I’ve been reporting on the coronavirus for months, but a few weeks ago when I was unsure how to turn down a hug, I wrapped my arms around a person outside my household. (And, okay, I really wanted a hug.) Last weekend, when my best friend sat down less than six feet away from me while we camped, I didn’t get up and move. I keep a tally of these COVID-19 errors in my head like I’m preparing for confession. I try to be nice to myself about blunders, but I have to wonder if feeling guilty is a healthy response to poor choices or if I’m stewing on my misdeeds for no reason.
To find the answer, I connected with two psychologists to show me the light. Their insight was surprisingly soothing. “This once in a lifetime, once in a century pandemic is extremely stressful for people whether they are directly impacted by COVID-19 or not,” Jane Simoni, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and professor in the department of psychology at the University of Washington, tells SELF. The stress and uncertainty involved create fertile ground for guilt to arise.
If guilt has been prowling around in your brain, ready to catch you at every turn, here’s what you should know about when it’s healthy, when it’s not, and how to keep it under control.
Guilt is actually a useful emotion that can help you make better choices.
“All of our emotions have a function,” Danielle Keenan-Miller, Ph.D., director of the UCLA psychology clinic and associate adjunct professor of psychology at UCLA, tells SELF. With guilt, it’s an alarm that you’re stepping outside of your value system in some way. When it comes to COVID-19, guilt about your actions might signal that you feel you’re taking unnecessary risks.
Coronavirus numbers are still high, and outbreaks are happening in non-essential circumstances like weddings, bachelorette parties, and dorm room gatherings. Public health messaging during this time can be confusing to say the least. But if you’re feeling guilty each time you willingly do something that goes against the public health guidelines we do know are pretty set in stone—wearing a mask, keeping social gatherings outdoors, staying six feet away from those who don’t live with you whenever possible—it’s a sign that you know you can do better and should change your actions. A little guilt may be useful when it redirects you to safer, smarter choices the next time around.
If you’re feeling guilty after a specific action, Keenan-Miller recommends pausing and evaluating what you can do differently in the future. Once you make a plan for different behavior, do your best to process those feelings and move on. Guilt isn’t useful when there’s nothing productive you can do about it, Keenan-Miller explains, so try to let it go once you’ve course-corrected. Easier said than done, I know, but here are a few tips that may help.
Sometimes, though, guilt isn’t helpful or necessary.
The cause for unnecessary guilt usually falls into three categories: unrealistic expectations, pressure from outside judgment, or guilt over things outside your control.
Maybe you committed to not seeing friends in person until there was a vaccine, but now that we’re months in, you’d give anything to see them at a distance. Your initial plan was too much to ask for a multi-year pandemic, making it an unrealistic expectation. Or sometimes the expectations feel external. For example, if you tell your friend you dropped your kids off at a grandparent’s house so you could get some work done and your friend responds that they would never do that, you might feel guilt over your choice. In reality, your friend is projecting their value system onto you, leading to judgment that can make you feel guilty. Social media, where people share opinions at the speed of light (or at least lightning-fast internet connections), can compound this sense of judgment and guilt.