Psychic Defenses

Jillan Cantor-Sackett, MD

One would be wise to wonder why, with all the factual scientific data, do we as a species dependent on the health of this planet, seem to ignore the warnings about our climate change emergency.  The British psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe, in her book “Engaging with Climate Change : Psychoanalytic and interdisciplinary perspectives” describes the problem psychodynamically as being about anxiety.  “Being able to bear anxiety is a vital part of being able to face reality, as we know that when anxiety becomes too much to bear, our thinking can become irrational and start to lack proportion.” (Weintrobe, p 33) Unconscious defense mechanisms, created to defend against anxiety, distort external reality, thus protecting our internal representation of our world.  Distortions exist as (poor) solutions to a reality that, “has become too obvious to be ignored…” (Weintrobe, p 40)

 Denial of climate change comes in many forms. Most deniers are not completely denying climate change, more so we are involved in varying degrees of disavowal. “Disavowal involves radical splitting and a range of strategies that ensure that reality can be seen and not seen at one and the same time” (p 38). You see and discount what is seen. It is a complexly organized and enduring defensive strategy that relies on “a sense of narcissistic entitlement to be immune to emotional difficulties.” (p 38)  It is an arrested development, a failed mourning, a minimizing, or a finding of a quick fix.  .  

There are many sources of anxiety for us in relation to climate change. A particular source of anxiety is a feeling that alone, individually, we cannot affect real change, and this can become unbearable. Thus, as described by Rene Lertzman, based upon results of her psychoanalytic research study with residents of the Great Lakes region, what can appear as apathy in relation to environmental destruction results in a sense from caring too much, not from caring too little. 

An additional source of anxiety is acceptance of our utter dependence on the Earth. To accept this,  we must relinquish the safety we feel in our illusion of being omnipotent and in control. We are thrown back into our first known relationship as the helpless and vulnerable baby with the mother s/he utterly depends on. Thus, climate change shakes our sense of security at a very basic level. (Lehtonen and Valimaki, p 49) Our narcissism serves as a perfect defense against these real vulnerabilities. 

 It is deeply anxiety-making to have threatened our belief in a reliable future and our sense of regularity and continuity as a species. It is much easier in the short-run, to defend against this and continue to live as we are. However, this stagnant view where we do not/cannot process our reality, is also what keeps us from creating solutions. Thus, it is necessary, albeit hard, work we need to do. 

Rosemary Randell in her essay entitled, “Loss and Climate Change: The Cost of Parallel Narratives” addresses an important obstacle to this necessary processing. She explains how we have used splitting when looking at climate change and its solutions. We tend to imagine loss in the future,and  imagine the present untouched.  The truth is that loss is already a reality; there is no avoiding it at this point. Droughts, climate wars, floods, wildfires, acidified coral reefs, “atmospheric rivers” are all happening now. And no matter what we do, large or small, we cannot avoid many of the further losses to come.  In the problem we see loss, but both the climate and its solutions are disconnected in our minds from our present reality. The loss is experienced as in the future only and only in remote places, thus made to feel unreal. Like a teen contemplating death, s/he knows s/he will die but that is so far off (in most cases) and thus does not really have to be tackled.  The solutions, on the other hand, are separated in our minds from the realities of loss. Most of our solutions seem to offer us utopia as though we have nothing more to lose if we act now. Consumerism and our addiction to it, are hardly even addressed. “what we see in the treatment of loss and climate change is a process where fear of loss leads to it being split off and projected into the future. The present continues to feel safe but at the expense of the future becoming terrifying.” (Randall, p 119) The truth is that we need a sense of loss now to avoid as much loss as possible later. Processing loss now can feel like an attack on our very beings. And like all attacks on our sense of self, we defend against it.

We engage in  splits in relation to climate  not only in the creation of disavowal in the splitting of the  problem/solution from the present but also in projection onto others of responsibility.  A wise mentor of mine once corrected me when I was teaching children about the problems of the oil industry. I used the word “them” and she stopped, mid lesson, and interjected, “not them, us.”  This is important because denying yourself as part of the problem also denies you can be part of the solution, an agent of change. And that was my mentor’s real point. Not until I accepted myself as guilty as charged could I work towards changing my behaviors. My projection to the others left me a helpless baby, relying on others to fix it. 

This projection onto others also steals away our ability to hear another’s perspective and prevents collaborative solutions. Solomon and colleagues described  “Terror Management Theory.” They hypothesized and studied the phenomena of the fear of death causing people to turn into their own group and away from “the other” to feel more secure and safe. They found that after being reminded, subtly, of death, people turned further in and felt more threatened by the other. It stands to reason that conscious efforts to override this tendency are crucial in addressing our climate crisis.

Depression, in some psychoanalytic thought, is seen as the prototype of unfinished grief. Depression in response to climate change is likely a defense against acceptance and accountability. As Weintrobe asserts, “Some will argue that, in facing the facts of warming, we must not succumb to apathy but re-imagine a different future and begin to hope that it can be the best possible in the new conditions.” (Hamilton, p 28)


Hamilton , C., (2013) History and climate change denial.  In Sally Weintrobe (Ed.), Engaging with climate change: Psychoanalytic and interdisciplinary perspectives, (pp. 16-32). London and New York, NY:  Routledge.

Lehtonen J. and Valimaki J. (2013) The environmental neurosis of modern man: the illusion of autonomy and the real dependence denied.In Sally Weintrobe (Ed.), Engaging with climate change: Psychoanalytic and interdisciplinary perspectives, (pp. 48-51). London and New York, NY:  Routledge.

Lertzman, R., (2013) The myth of apathy. In Sally Weintrobe (Ed.), Engaging with climate change: Psychoanalytic and interdisciplinary perspectives, (pp. 117-133). London and New York, NY:  Routledge.

Randall, R. (2009). Loss and climate change: the cost of parallel narrative.Ecopsychology, 1(3), 118-129.