Pandemic Guilt Getting the Better of You? Here’s How to Deal

A woman wearing a face mask looking upset
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Guilt is a fickle emotion. It doesn’t affect everyone equally. But in times as fraught as these, there’s a lot of it swirling around. So if you’ve felt like you’re under a cloud of guilt or shame since the pandemic began, know that you’re not alone.

It’s also good to know if you’re more prone to taking on guilt than others, which could be the case if you already suffer from anxiety or depression, or if you’re a more soft-spoken or sensitive individual. In these cases, obsessive thinking can turn a mild guilty feeling into crippling shame.

“Timid, insecure individuals may be victims of excessive guilt and constant ‘second guessing’ of themselves and their actions,” says Patricia Farrell, PhD, clinical psychologist.

So if you’re one of those people who can say something awkward at a party and then still obsesses over it three years later, how are you possibly supposed to survive a situation that is actually dire for so many?

First, let’s take a look at some of the things you might not even realize you could be holding onto.

Quarantine Isn’t That Tough for You

This is one I’ve personally dealt with from the beginning. Some of us weren’t hit as hard when everything started because it just wasn’t that much of a change.

If you’re someone who already worked from home, or were an introvert, or both (hi, nice to meet you) there probably wasn’t too much of a shock when you went into lockdown other than having to wear a mask when you went out for groceries. (And that whole toilet paper shortage thing. That wasn’t fun for anyone.)

For some, situations may have even improved under quarantine. Some people are making more money, and their jobs have become more secure. If that applies to you, it can feel horrible knowing that things aren’t fair right now.

You’ve Watched Your Friends or Family Suffer

If things have been relatively stable for you, then seeing friends or family who were essential workers that didn’t have the luxury of staying safely at home, or who worked in the service or retail industries and were afraid their jobs would disappear altogether, can make you feel pretty spoiled and horrible.

Likewise, if you’ve been in good health but you’ve seen friends, family, or colleagues struggle through illness, it can be hard to know what to do with yourself.

You Can’t Take Care of Others Like You Want

This doesn’t only apply to taking care of those who’ve been ill with the virus. It could also mean not being able to help loved ones who might be vulnerable. Like visiting a friend who just had a baby, or offering to sit with a relative who’s just had surgery.

This could also come down to your own financial situation. If your hours were cut, or your job is in jeopardy, you might not be able to take time off to help a loved one. Or those same circumstances are making things extra tight for your own family.

When the going gets tough, we all want to believe we’re Wonder Woman. But we’re just humans, living through a pandemic like everyone else. And it’s a rotten feeling.

You Can’t Spend Time With Your Family

This is a sticky one this time of year. Because you could absolutely believe that keeping your distance is the most important way to keep your extended family safe, but not all of them will agree with that. And if there’s anything family is good at, it’s guilt trips.

During the holidays, we’re inundated by images of happy families gathering together. And it’s hard to be the person who takes the stand and says “I’m sorry, but I won’t be visiting this year.” Even if you’re doing it out of love.

And it’s not just the holiday season. If you’ve avoided other important gatherings like weddings, anniversaries, or funerals because of the virus, there’s bound to be lingering feelings of guilt.

You Haven’t Followed Guidelines Perfectly

At the beginning of the pandemic, before lockdown, a lot of us weren’t sure how seriously to take everything. What are the new rules? Aren’t I taking money away from my favorite business if I stay home? Surely I can go visit my own grandparents!

And when it became clear that COVID wasn’t going anywhere, it was easy to feel panic-stricken. What if I made it worse?

Sometimes circumstances necessitate placing yourself in less than ideal situations. Maybe you don’t want to place yourself on public transportation or in the middle of crowded restaurants, but you must in order to make a living.

Or maybe it’s the opposite — you’ve been adhering to every social distancing guideline, and you feel judged or mocked by loved ones for doing so. Because no matter how well-intentioned, some people still don’t understand that saying no to a hug isn’t a personal rejection.

So How Do You Deal?

If any of this applies to you, the first thing to know is that you’re not alone. We’re all in this mess together, figuring out how to navigate it in real-time.

Acknowledge and accept that things have drastically changed, and don’t waste your time on thoughts of “I should have.” You did the best you could with the knowledge you had at the time.

If you’ve caused genuine offense or have been misunderstood, then apologize or try to explain yourself the best you can. But then move on. And do what you can to reframe these stories in your own mind. You haven’t been snubbing your family; you’ve been protecting them. You aren’t an uncaring friend; you’re being responsible.

Make yourself available to loved ones in other ways, but be mindful of boundaries as well. Guilt can make us feel like we’re obligated to give everything of ourselves, and in the end, that does no one any favors.

Most of all, be gentle with yourself. Check your self-talk: Would you let anyone speak to your best friend the way you speak to yourself? I bet not. You’re only one person, and you have limits. Help others where you can, but understand that your energy is finite. And you’re the only one who can protect it.

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