I’m not big on feeling guilty. That’s a loaded statement, I know, but in general, I try to learn from mistakes and be confident in what I do. But once you start down the path of sustainable living, man the guilt can get overwhelming. It did for me. It’s taken some time – and I’m not perfect – but I think I’ve mostly figured out how to avoid sustainability guilt!
What is Sustainability Guilt?
When you first get the bug to live more sustainably, it’s exciting; it’s motivating. So you keep learning and researching…and learning and researching…and then all the sudden you look around and all you see are the ways you, your family, and the world aren’t living sustainably.
It’s shocking. We’re all so imperfect and there’s so much room for improvement. Then the guilt sets in. It feels as though you aren’t doing enough, can’t do enough, and why doesn’t everybody know they’re killing the earth each single-use thing at a time?! AHHHHH!
And how are you supposed to make a difference when your partner doesn’t care about sustainable living? The cards are stacked against you. Truthfully, they are.
Except, they totally aren’t! And, honestly, you’re fine (except for your burdensome guilt that we need to get rid of).
How to Avoid Sustainability Guilt?
Can I tell you something? The feeling of sustainability guilt is very similar to the guilt I experienced when I was losing (lots of) weight in grad school. You start working on something that’s a positive change, but then you get overcome with trying to do everything perfectly. You want to keep making progress.
I used to try to eat less fat, eat less bread, work out more, try harder. Not only was I left hungry at times, but it meant that when I did get a chance to enjoy some “splurgy” items, I ate more than one serving. Well that’s not good either.
So I started realizing that enjoying all those things I LOVE was fine – in moderation. For me, that usually meant that I let me guard down on the weekends and for special occasions. And if I did eat those things I was trying to avoid, IT WAS OK, it wasn’t going to break the bank. Tomorrow was another day to eat healthy and get moving!
With sustainability, I was initially trying to buy nothing, use up what we had. Should we be vegan? Was there a way to use no water? Could we walk and bike everywhere? And truthfully, we weren’t (aren’t) able to be plant-based, use no water, or only walk/bike. But then I was feeling guilty about it. No, no no!
Ok. So where does that leave us?
It’s ok to Plateau to make Progress
First, I realized that sometimes we were great at adding new sustainable practices to our home, buying less, reusing more, etc. And that is GREAT! But then we seem to plateau. And you know what, THAT’S GREAT TOO!
We have this thing built in that we constantly need to be improving, doing more and more. And that practice isn’t sustainable. So when you start a new habit (whatever it is), give yourself the space to truly make it a habit. Embrace those plateaus because you’re making long-lasting changes!
And you know what, when the time is right, you’ll subconsciously start progressing again. Probably.
Don’t Forget to Look Back
Second, you CANNOT forget the progress you’ve made. I’m not sure what about us humans likes to focus on the negatives and the failures, but goodness is it annoying.
Could you be doing more? Better? Yes. But have you already done something, maybe a lot of things? Yes!
I tend to get caught up in seeing all the things we aren’t doing. Then I have to take a minute and remember all the things we are doing.
We’re cloth diapering (and I’m trying to use fewer and fewer wipes). We’re shopping at the farmers market more often. We’re rewearing clothes. We’re composting at home. And I’m using my website, newsletter, and social media to spread the word of sustainability! WHEW!
Sustainability Isn’t One Size Fits All
Third, everybody’s life is different, so your path to sustainable living isn’t going to look like everyone else’s. I can’t stress this one enough.
We all have our tips and tricks for sustainable living, but they don’t all work for everyone equally!
For us the biggest example is eating plant-based. I absolutely understand that eating less to no meat or animal products would be sustainable. But that doesn’t work for our family.
My husband needs to follow a fairly strict diet that doesn’t allow for a lot of the plant-based alternatives out there. This isn’t a choice…eating these foods will cause him severe pain. The only plant-based protein options he can eat are tofu and tempeh. I, however, can’t eat soy because I get migraines, so….. it just doesn’t work for us.
Do I feel bad about that? NOPE! These are health-related facts about my family and our home. We will suffer if we do this one thing that many people say is the single most important thing individuals can do.
So we make it work for us. We try to buy organic, free-range meat as much as possible. I try to purchase only wild-caught (or sustainably farmed when needed) fish. We aim for organic milk products as much as we can. We also are working toward buying as much as we can locally.
Living in California, we’re a bit spoiled with the number of ranches and farms that are within even 100 miles, so it isn’t a lot of work to buy locally much of the year.
In time, however, we’re hoping to buy our meat even more locally – at our farmers markets and/or directly from farms and ranches in the area.
With all that said, be kind to yourself. At a certain point, the guilt isn’t going to help you do more and do better – it’s only going to get you down. So don’t get caught up in being perfect. It’s impossible.
Work at being better. And don’t forget where you came from – better from who you were before is actually quite great!