Navigating this transitional period, the post-but-not-really-post pandemic world, is fraught.
While the return of in-person socialising, indoor dining and gyms is obviously welcome, it is giving us all more choice than we have had for a long time. And, after a year of being repeatedly told that actions we once wouldn’t have second guessed are now a threat to public health, it’s hard to shake the constant feeling that you’re doing something wrong. Whether you’re worried you’re going out too much and contributing to infection rates, or not going out enough and wasting your opportunities. Whether you're worried you're spending far beyond your means and not giving more to causes you care about, or not spending at all and therefore not supporting the local economy. Guilt is everywhere, and it’s spilling out as the world opens up.
Unlike other self-shaming emotions like shame or disgust, guilt is an emotion that is tied to action (or lack thereof): we feel guilt when we have either broken an external rule, like a law or social standard, or an internal rule or expectation we set for ourselves. The result of this action or inaction is a fear or knowledge that you have done something that harms someone else.
In the context of the pandemic, we have lived (and are still living through) a period where we are constantly reminded that our actions have consequences. So while guilt is a normal human emotion, it's understandable that it's particularly pervasive right now. Professor Roger Giner-Sorolla is a professor of Social Psychology at the University of Kent whose core research interests lie in moral emotions, specifically the self-condemning emotions of guilt and shame. He explains to R29 that there are a number of pandemic-related factors that could make you more vulnerable to guilt.
“Many people have had to deal with bereavement, whether by COVID or other causes, without being able to fulfil their family roles and show love through traveling to funerals and memorials." He says. "Even the very good reason of being in lockdown may not be enough to relieve some people of guilt," especially those who are already grieving and in a negative mood.
Then, there is the risk of survivor guilt – whether that stems from not contracting COVID when others did or keeping your job while others have not been so lucky. “Sometimes this [fear and precaution] is a good thing, but if it is out of proportion to the actual risk it can also get in the way of living” he says.
The types of guilt we experience vary, however. Guilt can be motivated by external rules like laws or social norms, or it can be driven by internal drives and standards we set for ourselves. And perhaps more significantly guilt can be adaptive or maladaptive. Adaptive guilt, where it is spurred on by an identifiable transgression, drives you to resolve whatever harm you caused and is usually a short-lived feeling. This is also known as ‘pro-social guilt’, when guilt is functional, productive and contributes to a person’s understanding of wrongdoing or responsibility.
On the other hand, guilt can be maladaptive, where the feelings of guilt are pervasive, arise in situations where they are unwarranted, and are often harder to resolve. If your guilt is causing you to constantly doubt and berate yourself or is leading to emotional and mental distress, it has stepped beyond the realms of pro-social and is likely irrational or misplaced.
Dr Sheri Jacobson, clinical director and founder of Harley Therapy, points out that the fact many of us are already in a sensitive or distressed state means we could be more vulnerable to maladaptive feelings of guilt. “If you’ve got other factors going on such as feeling anxious because you’re in anxious times, or suffering a loss, or going through a trauma, I think we're more sensitive and more disposed to swings of emotional irrational emotions.” 'Irrational' here does not mean that the emotions are not justified, she assures, just that they are not necessarily in proportion to the situation.
So, if you are reckoning with a lot of guilt right now, what can you do about it? If it is guilt that is about things you have no control over or rationally shouldn’t elicit guilt, Sheri recommends a dose of self-compassion.
“You should work on softening [your] own internal narrative." She says. "Being more lenient with ourselves, adjusting the harsh-voiced internal dialogue, and treating ourselves as we would be inclined to treat a friend.” Although this advice may sound like a cliché, it is useful in the context of misapplied guilt to think about what you would tell a friend, she says. “Would you say [to your friend] 'stew on this and and question your every thought and behaviour and feel bad about taking one move that's maybe not what everyone would approve of'? Or would you say to yourself 'I'm doing my best in this situation, I'm following what I feel intuitively is best overall. I may make a mistake but I'll correct myself if so, and I'm going to go easy on myself'.”
However, it’s important to recognise that guilt, when not maladaptive, is ultimately functional. If you have transgressed in a way that does need to be rectified in some way, either through apology or amending future action, Roger emphasises that guilt is best relieved by "accepting that one has done all that one could to make amends – and by actually making amends." He continues: "if you realise it is out of your power to make amends, or you never really did wrong in the first place, then self-forgiveness can be a powerful force for removing guilt.”
The trick is to recognise what is and what isn’t in your control and then use that to empower you when the guilt is motivating you to do better, and relieve you when the guilt is driving you into a shame spiral.
And. if you’re still struggling to identify when the guilt is useful versus when it is debilitating, Roger advises seeking a professional opinion if you’re able. “Professional counselling or psychotherapy can be very helpful in giving you an objective point of view on whether your way of thinking is realistic,” he says. “As guilt deals with complex situations, no one size of self-help advice fits all!”