentalist" on TV. I knew I was one. And that scared me. It certainly was not used in a positive way in our family. It definitely did not feel OK to be one. In fact, I was convinced at that age the only thing more disappointing for my family would be if I was gay.

So, there I was — 11 and didn’t feel safe sharing who I was or how I felt. I was afraid to express how frustrated I was about things I saw happening in the world. I was sad because I thought my family would be disappointed if I told them the truth. So in my mind, I chose survival. I bottled it up. I felt scared to be seen as different — to not fit in — and grief that apparently I had to deal with it on my own.

That’s what it can be like to feel threatened — lonely, weak, unsafe, afraid and sad.

Critical questions

  • What is your earliest memory of feeling threatened?
  • How old were you? Where were you?
  • What happened? What did you tell yourself about the situation?
  • Did you make it mean something about who you were?
  • Did you say "Something’s wrong" or "I’m not good enough"?

The polar bear – part 1

Today, nine out of 18 subpopulations of polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are in decline. Ecologically speaking, they have a limited and shrinking number of places where they can thrive. Adapted to a narrow ecological niche, a polar bear’s range is almost exclusively within the Arctic Circle.

External influences of climate change, oil and gas development, and pollution — things beyond their control — are undermining their ability to reproduce. And so they’ve become symbolic in the environmental community as a victim of negative human impacts on our planet.

When you think of a polar bear, you might picture one perched precariously on a melting chunk of ice surrounded by freezing water — a desperate look on its face. Or maybe you think of the popular 2011 Nissan commercial, walking thousands of miles to hug a new Leaf owner in their driveway.

Either way, what kind of emotional reaction do you feel? 

Seeing such a powerful animal unable to defend itself is a bit heartbreaking for me. I can relate.

And that’s why I love to use the story of the polar bear when I speak at conferences. It’s a powerful metaphor for the emotional state many passionate people in the world experience. They feel threatened by their surroundings, and unable to be fully self-expressed — unable to thrive.

If you feel threatened, you are one step away from being endangered, and possibly becoming extinct. Your ability to be effective in the world is largely limited by your surroundings. This will cause a serious lack of confidence. Giving up on your passion out of frustration is a real possibility.

Threatened people burn out quickly.

At age 11, the environmentalist in me felt threatened. And I probably would have it let it become extinct. But high school ended, and I moved a couple of hours away to college.

Fast forward. In 2008, while hosting a local radio program, I began interviewing people I admired and looked up to — leaders and community members doing meaningful work in the city. I wanted to learn what they did to get where they were today.

I asked questions about their journey. I asked questions about their lessons learned.

But I also asked questions like, "What is your No. 1 frustration?" and "What keeps you up at night worrying?"

I wanted to hear what they were still struggling with even though I looked up to them as a success story. Where were they stopped or stuck?

The answers surprised me. And they made me realize I wasn’t alone in my own struggles.

Highly intelligent professionals with good careers and a wealth of knowledge on sustainability topics were still frustrated. Often it was with close family and business relationships where they didn’t feel heard or understood. They felt resigned that they couldn’t talk about their beliefs with loved ones. They felt sad colleagues who were in a position to make a difference didn’t seem to care.

And they felt frustrated and afraid that some of their big visions kept meeting with resistance and might not be realized. Sara was a senior environmental studies major and planner for an annual sustainability conference. She confessed to being burnt out already, and was wondering if she should consider pursuing another career. Was sustainability really catching on or was it all wishful thinking? Her efforts in college clubs and with a local non-profit had produced lackluster results, in her opinion. She felt the issues got overlooked too easily by administrators and the business community.

Tonya was a board member in her 40s. A teacher and actress, she worked hard to make a difference with her students and for local organizations. She described the sinking feeling she got whenever her older sister would make condescending comments about her passions.

"Does that Prius come standard with an Obama sticker?" Or "I thought you might bring something weird" at the family dinner to justify why she brought an extra dish for everyone. Her neighbors were pushy and complained about their property values because she didn’t want to put vinyl siding on her house. As a single mom, she worried first about giving her two sons the life they deserved, and also about living a life in line with her values.

Steven was a friend in his 40s and owner of a green building firm. He didn’t believe his own employees were buying into his environmental vision for the company. He didn’t know what to do and it frustrated him at night thinking about it. At home, he and his wife were also struggling with their in-laws, not feeling supported with the choices they were making to raise healthy children. It was exhausting for him. He worried about his own health and wellness. 

His passion kept him going, but he sometimes felt like he was running on fumes.

There are so many stories just like this.

You are not alone.

Threatened emotions

Children aren’t the only ones who feel threatened. Even as an adult and a professional you face times when you still feel lonely, afraid, sad or unsafe. You wrestle with choosing safety and survival — fitting in — over sharing how you really feel and the risk of not being accepted.

Difficult emotions like shame, guilt, fear and sadness are a natural part of daily life. They can make you feel weak, but ideally, you will find healthy ways to express those emotions at appropriate times and be aware that It becomes problematic when a particular difficult emotion becomes a way of life — your emotional center of gravity.

Moments of loneliness, fear or sadness can become weeks, months or even years. When that happens, it becomes very easy to stay frustrated, overwhelmed and burnt out. One common coping mechanism for this problem is suppression. You learn as a child that it is possible, and sometimes encouraged, to suppress difficult emotions. As a temporary coping mechanism, this can be highly effective for you. But if you don’t deal with the root cause, and you adopt suppression as a way of life, disassociating from your emotions is stunting. It will hurt your ability to form healthy relationships and to fully experience joy.

Practical exercises

Find at least one other passionate change agent in your community that you feel comfortable sharing with. Ask them to read this book with you, and do these exercises. If you really want a breakthrough in your community, invite a large group of community leaders to participate in a book club with you. Give each person five minutes to share the answers to the following questions with each other:

  • Where today do you feel afraid or unable to openly share your passion?
  • When do you feel stopped in sharing your true thoughts and feelings?
  • Have you ever been frustrated to the point you considered on your mission or passion? Be honest.

The polar bear – part 2

Earlier I shared that nine out of 18 subpopulations of polar bears are in decline. What I didn’t share was that they are not categorized by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as "threatened." Technically, they are only "vulnerable," which means they will become threatened if their situation doesn’t change.

Polar bears are incredibly resilient creatures, with up to 10 inches of hide and fur to insulate them from the cold. Although vulnerable, these thick-skinned powerhouses are also the largest land predators in the world — larger even than their cousin, the Kodiak. With a keen sense of smell, hearing and eyesight, the polar bear is nothing to be messed with. It is no coincidence that polar bears have historically been a spiritual and cultural symbol of strength to native northern tribes.

There are real dangers that exist for the polar bear as a species — things beyond their control. Yet the truth behind those desperate photos is that we sometimes project our own emotions onto animals. If current conservation efforts continue — financial, legislative and educational — polar bears have a real shot at survival. And, if you ever see one in the wild, don’t worry about their safety and how they’re doing. Seek shelter.

Vulnerable versus threatened

As typically happens when I think of a clever metaphor, people poke holes in it immediately. I was speaking at a sustainability summit for the recycling industry and a state representative stood up and shared with the room.

"Just last month I was a polar bear, and damn proud, too! My daughter got married and I was stuck in a car with her husband and new father-in-law for six hours. He kept talking about Obama this and liberals that. How environmental problems were a big conspiracy. I felt threatened, and it took everything I had not to share how I really felt. But I did it anyway. Because I love my daughter, and it wasn’t about how I felt — it was her day."


I hope you never believe that just because you’re quiet, reserved or don’t speak your mind I think you are doing something wrong — or being ineffective.

The key to leveraging your emotions to avoid burnout and eliminate stress is being able to answer "Yes" to the following questions.

Critical questions

  • Do you feel like you have the freedom to choose?
  • Does reflecting on your interaction leave you feeling good about your choice?

When I was 11, it didn’t feel like a choice. I believed that my options were (1) shut up and fit in, or (2) disappoint my family forever.

When the state senator shut up, he made a conscious choice — and for a valid reason. His daughter’s new father-in-law was probably not essential to his personal cause. So, arguing with him during a six-hour ride in a small car would not have furthered that cause. It only would have made things incredibly awkward, if not torturous, for everyone — especially his daughter on her special day.

Feeling threatened isn’t experienced as a choice. Being vulnerable is a choice. And you get to choose who you are vulnerable with.

Vulnerability is not "being brutally honest." Too often, that is a smokescreen for wanting to blurt out whatever you’re thinking at a particular moment — with no regard for the other person’s well-being. Tactlessness.

Vulnerability is also not a behind-the-scenes look at your intimate personal life with someone who barely knows you. It’s not a tell-all blog, a too-much-information Facebook post or dumping your feelings, unfiltered, onto a startled stranger. 

Real vulnerability is earned. It is sharing difficult emotions like loneliness, fear or sadness — sometimes even shame or guilt — with someone you trust. It is opening up in a safe environment with another human being who gets you. You need people who have put demonstrate that they will honor what you have to say. 

Real vulnerability is having thick skin when you need to, but finding the time later that day or week to express yourself with a loved one. In that way, you can avoid suppressing your emotions and build stronger relationships at the same time. Only then can you get the help you need to process your emotions in a healthy way for optimal personal growth.

Practical exercises

Spend five minutes each sharing the answers to the following questions (with another human being you know and trust):

  • What is one area in life where you already choose your battles wisely?
  • In what other areas do you see that you have a choice, and could leverage your emotions more successfully?
  • Do you have people in your life that you can be vulnerable with? Who are they? How do you feel about them?

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