As we approach the one-year mark of the initial pandemic shutdown, many of us are looking back and reflecting on the seemingly endless months of sheltering in place, working from home, social distancing, cancelling plans, and seeing friends and family on a screen only. I recently recalled something that happened in June, and it felt like years ago, not months ago.

I must admit that I have found myself looking back and saying, “What exactly did I accomplish? Did I take advantage of the time in place?” I’ve read stories of people who have made big and bold things happen in their lives like starting businesses, writing books, creating nonprofits, or achieving long-held dreams. When I hear of others’ achievements, I get pangs of “pandemic guilt” – I woulda, shoulda, coulda done something amazing and life-changing too! But I didn’t. And then I take a breath and realize that, for the most part, I did exactly what I wanted to do these last many months – whether it was starting a book club with my brother and sister, major decluttering, or reconnecting with high school friends – nothing monumental but truly meaningful for me.

Another form of pandemic guilt I have seen is the recognition that the pandemic has shone a light on the inequities in society – whether due to socioeconomic level or race or occupation, it has never been clearer that some people are more valued than others. Many of us see that the pandemic did little harm to us while it had a devastating effect on many others. That fortune and privilege can bring with it a sense of guilt, but guilt alone does nothing unless you can channel it into greater awareness, discontent, and action.

Guilt is a toxic emotion. It burdens you with what “should have been” or locks you in a need to ignore or play down your gifts, or to feel ashamed. Those feelings of regret or responsibility for things likely out of your control can be powerful demotivators that hold you back and prevent you from realizing your full potential and impact. There are steps you can take to deal with your pandemic guilt.

If you are feeling the pandemic guilt of non-accomplishment:

  • Think about what you did accomplish – For me, I hunkered down, enjoyed the time at home with my family, listened, and connected or reconnected with friends and acquaintances. I appreciated the simple things in life – the smell of baked bread, the sound of birds in the backyard (so many birds!), my dog’s happy dance, or the beauty of fresh snow outside our window. So, rather than lament the lack of a monumental change or achievement in your life, count up the little things and cherish them.
  • Focus on “what is” not “what if” – Getting caught up in “shoulding on yourself,” is truly unproductive and only reinforces self-criticism and judgment. Instead, take inventory of your strengths and achievements and assess where you are in your work and life.
  • Set a compelling goal – Once you have assessed where you are, determine if there is something that you want to do for yourself – learn to paint, pick up the instrument you used to love to play, start writing, get that credential or certification you have been thinking about, stop smoking, or lose weight. Whatever that goal is, take a first step to propel you forward – sign up, buy supplies, recruit an accountability buddy.
  • Reflect on what you will keep doing – We’re not out of the woods yet, but I am thinking of the things I want to hold onto from this time like regular videoconferences with family and friends who are far away and my small pottery-making space. You may have begun a morning or evening ritual or started journaling. This has been a time for slowing down. Think about how you will avoid jumping full speed ahead into the rat race.

If you are feeling the pandemic guilt of fortune and privilege:

  • Acknowledge the toll – We are living in circumstances largely beyond our control that affected the entire globe. History will retell this time period in much the same way as the 1918 pandemic and other world crises. It is easy to get numb to the growing count of infections and deaths. It’s also easy to go back to “the way things were” or forget about the critical protests for racial justice over the summer. Recognize and honor these historic times in whatever way resonates with you – and let’s not forget.
  • Be a force for change – What is within your control to influence policy or practice? Whether in your workplace, in your neighborhood, among your family and friends, or in your profession, decide what action you will take to make the changes you know are needed to address inequity, systemic racism, and divisiveness. Be willing to be the one to speak up, to call out inequities, to demand and commit to anti-racist policies and actions, to take as many small and large actions as you can. And before you think, there’s not much I can do – remember, one starfish at a time
  • Give back – There are so many ways to use your privilege and good fortune for good. Volunteer at a food pantry, support social justice and anti-poverty organizations, mentor a young student or colleague, donate to a community center in an underserved area, support and volunteer for the political campaign of a candidate who will address inequities, to name a few.
  • Express gratitude – None of us achieve alone. Many people along the way have helped us, championed us, advocated for us, taught us, spoke the truth to us, took a chance on us. Reach out and say thank you. And pay it forward by finding someone whom you can help along as well.

The past year has brought with it a rollercoaster of events and emotions. It reminded me of the famous quote from A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…” Plenty of bad and lots of good too. If you are feeling pandemic guilt, don’t beat yourself up. Let go of your self-judgment and use the feelings you have to propel you to take steps and make positive change for yourself and others.

Have you felt pandemic guilt?  What steps have you taken or will you take in response?
Let us know.

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