As the COVID-19 crisis continues, more and more of us are feeling the effects. Whether we have lost loved ones, are recovering from COVID-19 ourselves, have lost jobs or income, are supporting family members who have lost their livelihoods, are trying to balance childcare and work, or are doing everything we can to maintain physical distance, it’s becoming more difficult to find someone whose life has not been impacted in some way by COVID-19.
And yet some of us feel like we’re not suffering enough. A specific brand of survivor’s guilt—pandemic guilt—has affected people who might not feel like they have been impacted by COVID-19 as much as those around them, or even people they see on social media or the news. While it might not feel like it, the feelings of guilt, shame, sadness, fear, and anxiety of those who haven’t been as directly impacted by COVID-19 are also valid.
If your good news, privilege, luck, or feelings of detachment from the crisis are causing guilt, shame, and embarrassment to arise when you compare your level of suffering to that of others, you might be experiencing pandemic guilt. Here’s a deeper dive into what pandemic guilt is and some ways to help you cope.
Just like people who have mental health impostor syndrome, people with pandemic guilt can feel like they’re not suffering enough to feel sad, scared, anxious, or depressed or that they don’t deserve to feel the way they do because it seems like others have it worse.
You might feel guilty if you don’t have one of the underlying conditions that might make people more susceptible to COVID-19 or if you know someone who lost their lives to or is recovering from COVID-19 while you are still healthy. You might also feel guilty about leaving your house, even if you are physically distancing, at the risk of spreading the disease or infecting others.
You might be feeling guilty if you still have a job when others don't. You might also feel like you want to leave your job or take time off but you can’t because you feel lucky to even have a job.
If you’re not an essential worker, you might feel guilt that you may be less likely to be exposed to COVID-19. If you are an essential worker or could potentially be exposed to COVID-19, you might feel guilt about passing it along to family members or roommates.
You might be struggling at work but feel the need to be grateful and happy to be working (even if you’re not). Additionally, you might feel guilty if you want to return to work but know that it could put teachers or other workers deemed essential in danger.
You might feel guilty if you are not able to explain to children why things are the way they are or if your kids are getting too much screen time or struggling with remote learning. Maybe you’re asking family members not to see one another or roommates not to invite over their partners or friends out of caution.
Some people who have been able to shelter in place with friends and family or outside cities might feel guilty for leaving and others who have started to travel might feel guilty for doing so while the pandemic is still ongoing.
Some people feel like they have spent the majority of 2020 getting nothing done. They find it hard to be motivated and then beat themselves up when they’re not checking things off their to-do list like they did pre-pandemic. If you feel like things “aren’t that bad” for you, this feeling of guilt increases. And if everyone is dealing with the pandemic, you might not feel like you’re supposed to be able to struggle at all.
It could be a cycle, increased by the racial justice and Black Lives Matter movement this year, where you feel guilt about people suffering from COVID-19, guilt about the racial justice movement and protests, guilt about the economy, and then guilt again about people suffering from COVID-19, always unsure what you should consider to be the most pressing and important.
Even worse, if you feel lucky or happy at any time, that might feel wrong, and the guilt will come crashing down again.
Pandemic guilt is a type of survivor’s guilt, which is typically experienced after an accident, disaster, or conflict. Those who survive or deem themselves to have suffered less feel guilt in relation to those who they deem to have suffered more.
We typically associate guilt with having done something wrong, but in this case, guilt can arise through no fault of our own, so it might be hard to recognize and label it as guilt in the first place.
You may feel stress and anxiety, shame and embarrassment, sadness and depression, and fear and uncertainty. You might also feel undeserving of any happiness or comfort while others are suffering.
The truth is, we have all been impacted. It would be nearly impossible to escape school, workplace, and business closures, news from around the world, and general uncertainty about the future. It might feel like others are suffering much more, but as humans, we live in a Delayed Return Environment that breeds anxiety and chronic stress.
“You may be feeling uncertainty and stress” triggered by COVID-19, said NYC therapist and MyWellbeing community member Salina Grilli. “We can get stuck in this stress response because there is no solution right now.”
A global pandemic and resulting economic crisis are traumatic events that are virtually inescapable. The loss of normalcy and connection and the fear of the future are causing a collective grief, and it’s completely normal and valid to feel the impact of that.
If you’re feeling stress, anxiety, guilt, shame, sadness, or any other emotion, your thoughts and feelings are valid no matter how much you think you have suffered. To start coming to terms with your feelings of pandemic guilt, you can cultivate self-awareness, name your feelings, and remind yourself that you deserve health, happiness, and safety and to not feel guilty by comparing your experience to the experience of others.
“First, we need to take care of our basic needs: food, sleep, exercise,” says Julia Chislenko, an NYC therapist and MyWellbeing community member. She also says maintaining human contact while setting new boundaries and new routines is important.
We recently wrote about why the phrase physical distancing is better for your mental health than social distancing. Now more than ever, we have to stay socially connected, even though we need to stay physically apart.
If you feel like you’re not suffering enough, it can be hard to counter thoughts that you don’t deserve health, safety, and happiness. But you do. Everybody deserves to feel safe, happy, and healthy and if you have one or more of those things, try to manage your feelings of guilt by replacing them with gratitude.
When the negative thoughts start creeping in, have a gratitude script ready to say or write your gratitude down in a journal. When I am feeling pandemic guilt about my health and relative economic security, I say to myself, I deserve to be healthy, I am grateful for my privilege, and I am thankful that I have the energy to use my health and privilege for good.
Do what you can with what you have. If you have the financial means to do so, donate. If you can volunteer time, that is also incredibly helpful. Making a career connection or introduction for someone, offering to pick up groceries for a neighbor, or even checking in virtually with a family member or friend are all ways to replace feelings of shame with positive actions.
If you were working with a therapist in person before we began physical distancing and you were able to continue your therapy appointments virtually, that’s great. If you are new to therapy or you took a break while you waited for things to open back up, you can absolutely begin therapy remotely, and we’ve put together some tips to help you do that. If remote therapy seems stressful right now in terms of privacy, we also have resources for how to create privacy while using teletherapy at home.
It’s important to remember that we’re all going through a collective crisis, we shouldn’t be expected to carry on as normal, and our unique experiences and feelings within this collective crisis are all valid. If you are suffering from pandemic guilt, there are ways to cope including taking care of your basic needs, practicing gratitude and helping others as you are able, and finding the mental health support you deserve.
Regardless of the level of impact COVID-19 has had on your life, a number of our therapists have put together special offerings to make it easier for you to access support at this time. Whether you want one-on-one therapy or a little extra support from your peers, we have something to help.
Caitlin is an organizational change strategist, advisor, writer, and the founder of Commcoterie, a change management communication consultancy. She helps leaders and the consultants who work with them communicate change for long-lasting impact. Caitlin is a frequent speaker, workshop facilitator, panelist, and podcast guest on topics such as organizational change, internal communication strategy, DEIBA, leadership and learning, management and coaching, women in the workplace, mental health and wellness at work, and company culture. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.