How to Deal With the Guilt You Feel During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Guilt is a powerful emotion. And when left unchecked, guilty feelings can lead to some not-so-healthy actions.

If you feel guilty during the COVID-19 pandemic, you’re not alone. There’s something about an international crisis that seems to lead to lots of guilt. 

Whether you feel guilty that you’re sending your kids to daycare while you continue to work from home or you’re feeling guilty that you aren’t helping other people as much as you think you could be, recognizing how to deal with that guilt in a healthy way is essential to your well-being.

Things You Might Feel Guilty About

During the pandemic, some people feel guilty because they’re doing well. Others feel guilty because they aren’t doing as well as they think they should be. Some people feel guilty about almost everything.

Here are a few reasons why some people may be feeling more guilty during this time.

Your Life Is Better in Quarantine

For some people, being quarantined and perhaps working from home has increased their quality of life. Some of your guilty thoughts may sound like this:

  • I feel guilty that my life is actually better during quarantine.
  • I feel guilty because I can work from home and others have lost their jobs.
  • I feel guilty because I'm making more money now than before.
  • I feel guilty because I am pretty happy right now and other people are suffering.

Your Kids and Family Have Been Affected

Many people are feeling lonely because they are unable to visit friends and family. Those with children may feel especially guilty because they've noticed that their kids are being negatively affected. You may have thoughts like:

  • I feel bad I let my kids have too much screen time because I can tell they're bored.
  • I feel guilty I’m not playing with my kids during the day.
  • I feel awful that my parents can’t see my kids right now.
  • I am riddled with guilt because my kids seem miserable.
  • I feel bad I can’t visit my parents in the nursing home.

You Are Unable to Help Others

Because of social distancing rules, it has become much more difficult to assist those who are in need of help during this time. You might be making less money so you may not be able to support those you care about. Because of this, it's easy to be overwhelmed with guilty feelings:

  • I feel awful that I am not doing more to help other people.
  • I feel guilty my income has been slashed and my family won’t have as much money.
  • I feel bad that I can no longer take care of my elderly parents without putting them at risk.

You Did or Didn't Follow Social Distancing Rules

It's possible you didn't follow social distancing rules at the start of the pandemic and feel guilty about not having done so. Maybe you even feel guilty because you have been adhering to all of the rules and have missed important events. Your thoughts may sound like this:

  • I feel bad I didn’t wear a mask in public at first.
  • I feel guilty that I went to a social gathering.
  • I feel bad that I didn’t attend a funeral because I wanted to social distance.

It's important to remember that so many people are having these exact thoughts right now. So, it's a good idea to remind yourself that you are not alone in this experience.

Why You Might Feel More Guilty Now

The things you might feel guilty about could likely go on and on. For many, there are plenty of things to feel bad about—whether you’re struggling or you’re doing well.

Here are several reasons why people experience more guilt during the pandemic.

People Are Suffering

When you turn on the news or read the latest headlines, you’ll see that people are experiencing physical illness, mental health problems, and economic hardship. And many people are grieving the loss of their loved ones.

If you’re not suffering as much as other people, you might experience guilt that you’re doing OK—similar to the way survivors of an accident may experience survivor’s guilt if someone else lost their life.

This may be especially true if you’re doing better than usual right now. Whether your economic situation has improved or you’re better off working remotely, you might feel bad that you’re somehow doing better while others are suffering more.

Other People Might Shame You

If you share any good news—like you got a promotion or you celebrated a birthday—other people may be quick to remind you that you shouldn’t talk about it during the pandemic.

Whether someone replies to your social media post #tonedeaf or someone questions how you could possibly be happy at a time like this, you might be shamed for your good fortune—or even for being in a good mood.

These sorts of reactions might cause you to experience guilt about your more fortunate situation.

The Usual Rules Don’t Apply

Many of the things you held dear prior to the pandemic—like visiting your parents often and limiting your kids’ screen time—may no longer be options (or priorities).

Visiting Friends and Family

If you’ve spent most of your life believing you should spend time with loved ones, of course you might feel guilty when you don’t.

Even though you might know that not visiting them is the safest, kindest thing you could do right now, you might still feel bad that your behavior has to be in conflict with your beliefs; “I can’t visit my parents even though I believe spending time with family is important.”

Your Children's Screen Time

If you’ve invested a lot of time and energy into ensuring your kids don’t stare at their digital devices, your rules may have changed.

Perhaps letting your kids use their devices to chat with friends is better for them than not having access to their electronics right now.

Or, maybe they are attending school online and it’s more important for them to be connected all the time.

Your brain may not have accepted the fact that, for now, you don’t have to follow your previously held rules about electronics.

Even though your priorities and rules may shift during the pandemic because you need to keep everyone healthy and safe, it may take your brain and your emotions a while to catch up to the idea that the usual rules no longer apply.

Managing Guilt in a Healthy Way

You may not be able to control the fact that you experience guilt. But, you can control how you respond to it. Here are some strategies for managing guilty feelings during the pandemic:

Acknowledge and Accept Guilt

Guilt is a normal, healthy emotion. Experiencing it when you’ve hurt someone or when you’ve made a mistake is a good sign—it means you have a conscience. But sometimes, you may experience unnecessary guilt (like you have a faulty guilt meter).

Don’t waste your energy fighting your guilt or thinking, “I shouldn’t feel this way.” Ignoring it or even trying to suppress it won’t work.

Instead, notice your feelings and acknowledge it. Put a name to it. Studies show that just labeling your feelings can help them feel less intense.

Acknowledging your emotions also frees up brainpower. Instead of wasting energy trying not to feel guilty, recognize your emotions, and try to move forward.

Apologize If You’ve Hurt Someone

Not all guilt is unnecessary. There may be times when your guilty feelings are a reminder that you’ve hurt someone.

Whether you yelled at your partner because you were stressed out or you told your mom she was overreacting to the latest headlines, your guilt may be a reminder that you should apologize.

If you messed up, acknowledge your mistake to the other person. Say you’re sorry without making any excuses for your behavior and accept full responsibility.

Rather than saying, “I’m sorry your feelings got hurt,” say, “I’m sorry I said something mean.”

But remember that you may also feel guilty even when you haven’t done anything wrong. You might feel bad your kids don’t get out of the house often or you might feel guilty that you can’t give your child a big birthday party—even though those things aren’t your fault. If you didn’t hurt anyone, an apology isn’t warranted.

If you feel bad, but it’s not your fault, respond with empathy. Acknowledge the difficulties the other person is experiencing, but don’t give an unnecessary apology.

Monitor Your Behavior

Guilt feels uncomfortable. So when you experience it, you may be tempted to take whatever steps you can to feel better. But if you’re not careful, the action you take to relieve your guilt might not be healthy.

For example, if you feel guilty that your kids are bored and lonely, you might be tempted to give them cookies and ice cream to cheer them up.

While allowing them to indulge in a few extra treats won’t hurt, letting them eat junk food all the time could impact their well-being. Ultimately, you may end up feeling even guiltier for not feeding them healthier food.

Of course, it’s important to cut yourself a little slack right now. You may need to let the kids play on their electronics longer than usual so you can get your work done.

Or, you might feed the kids snacks that aren’t as healthy as usual because you aren’t going to the grocery as often to buy fresh fruit and vegetables. Those things are OK.

Just make sure you aren’t making those choices out of an attempt to alleviate your guilt.

Change the Story You Tell Yourself

The stories you tell yourself—and the way you frame your behaviors—make a big difference in how you feel.

If you think, “I’m a horrible person for not helping my parents,” you’ll feel bad. But, if you remind yourself, “I’m doing the most loving thing I can right now by staying away,” you might feel a little better.

You also might reframe the story you tell yourself around work. If you think, “I’m a bad parent for working in the office all day while the kids are watching TV in the living room,” you’ll likely experience guilt.

If, however, you change the story and tell yourself, “I’m modeling hard work and teaching my kids how to adapt to tough situations.” That reframe could reduce your guilt.

Pay attention to the story you are telling yourself and ask if there’s another way to look at the situation. You might discover a slight shift in the way you think about the situation can help you feel better.

Practice Self-Compassion

Your self-talk makes a huge difference in the way you feel. Calling yourself names or beating yourself up for a mistake you made fuels guilty feelings.

Keep in mind that there are no right or wrong answers about how to handle a situation in the middle of a pandemic. This is uncharted territory and all you can do is make the best decisions you can with the information that you have.

It’s important to show yourself some compassion, ditch the harsh self-criticism, and learn to be kinder to yourself.

In fact, studies show self-compassion is the key to doing better in the future. Practicing self-compassion can also reduce your psychological distress.

A great way to practice self-compassion is to ask yourself, “What would I say to a friend who felt this way or had this problem?” Chances are, you’d be kind. You might say something supportive like, “You’re doing the best you can. We all make mistakes.”

You might also call them out when they’re being irrational by saying something like, “You didn’t do anything wrong. We’re in the middle of a pandemic.”

Try to respond to yourself with that same type of kindness and compassion. It can help alleviate some of the unnecessary guilt you feel.

Take Good Care of Yourself

It’s impossible to feel good about yourself and how you’re managing the situation if you’re neglecting (or even abusing) yourself.

Pay attention to your diet, sleep, and activity level. It’s important to take care of your body if you want to be in good emotional health.

Also, take a look at the things you’re doing to help yourself function at your best. Are you engaged in a hobby? Do you take time to do the things you love? Are you making time for yourself?

Obviously, self-care may look a little different during the pandemic. You might not be able to visit with friends or attend classes that you enjoy. But, it’s important to look for alternative strategies that help you feel your best.

Pay Attention to the People You Surround Yourself With

If your social media friends and followers are likely to call you out for any positive news you share—by saying you shouldn’t celebrate during the pandemic, for example—you may want to mute them, unfriend them, or suggest they unfollow.

It’s OK to share positive news. In fact, sharing the good things in your life (without bragging, of course) could inspire others or help them feel better.

Be aware of the other emotions and mood you experience when you’re around other people too. If someone tries to force you to go on guilt trips, set boundaries. Refuse to be “guilted” into doing things you don’t want to do.

A Word From Verywell

Keep in mind that a lot of people are experiencing unnecessary guilt right now, so you’re not alone if you can relate. Talking to friends and family members who understand can help.

If, despite your efforts, you’re still experiencing a lot of guilt or it’s interfering with your ability to function, consider seeking professional help. Guilt can be a symptom of depression, PTSD, or other mental health issues.

Talk therapy may help you feel better. A mental health professional can help you address the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors behind your guilt so you can start to feel better.

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