Pandemic Real Talk: The Guilt of Doing OK

the guilt of doing ok

Today is Monday, March 22nd and we are just over one year in to the pandemic, two days into spring, and one week into Daylight Savings Time. 

It’s a time of big transitions all around. This week’s theme is meant to be a five-part pep talk on how to navigate this particular pivotal moment. After all, the vaccine is getting rolled out. The warmer months are coming. And yet… we’re still very much in the thick of things. And at this point a lot of us are running on fumes. 

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I find that when I’m feeling worn out or exasperated that it means that it’s time to look a little deeper at how I’m feeling, and find some way to express that. It never fails to lighten the heaviness that’s been bogging me down, and makes it easier to keep going during hard times. So this week we’re going to look at some of the heavy stuff we’ve been carrying around. Please don’t let this scare you off! Remember, the end result is feeling lighter. And doesn’t that sound appealing??

Today’s big idea:

Is that something I’m hearing from folks from all walks of life is that if they are doing basically OK in this pandemic–they haven’t lost their job, or a loved one, they aren’t in financial or physical peril–they feel guilty about it because they know a lot of people are really struggling right now, for very good and big reasons. 

You know, there’s something to be said for feeling this guilt. You’re recognizing that you are enjoying good luck, or privilege, or likely some combination of the two. If you didn’t feel guilty you might just be oblivious to others’ suffering. 

Guilt is a negative emotion, but it tends to influence more positive behaviors than its cousin, shame. If you are feeling shame about something, you tend to want to hide. If you’re feeling guilty, you’re more likely to make amends. That’s another good thing about feeling this kind of guilt. It’s a good impetus to put the energy behind the emotion into use, and helping you prioritize giving back in some way that makes sense for you. 

Also, privilege isn’t a bad thing in and of itself

At it’s best, privilege is an opportunity to be helpful.  Something to keep in mind is that there are systems and structures.Like patriarchy, capitalism, and white supremacy–that have created the inequalities we are seeing so clearly now. So if you’re feeling guilty about the fact that your station in life has protected you from the worst fallout of the pandemic, one way to alleviate your guilt is by engaging in some activism that would change those structures. For example, you can call your elected officials to express your support for a $15 minimum wage. Or submit testimony in support of legislation that promotes environmental justice so that poor communities don’t bear an undue burden of toxins that then compromise their health. 

A mantra that guides my thinking in how to be equitable, inclusive, and of service is this:

Be a river not a pond. I recorded a full episode on this in the early days of this podcast. It’s episode 53 if you want to do a deeper dive. Basically, adopting this stance means that when good things come to you, you don’t hoard them, You let them flow to you and also flow from you, so that they can be enjoyed by other people, too. 

Here are some examples of how to put the idea of being a river not a pond into practice. If you are earning as you were before, can you perhaps hire someone who’s in need of work to help you do something. Whether that’s gardening, babysitting, or teaching you Spanish via Zoom? Or can you get takeout more often than you otherwise would so that your neighborhood restaurants can make up some of their lost income? Or can you step up your giving in whatever way you can? 

Also, keep in mind that this pandemic is a lot to handle, for anyone.

Nearly everyone has had their plans and their lives upended in some way. Nearly everyone has had loved ones to worry about as a result of the pandemic. Whether it’s your child who’s been home for the past year or a relative who lost their job or has been extremely isolated. And nearly everyone has experienced big challenges to mental health, including stress and isolation. Although you may have it better than some people, you are still entitled to your own feelings of stress or loss. Judging yourself for having those feelings is only going to intensify your feelings of guilt and may even get them to bleed over into shame, which can cause you to shut down and go into pond mode. 

My only caveat is to not let your guilt keep you so focused on doing for others that you don’t allow yourself time and space to feel how you feel and to rest when you can. 

Ultimately, your taking care of yourself, and being in a good spot, is good for everybody. Not only will you be better positioned to use your privilege for good and help folks who will need support on their long crawl back to normal, but your example will inspire others. Just like smoking and depression are contagious–meaning, if you’re around people who smoke or are depressed you become much more likely to smoke or suffer from depression, too–so is resilience. You doing what it takes to be in a good spot, in all the ways, helps those around you do it too, and not because of any direct result of your efforts, but because of your energy and your example. 

Daily Tiny Assignment

Your tiny assignment is to think of one way you can be a river. What do you have an abundance of? And how can you share it? Maybe you contribute to a GoFundMe. Or volunteer at a coronavirus testing site if you’ve got time. Or you’re feeling in a good place mentally so you check in on someone who has been struggling lately. I know you can find the perfect thing to do, no matter how small. 

Also, when someone asks how you’re doing and you feel that pang of guilt, just own it. You can say, well, I recognize how lucky I am to be able to say this, but we are doing ok. Acknowledging your privilege doesn’t lessen it, but it does make it visible. And bringing things into the light helps reduce both guilt and shame. 

Come back tomorrow, when I’m acknowledging the costs we’ve all had to pay for spending a year making impossible choices.


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