Remember the lockdown? The two week vacation which turned into a year long ordeal? What we now call our ever changing “new normal”. Well right at the start of the lockdown, something catastrophic happened, something that would change the way I functioned during quarantine…my fridge stopped working. As I sat, sulked and grudgingly cleaned it out, I suddenly thought to myself, “At least I have a fridge!” Should’ve made me feel better right? Nope, all I felt was guilt. The sulky grudging feeling had turned into stomach-turning guilt. Why was I feeling guilty for having a fridge? Had I felt this way before? Were others feeling this way too? As is the case with most of our emotions, I wasn’t alone. I was experiencing a Pandemic Guilt.
What is Pandemic Guilt? While guilt is an emotion we experience when we believe that we have done something wrong; Pandemic guilt is what we may experience when we come across instances where we feel like we are more fortunate than others during the Covid-19 Pandemic. For instance, we may feel guilty for having a safe home to quarantine in, for having the resources to keep ourselves protected, for not being on the front line or for having adequate social support. Whatever the instance, Pandemic Guilt may leave us feeling like we don’t deserve the privilege we have or we are not doing enough to help those who do not have the same privileges as us.
This guilt may be triggered by watching news stories or reading articles about the heroic work being done by all frontline workers. It may cause us to question the meaningfulness of our own jobs and conclude that we are not contributing to the greater good. We might even feel guilty for not being able to balance our personal and professional lives while working from home.
We might find ourselves wondering whether we’re doing enough to stop the spread of the virus – ‘When I get food delivered home am I supporting the business or just forcing the employees to work in dangerous conditions?’ Surprisingly, avoiding the virus altogether while a friend or family member may be suffering from it can also lead to guilt.
These are just a few sources of Pandemic Guilt but there can be several others. While it can leave us feeling empty and resentful towards ourselves, the evolutionary purpose of guilt is to make us feel more connected to others by pushing us to engage in prosocial behavior. So how can we accept our guilt? How can we put it to good use?
We can accept our guilt by acknowledging the limits of what we can and cannot control. Recognizing that we cannot be perfectly giving at all times can be liberating. Now that we are aware and accepting of our feelings, we may take a big step forward by switching to gratitude. Psychotherapist Hillary Jacobs Hendel explains this through an insightful example:
“For example, I feel guilty that I live in an area where the infection rate is relatively low and I can easily socially distance while I walk outside. I experience my guilt as a sinking feeling in my stomach. Now, I shift into gratitude. I say out loud, “I am grateful I have a secluded house in which to quarantine myself. I am so lucky.” I don’t shift into “I don’t deserve it” or “I do deserve it,” because every one of us deserves safety and contentment. That is not the issue. The issue is gratitude feels better and is more useful than guilt.”
Hilary Jacobs Hendels, Psychology Today
Once we have made this shift to gratitude, we can choose to stay with this feeling or (if we’re feeling ready) we can pay it forward. How we can help will depend on where we live, what resources are needed and other such constraints but here’s a few ideas: we can thank front line workers, we can volunteer to help them get supplies, we can volunteer to deliver groceries to the more vulnerable people or we can donate to a cause we believe might help or we can simply help by quarantining at home and following social distancing norms.
It’s important to remember that these are extraordinary times, which might cause us to feel unfamiliar and overwhelming emotions, some positive, some negative. It is important that we give ourselves space and time to deal with them comfortably, effectively and in a way that feels right to us (even if not to anyone else). We can only cope better if we are more open to accepting our emotions and asking for help.