By Erin Roberts
26 / 11 / 2023
A sleeping koala. It's what they do. And they do it so well. Image credit: David Clode via Unsplash

“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weaknesses.” 

Brené Brown 

I don’t want to brag but I’m kind of awesome at being vulnerable. Authenticity comes naturally to me. I’ve never been able to be anything other than who I am. Wearing my emotions on my sleeve. Showing my feelings on my face. It’s intensely uncomfortable some days but it’s the only way I know how to be. 

Many people have told me that they find inspiration in the stories I tell about my own challenges. So, as we move towards COP 28, I thought I’d get even more vulnerable and share some of the ways I’ve learned to choose wellbeing. I hope this inspires many of you to take better care of yourselves at COP 28 and beyond. 

I’ve written previously about how I burned out last summer, hitting a wall of physical but especially mental and emotional exhaustion. But I haven’t written about how much I struggled before I reached that point. Because as I wrote in the blog, it was a slow roll into burnout unfolding over not just months, but years. 

That I was at the end of my rope started to become evident at the SBs (the intersessional climate negotiations for those not familiar with the shorthand)  in June.  I had been looking forward to being at the SBs. To catching up with many of the people I hadn’t seen since before the pandemic. I was excited.  But soon excitement faded into a slog.  I really struggled throughout those two weeks. I had difficulty sleeping. Being away from home was hard. I got used to having a routine during the pandemic. I reveled in the normality of it all after years of near constant travel.  I became accustomed to walks in the countryside and time for contemplation and meditation. Time to be grateful. To be in one place for so long was transformational. And to leave it all behind and jump back into the madness of the process was jarring. 

One day after my colleagues and I had our daily breakfast meeting and they were leaving for the venue, I said I was going to stay behind and do a bit more work as it was hard to get substantive work done in the bustle of the venue. So, I went up to my room where the WIFI was more reliable and got to work. And somehow, lulled by being in my room and sitting on a bed, I fell asleep. 

Half an hour later I woke up with a start, gathered my things, got on my bike and rode like the wind to the venue. I went through security, got downstairs, deposited some things in my locker and was rushing to where I needed to be when I saw a colleague I hadn’t yet spoken to. They greeted me and then said: “Is that something on your face?”. 

I was mortified because indeed, my face was displaying remnants of my breakfast. For, you see Dear Reader, what I failed to mention is that I had fallen asleep on my  breakfast when I went up to my room to finish what I had been working on. And somehow, I had failed to notice that some of said breakfast was still stuck to my face through the process of getting ready to go and then riding  to the venue. And no one had told me as I locked my bike, waited in line to get into the venue, went through security, got myself downstairs . . . Looking back I do recall getting some strange looks but that’s not unusual (please refer back to how I wear my emotions on my face for more insight on that).  

If you’re wondering if you should tell someone when you see they have food on their face, toilet paper on their shoes or a zipper that has come undone – whatever wardrobe malfunction or other mishap it might be - the answer is: Yes. Yes. Always. Yes. So, to those people who saw me and didn’t say anything you know who you are and I’ll see you in Dubai. 

The point of recounting that story, however embarrassing it might be, is because,  if you’re reading this Dear Reader, I know you’ve been there too. I know you’ve been so exhausted that you didn’t know how you would put one foot in front of the other to keep on keeping on. And that’s really not okay. It’s not okay that we push ourselves so hard while holding the world in our hands. It’s not okay that we continue grinding, ignoring the signals our bodies give us to slow down

In this process we are tasked with making decisions that impact the whole wide world and particularly those most affected by climate change in the global South. And many of those most important decisions are being made by decision makers who haven’t slept properly in days. Some of those decisions are made in the middle of the night. Is that really the best we can do? The answer is: No, no it’s not. But someone has to call out the madness and I’m okay to be that person. 

The other day I was giving a presentation to a group of young negotiators from developing countries for our New Generation program. The focus was on preparing for COP 28. After we discussed the technical side of things, we shifted to a conversation on how we might stay healthy and well amidst the intensity of COP and I shared with them some of the things I’d done in previous COPs to stay as healthy as I could amidst the madness of a COP.  Here are just a few: 

The first thing is that I look at COP a little like a big event I’m training for. I try very hard not to arrive overwhelmed which is not always easy but is super important. I try to optimise sleep and nutrition beforehand and get lots of sunlight. I start taking more vitamins a few weeks before the COP, especially those that are meant to boost immunity. And then once I’m at the COP I ramp up my wellbeing practices to focus more on how to stay healthy amidst the chaos. 

When I first started working in the process, I had a serious case of imposter syndrome. I did a few things to work through that. The first was something called power poses which I first heard about in a Ted Talk by Amy Cuddy. This helped me increase confidence. I’d literally stand in the bathroom of my hotel room or my Airbnb and put my hands on my hips, channeling wonder woman. To amp up the effect I’d pair it with affirmations to program my subconscious and help myself believe that I was worthy of being there. Do you remember the episode of Friends when, while trying to quit smoking, Chandler listened to a sleep hypnosis that programmed him to believe he was a strong, confident woman? It was a little like that (but I did it on purpose). And eventually I believed it. 

Another tool I’ve found helpful and used when I first started following the process is developing an alter ego.  I had already developed my own alter ego before I listened to this podcast interview with Todd Herman, but it helped me understand why it worked and validated the practice. I then read his book: The Alter Ego Effect and created my own alter ego when I needed a boost. When she was first starting out as a performer Beyoncé created an alter ego called Sasha Fierce to help her feel more confident on stage. Eventually she “killed” Sasha Fierce because she didn’t need her anymore because she was confident as herself. When I started to look into it, I learned that many performers and athletes create alter egos to put themselves into a different mindset because they too suffer from imposter syndrome. I no longer need to rely on those tools, but they definitely helped a lot in the beginning. 

Some of the tools I’ve adopted over the years continue to be part of my arsenal, in my day to day life and especially during intense times like a COP. These include meditation, breathwork and mindfulness. 

COP 23 was a difficult time for me. I was in the midst of my PhD which I was doing on the margins of my full time “job”. I was working on several projects, trying to get an initiative established and was at a pinnacle in my research. It was a lot to juggle in normal times and I went into the session overwhelmed. During the COP I had to do a long guided meditation every morning and every evening just to be okay, just to face the day and decompress afterwards. And several times during the day I had to escape, often to the loo, to do a short meditation and/or a few breathing exercises to ground myself. 

The guided meditation I did was one by Joe Dispenza as I’d recently done one of his retreats. But there are many others out there including on Calm and Headspace. I’ve just recently started using  InsightTimer to keep track of my meditation and breathwork sessions. It’s free and has much more than just guided meditations including lessons from one of my favourite teachers, Tara Brach. Even just five minutes in the morning could help set the tone of the rest of the day. 

For breathwork there are a lot of different practices and no one size fits all (although nasal breathing is definitely something we should all be doing and for more on that read Breath by James Nestor). I mostly use box breathing which is also employed by Navy Seals to regulate their nervous systems in stressful times. Even just taking a minute throughout the day to do a breathing exercise could help regulate stress during the COP. 

Mindfulness is something I’ve been evolving with since undergrad when I took a course on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction during a particularly stressful time. Jon Kabat-Zinn is known as the father of mindfulness. I took his Masterclass last year and it was a great refresher. But you don’t need to do that to practice mindfulness. It’s essentially about being in this moment, right here, right now. One of the hardest but most transformative things you’ll ever do. For more on that I recommend reading The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. Mindfulness helps me slow down, feel more grounded and embodied. And just generally appreciate what’s around me more. Even a few minutes throughout the day could be a game changer at COP. 

I find having a gratitude practice also helps me be more in the moment as well. And the more I find to be grateful for, the better I feel. I have a planner that includes prompts for gratitude but there are a lot of other ways to keep track of what you’re grateful for including many gratitude apps. I challenge you to write a few things you’re grateful for each day during the COP to see if and how that changes your perspective and your experience. 

Another thing I try to do is to set an intention for every day. How do I want to feel? What do I want to accomplish? Sometimes it might be just to have more and better connections with my colleagues. Often, it’s learning something that helps me grow. This helps me focus my day and enables me to see that there are many other positive things that can come out of an intense two weeks at COP other than the ambitious outcome we’re all working towards. And above all, that we don’t have to sacrifice our physical, mental and psychological well-being to get there. I learned this trick from Danielle Laporte and her book The Desire Map. It’s a great guide on goal setting with soul. 

We can also have fun at COP. So many amazing people in one place. It’s an opportunity for connection. Some of my most cherished memories of COPs include laughing with colleagues in the middle of the night at something silly. It’s important to have moments of brevity to lift us up because this work we do, it’s a lot. So while you’re scrolling this COP, I challenge you to look for something that makes you laugh. I love this account but it might not be your thing. Find what brings you joy and incorporate more of that into your time at COP. Yes, there is a lot going wrong in the world right now (but there’s also a lot going right). Yes, the work we do is serious and important. But we’ll be so much more effective at making change in the world if we take better care of ourselves. 

I’ve recounted a few things that I have learned over the years. Find what works for you. And please take time to eat at COP. Find the healthiest food you can. Make sure you hydrate. Get as much sleep as you can but think quality over quantity. It’s two weeks of our lives at the end of the day. But the healthier we are, the better the outcomes will be. I truly believe that. And what I learned this summer as I recovered from burnout, is that life can always be more beautiful, but we have to find time to let the beauty in. 

Erin Roberts is the founder and global lead of the Loss and Damage Collaboration. She would love to hear your tips on well-being and wishes everyone a healthy and happy COP 28.