Opinion: Love, Justice and Climate Change. A Useful Idea With Practical Implications

Unnamed New England brook in early spring. Photo: Russ Vernon-Jones

Russ Vernon-Jones

One of the most useful concepts I’ve encountered in working with people and organizations is the concept of “distress patterns.” While distress patterns themselves are generally harmful and can interfere with individual relationships and with organizations–including groups tackling racism and climate change–understanding them is potentially transformative. Here is an introduction.

You may have noticed that people often respond to life in repetitive ways, that is to say there are patterns in their thinking, feelings and behavior. Some people frequently feel discouraged; some are always trying to take care of other people; some tend to feel victimized; some frequently try to dominate other people or situations; and many of us feel that we are essentially on our own and no one really understands us.

There are many ways that psychologists, therapists, and people in general think about these issues. Many approaches contain ideas that people have found helpful. I find the concept of distress patterns distinctive in its power to explain people’s behavior and in its potential to help people and groups move forward.

At Our Best
At our best, we humans are flexible, creative, and smart; we like other people; and we are glad to be alive. We think and function in ways that fit the present situation, connect us with other people, and contribute to advancing the goals we care most about. When distress patterns occupy our minds, our reactions are more rigid, and our positive human qualities are much less prominent and available to us. At times, patterns virtually take over a person’s mind and the person’s behavior is, at least partly, a reflection of the rigid pattern, rather than of that person’s full humanity and flexible intelligence.

A Personal Story
When I was young, my mother and I lived with some relatives who weren’t that eager to have us in their home. We were poor and there was always an implied threat that we could be thrown out. I was criticized routinely. Fearful of eviction and trying to avoid criticism, I worked hard at household chores and tried to “behave,” but the message I got repeatedly was to “work harder.” In my adult life, my feelings have often told me that I should work harder, even when those close to me thought I was already working too hard. My overwork has been, at least partly, driven by the internalized messages or patterns, from those early hurtful experiences.

Also Called “Distress Recordings”
Distress patterns are also called “distress recordings.” This is because our minds “recorded” the messages of earlier hurtful situations and now those recordings “play” in our minds. When a situation in the present is even a little similar to an earlier painful experience, the recordings in our minds may tell us things such as “do whatever you must to avoid rejection,” or “you’re not smart enough,” or “dominate before someone dominates you,” or “it’s hopeless.” This can happen in our own minds and/or in other people’s minds. We often react to the present moment at least partly on the basis of distress recordings from earlier in our lives.

Distress patterns — inflexible feelings and behaviors that are repetitive and don’t represent the best of human qualities–are always rooted in hurtful experiences of the past. Some affect relatively few people (ex. a fear of dogs); some are common among most people growing up in a particular culture (ex. individualism). Distress patterns are remarkably persistent and often continue to affect us long after we may have forgotten the original hurtful situation that put them in our minds.

Racism, Sexism, And Other Systemic Oppressions
Systemic oppressions–racism, sexism, gay oppression, anti-Semitism, and all the others–are all hurtful to the people targeted by the oppression and instill negative messages in their minds about their own identities. These operate as distress recordings that continue to affect people throughout their lives.

The internalized sense of superiority and dominance that is carried by people enacting oppression against targeted groups is also a distress pattern. It’s a rigid set of feelings, thinking, and behaviors, contrary to the best of human qualities. Hurtful experiences underlie these patterns as well. We know that the boy who is bullied at home is often the one who becomes a bully in the neighborhood. Similarly, hurtful experiences of being dominated, separated, and made to feel inferior as young children, combined with negative messages and fears about other groups, make individuals vulnerable to racist, sexist, and other oppressor distress patterns.

Racism, sexism, etc. are, of course, systemic and institutional. The phenomenon of distress patterns persisting in people’s minds, however, offers some explanation of why we haven’t been more effective in dismantling these systemic structures.

How To Reduce The Impact Of Distress Recordings
Quite a bit is known about how to reduce the impact of distress patterns in ourselves, in others, and in our organizations. Three strategies are particularly effective:

  • Patterns are less likely to dominate a person’s thinking, feeling or behavior when the person is being actively appreciated, respected, welcomed, listened to, and liked. We all function better under these circumstances. We function better because distress patterns become less likely to take over our minds and our underlying flexibility, caring, and intelligence is more able to come to the fore.|
  • We can also decide to hold a perspective that is consistent with our best thinking and use it to counter the messages of distress recordings. We can choose to remember for instance that we are no better and no worse than anyone else around us; we can remember that we want to connect with people even if our feelings pull us to draw inward; we can decide to be hopeful despite the pull of despair. A well chosen perspective can help us to function on the basis of our best qualities rather than be driven by distress patterns.
  • We can listen to each other about our feelings, fears, and insecurities– in conversations, listening exchanges, support groups, and peer counseling. We may be able to remember some of the hurtful experiences that contributed to forming our distress recordings. Being listened to can help us heal and help us choose constructive perspectives. The healing is more thorough if we have opportunities to cry, or tremble, or laugh with embarrassment about what happened to us.

We can adopt these strategies for ourselves and we can help the organizations we work in adopt them as well. We can develop organizational cultures in which people are appreciated regularly, everyone is supported to adopt and support constructive perspectives, and listening exchanges are regular practices. As we reduce the impact of distress patterns on ourselves and in our organizations, we and the people around us will be more able to think clearly, enjoy each other, and collaborate well.


Note: I first learned about this idea from Re-evaluation Counseling, the peer counseling theory and practice that underlies the work of Sustaining All Life and United to End Racism, but an understanding of distress patterns can be useful or helpful to anyone, with or without the other ideas and tools of those groups.

Russ Vernon-Jones was principal of Fort River School 1990-2008 and is currently a member of the Amherst Community Safety Working Group and of the Steering Committee of Climate Action Now-Western Massachusetts. He blogs regularly on climate justice at www.russvernonjones.org.

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