The Exhausted Mind Part II: Recommendations

Introduction: How to use the exhausted mind

We are a society in transformation. Around the world, the polycrisis is rapidly changing systems, be it the weather, geopolitics, economies, or migration, but it is also shifting how people feel and think. In this context, why do many civil society organisations and their funders continue business as usual? Is it denial or helplessness?

In The Exhausted Mind Part 1, we showed how the old strategies for creating change were ineffective and created more damage than good, decreasing support for climate action. Building on those insights, in Part 2, we suggest two new approaches for campaigning in the polycrisis.

The first approach is to engage emotions, focusing on three critical emotional shifts: Dissolve denial, Transform powerlessness into agency and Transform anger into action.

The second approach is to consciously shape the new emerging narratives as people’s mindsets or worldviews transform towards scarcity narratives.

In the anthropocene, man’s psychological crisis will determine the planet’s future. “White water campaigning” in the polycrisis means steering clearly toward establishing new narratives while manoeuvring the rapids (anger) and keeper holes (denial) on the ride.

This paper intends to be understandable and actionable. Each section contains concrete recommendations explaining how to apply the change. Where relevant we also provide some examples of what this could look like or tools that will help you implement the recommendation directly. While our focus for this work is climate- related, benefits for climate and other issues will be mutual if these strategic shifts are implemented.

Part I: Engage Emotions

We live in emotionally charged times, and changemakers must acknowledge that emotions influence how information is interpreted. In the past, most campaigns to create climate action were built on the assumption that information and communication would lead to motivation and then to action. More advanced strategies might acknowledge that only motivation and agency will lead to action, resulting in campaigns that build on providing information about possible steps people can take.

However, most of these strategies have ignored the role emotions play in modulating information, motivation and agency. While emotions might be triggered and shaped by information, they are rooted in the existing emotional fabric of individuals and societies. As such, they make up a potent part of people’s societal mindsets or worldviews. As we saw in Part I, the polycrisis rapidly shifts a society’s emotional fabric, and so these collective worldviews can also shift. Information that used to motivate and empower is now demotivating and disempowering. Therefore, for future strategies to succeed, they must acknowledge, engage, and sometimes alter people’s emotions to drive support for climate action and avoid backlash.

We have identified three critical emotional shifts that you should build into your climate strategies to ensure successful campaigns in the context of the polycrisis: dissolving denial, transforming powerlessness into agency and anger into action. There are a few things to bear in mind when reading the following recommendations.

1. We do not suggest altering the message just by adding more hope or solution focus to a climate message, but we encourage you to truly engage with these shifts.

2. While they don’t need to be your project’s only objective, we recommend designing projects with a clear objective to influence these collective emotions.

3. These are focussed on but not exclusive to climate campaigning. Benefits for climate and other issues will be mutual if the below can be achieved.

4. The proposed campaign strategies must be supplemented by other campaign work, as powerlessness can stem from ‘real helplessness’ because of the design of political or economic systems for example.

5. You also should supplement strategies to transform emotions with projects that counter adversaries who foster and exploit powerlessness, denial and toxic anger.

1. Dissolve Denial

In parts one and two of The Inconvenient Mind, we wrote about denial as a widespread psychological mechanism for many people to cope with overwhelming negative emotions. Denial is regarded as a healthy coping mechanism, and we can consider our audiences and ourselves as people in different stages and forms of denial. Denial can have many causes, but it primarily helps us fend against the disheartening feelings of fear, shame, exhaustion or powerlessness.

You can not bypass denial or ‘educate it away’ through clever communication. Nevertheless, you can help people dissolve it, which is often not an easy process requiring the build-up of trust and conversions rather than broadcasting. Consider reducing denial as a process, not a one-time fix. You might not be able to finalise the process, but you can play a role in helping your audience overcome their denial.

The first step is to understand the denial of your audience. What do they deny, and what are they defending against? Which emotions do they want to avoid holding? How much of their denial is personal, and how much of it is collective? What of their denial has become part of their identity?

To solve these questions, we recommend doing audience research before designing engagement forms such as conversations (this would be a preferred option as it can inform the conversation design) or use part of a conversation to gather this same information (preferably after you have built trust; see the denial conversation script below).

In action

Here are some sample questions on how to map the denial in your audiences.

Today, people are constantly exposed to information and first-hand experiences about climate impacts, often accompanied by news about insufficient political action to mitigate climate change. Both of these forms of information result in increasing uncertainty, discomfort and fear and subsequently push people into denial. While we cannot manage the media landscape or people’s experience, we can avoid fueling these emotional fires through our communication.

At this stage, more fear will only result in more action if accompanied by sufficient empowerment for people to solve the cause of fear (not just actions to contribute to it insufficiently).

When confronted with denial, it is easy to mistake it for ignorance, and we might feel obliged to open people’s eyes to the looming threat. Such misdiagnosis will likely create more harm than good, deafening your audience and emotionally turning them against you.

Conversations are critical for dissolving denial, allowing people to open up, connect with others and explore their denial. Such dialogues should generate curiosity in people to explore their defences. To enable this, you need to create safe spaces and, if possible, an environment that provides a pause from the daily routine. Conversations need to build on open questions, and judgment should be avoided. As denial can be connected to identities and worldviews, inner conflict or conflicts within a group can arise. Given this, your conversation should follow conflict resolution rules (see below for a conversation design informed by these rules).

When you design conversations or experiences, remember the four principles of creating a “Defining Moment”.

  1. Elevation: Create something bigger than life. Think opera, not theatre.
  2. Insight: Provide insight and meaning so people discover it themselves, not by telling them.
  3. Pride: Build in some effort so that people can feel proud of it when they master it.
  4. Connection: Allow people to make new social connections

If you build your events by these principles, people will remember and act upon your efforts much better.

In Action

Here you can find a short guide for designing a denial conversation. Please contact us if you’d like to host a ‘conversation at scale’ through our Time To Talk platform.

Art, creativity, and metaphors can offer an excellent way for people to access their feelings, helping them look behind their defences. We don’t mean simply using artists as climate messengers but thinking about moving your communications from the explicit to the implicit. Art creates a lens for us to see the world differently.

When we talk about art, we often immediately think of exhibitions, concerts, or book projects, but these can be time and resource-intensive with questionable reach or impact. Instead, think about leaner approaches that would allow for testing and scaling. It could be through social media posts, banners, tweaks to an action or the creative setting of your next event or conversation. Art is also an excellent tool to create experiences. When we talk or write about emotionally tricky issues that might trigger denial, it is also helpful to use metaphors. Psychologists have long used questions like “If you imagined climate change as a creature, what would it look like?” to engage with people’s climate emotions. When facts don’t work anymore, metaphors connect people to their real emotions. Build a metaphor and let people experience their feelings in fiction before you draw connections to reality.

Humour is another way to make the unbearable bearable, but just be careful to avoid making fun of denial. It is easy to be judgemental or sarcastic about people in denial. Humour might work with your in-group but will break trust with the denialist. This will increase people’s conviction to stick to their denial. Especially in groups, it encourages the creation of denial identities by creating a perception of us and them.

2. Transform Powerless Into Agency 

Powerlessness is at the heart of the transformative changes brought about by  the polycrisis. Whilst before, many people may have felt little power to influence the fate of their country or even their community, the polycrisis has intensified people’s feelings of even being powerless to control their own lives.

This lack of power, be it real or perceived, prevents people from taking action and can harm their sense of pride and identity. It can also lead to increased anxiety and toxic anger. There is also a strong link between denial and agency – if we think we have no power to solve the cause of our fear or guilt, we revert to denial.

Given this, providing people with a sense of agency should be a cornerstone of all our engagement, helping climate action but also helping people overcome their denial. Agency is best felt, not learned, so we should always design experiences where people can feel their agency firsthand. We must also ensure we provide people with an opportunity to discover that they have more agency than they would admit.

Before transforming powerlessness, you must understand it in your audience, country or context. Similar to power, we can also map powerlessness, distinguishing different types and forms. In an agency map, you divide the type of (personal and political powerlessness) and forms (real, learned helplessness and power denial).

You can read more about this in The Exhausted Mind Part I. Increasing people’s personal agency will have very different impacts compared to increasing their political agency (see Rec iii below).

Equally, understanding the type of powerlessness people hold will determine the choice of strategy. Real helplessness, for example, would require campaigns to change systems, such as in a country with high inequality or under authoritarian rule. Working to shift Learned helplessness would involve the shift of narratives and norms often supported by law. Meanwhile, shift power denial requires you to engage directly with your audiences. (see recommendation 1.iii). Once you have a clear picture, choose which powerlessness you want to focus on and the strategy to transform it into agency.

In Action
The “Anger and Agency Monitor” is designed to identify the levels and types of powerlessness in your country or region, alongside giving recommendations based on this data. You can also find our set of ‘powerlessness’ questions here.

The ongoing reporting on the rapidly worsening climate crisis, paired with inadequate political responses, has fostered a narrative of helplessness and frustration. Some people move from ignorance or complacency to fatalism and nihilism. Others feel they have been sounding the alarm for years yet have seen little significant action, eroding hope and their imagination that a major crisis can be avoided. This situation creates both fear and powerlessness simultaneously.

As changemakers, we should avoid making this worse. We may often think that giving people a list of things they can do to reduce climate emissions, don’t fly, use public transport, etc., serves the purpose of personal empowerment. However, this is seldom the case, as these actions do not result in any visible improvement in the situation. People who take action on climate change are constantly bombarded by terrible climate crisis news and told by others that their efforts are futile. Therefore, while climate-friendly behaviour change might reduce guilt, it can amplify people’s feelings of disempowerment. See below for some alternative approaches to focus your agency-building energy on.

In Action

We can talk about the energy transition, improving air quality, and even creating a better relationship to nature . Today, it is sufficient to normalise sustainable behaviour. It is the right and normal way, as we know our well-being depends on the well-being of the ecological and social systems we live in.

Projects focused on empowering people often don’t distinguish between political and personal agency, yet this distinction is crucial for effectively reducing powerlessness. Empowering citizens by establishing more participatory democracies does not lessen the frustration of losing control over your personal life when economic conditions worsen. In the polycrisis, economics need to be fixed for democracies to survive. Research shows that losing personal agency creates toxic anger fueling supremacy and othering, providing fertile grounds for populists and far-right rhetorics. Just providing political agency can, therefore, backfire (see Brexit). In the polycrisis, personal agency must be re-established before political agency can be enhanced.

In Action

Personal agency: Creating autonomous energy supplies (prosumers, energy communities), creating city gardens or food coops, providing economic opportunities or micro credits, empowering communities to coordinate their disaster response, etc., to develop personal power.

Political agency: To foster political agency, citizen assemblies and leaner participatory processes should become standard for all community-based designs in our work. Participatory processes should always build on communal discourse, not just provide access to casting votes or making majority decision-making.

While personal action to decarbonise can produce a feeling of powerlessness, adaptation can create tangible improvements in people’s ability to handle the crisis. One should foster collective or communal adaptation processes to be able not only to overcome power denial but also to learn how to tackle learned and “real helplessness”. People who have changed norms and structures in their efforts to adopt will be more confident to apply these skills in mitigation campaigns.

In action

Following the lack of government response in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the community built a network of 85 solar-powered ‘lighthouses’ to provide charging stations, food, and cooling/heating in preparation for future disasters. Learn more

3. Transform Anger Into Action

Anger is known as “the political emotion”. It can transform societies for better or worse. It can disempower people but also empower them. Key to harnessing this emotion’s power to drive change is understanding there are different types of anger. People’s anger can be toxic and futile, but it can also be constructive, fueling movements like ‘#MeToo’ and other civil rights movements. Only recently has anger been harnessed to address climate change, for example, in climate justice campaigns in the global south or the youth-led Fridays for Future movement.

For the past 15 years, anger has been growing globally as a powerful form of social energy, predominantly exploited by populists, right-wing organisations and supremacists. Now, it’s time for changemakers and progressive organisations to understand better and engage with the anger of their audiences.

Anger is a complex emotion with varying causes, intensities and expressions. Thus, understanding the quality and quantity of your audience’s anger is crucial before engaging with it.

In action

The Anger and Agency Monitor is a research tool crafted for this exact purpose, integrating anger and agency given the strong relationship between these emotions.

Depending on your audience’s type of anger, it’s essential to connect with their emotions first and then offer constructive pathways to channel this social energy. For those who are anger-restrained or hold futile anger, this might mean helping them embrace their anger and see it as a productive emotion. For those who hold toxic anger types, it might mean shifting them to a more constructive understanding and expression of their anger. This often goes hand in hand with personal or political agency development.

You must always start addressing your audience’s anger from where it is rather than where you want it to be. Therefore, listening to your audience and acknowledging their anger is a critical first step.

Modulation should not be mistaken to mean manipulation but rather empowering people to understand and utilise their anger better. Once the emotional filter of anger is modified, your message will unleash the right action.

In Action

The Anger Handbook contains a detailed outline of how to engage with anger in these different phases.

You will not be the only one trying to understand and direct the anger present in our societies. In an increasingly angry world, political parties, unions, civil rights movements and supremacists have long been harnessing this powerful emotion as a catalyst for change. Anger-driven campaigning and messaging are a daily occurrence on social media platforms worldwide. In this context we need to be very wary of our opponents and not only think about how we can use Constructive anger to achieve our goals. Working to build up your audience’s defences to hate speech and toxic anger can be just as crucial.

Part II: Shape Emerging Narratives

Given the importance of narratives in shaping the worldviews of our audiences and how quickly these worldviews can shift during crises, it is more important than ever for more organisations to embed narrative creation strategies into their projects. However, this now needs to be done in an agile and dynamic way fit for the fluidity of the polycrisis: riding the rapids of white-water campaigning (as explained in the Disrupted Mind series on how the mind works in a crisis).

If done well, organisations can make the most of the unexpected opportunities to tackle long-standing problems that may emerge in our political and economic systems.

In the polycrisis, we witness a significant change in one narrative. This shift is from the 20th-century story of tolerance and abundance – summarised as “we all get rich together” – to two competing narratives centred around a story of scarcity.

The first of these new narratives emphasises equality and justice, advocating for the equitable and fair distribution of the world’s finite resources. In contrast, the second narrative champions competition and the survival of the fittest, finding expression in stories about particularism, nationalism, elitism, supremacy, and othering. This second narrative carries the risk that humanitarian values are sacrificed along the way. The direction and outcome of these evolving narratives will be crucial in shaping the transformations that lie ahead.

Instead of maintaining unhealthy silos of organisations that do narrative work and those that do not, a narrative strategy should now be part of every project’s communication strategy. This was already true in the past but is urgently needed when mindsets and narratives are much more volatile due to the polycrisis.

While narrative campaigning usually needs ecosystems of dedicated narrative creators and persistent efforts for them to sink in, many campaigns, even if they do not intend to do so, influence the narrative people are exposed to. If we are not careful, we can unintentionally support narratives that could lead to a backlash further down the road. For example, environmental campaigns, especially climate campaigns, push a scarcity narrative by emphasising a limited world or carbon budget. Justice campaigns that year after year repeat that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer manifest a narrative of powerlessness. We do not want to judge if such campaigns are wrong, but we must be more mindful of their narrative impact if we decide to run them.

In Action

Follow our ‘Create compelling new stories’ guide from The Crisis Handbook, the third part of our Disrupted Mind series on how the mind works in a crisis.

We need to be careful when talking about scarcity directly or inadvertently creating scarcity narratives through our campaigns, for example talking about limited resources in a climate or consumption campaign. This can quickly drive people into a scarcity mindset which, depending on your audience’s values, could encourage individualism and competition or collectivism and sharing.

In these times of increasingly felt scarcity we need to ensure our narratives promote either sharing in times of scarcity i.e. when times are tough, we share together what we have or encouraging fair sharing systems. We can also weaken the competition-scarcity narrative by reframing abundance. This could be the abundance of renewable energy and our increasing ability to harness it or the abundance of solidarity and benevolence to help each other in crisis (look at the Honeymoon phase in the Crisis Timeline). However, as with all narrative creation, it will only stick if people verify your stories through experience and peer endorsement.

In action

Lightbox Collective has been working with organisations to design ‘abundance campaigns’ through narrative work. Explore their findings and advice here.

Repetition is crucial for the longevity of a narrative. Yet, establishing and repeating inflexible cause-and-effect stories, such as “if we surpass 1.5 degrees, we will enter an era of unprecedented suffering,” poses risks. This approach is potentially demoralising if the world exceeds this temperature threshold. It also fosters a scarcity mindset and the feeling that engaging with climate change means abandoning future happiness, driving further denial. Even in climate impact stories, we need to leave space for stories in which people are happy and in solidarity or despite their misfortune.

Part III: Your Team

As always, we want to end this paper by reminding everyone that the first step when campaigning in the polycrisis is to discover and engage with the emotions and narratives of yourself and your team. What loss do you most fear or grief about? What are your emotional filters? What do you deny, and what are you angry about? What anger type are you? Where do you feel agency and where not? What narrative would you like to prevail in contrast to the one you believe will succeed? All these are good questions to discuss in a team retreat, but they are also suitable as check-in questions before your next meetings.

In action

At Mindworks, every Sprint (every three weeks), we hold a ‘Dialogue’. This open space is designed for the team to discuss a topic in a safe environment without the pressure of reaching an agreement or any outcome. We have discussed climate anxiety, powerlessness, dealing with uncertainty, trust and a lot more in these sessions.

The Exhausted Mind is a two part paper written by Mindworks between December 2023 and February 2024 Author: Stefan Flothmann and edited by Robin Perkins.

Cover photo by Firdouss Ross on Unsplash back-cover by Miguel Bruna on Unsplash

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