During these challenging times, we may find ourselves experiencing an entire spectrum of emotions at any given moment. Understandably we will feel a strong sense of worry regarding our health and the well-being of our loved ones. We will likely feel frustration as we come to terms with the disruptions to our daily routines and encounter new occupational challenges. We may even experience a dash of joy as we get a few more minutes to sleep in place of our long commute to work. But as we are inundated with information of global suffering, we may also find ourselves feeling the heaviness and discomfort of guilt.
Guilt is a particularly fascinating feeling as it is something referred to as a “conditioned emotion”, essentially meaning that it is learned. We are not born having a sense of right and wrong, or at least what to feel bad about; this moral compass is taught to us by caregivers, family, social community, schooling and even religion. Although guilt is a completely natural facet of our emotional range as human beings, for many it can become all-consuming and paralyzing. Many individuals can even end up partaking in self-destructive behaviours as a result. In fact, feelings of chronic guilt have been shown to be a prominent risk factor for mental health concerns including in depression and anxiety—which makes it even more crucial for us to address our own feelings of guilt. In the realm of psychology, there are differing theories regarding the utility of guilt as an experience. Some argue that guilt can indicate the human propensity for feelings of empathy. Meanwhile, others state that it adversely contributes to emotional mental distress.
By definition, guilt is a feeling provoked by a sense of responsibility or regret for wrongdoing. Although this might be helpful for children as they learn about negative consequences of their socially defiant behaviour—what happens when our guilt is associated with situations outside the realm of our direct control such as poverty, financial downfall, hunger, illness, and death faced by scores of people across the world? Unlike a children learning to apologize for taking a biscuit without permission, how do we respond to these feelings of discomfort and unease settled within us from our privilege-induced guilt?
Inspired by the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Model, I will address the three crucial facets of the experience of guilt:
Feelings: Don’t Judge Them!
At this time it may feel like your personal struggles may seem trivial when compared to the suffering of others in our own country and across the globe. The statements “first world problems”, “there are people who have it way worse” and “I’ve got nothing to complain about” come to mind. As much validity as these statements appear to hold, their purpose is to impose judgement and undermine your emotions, which is not necessarily the best response to guilt (or any other emotion). The truth is that we all have our own individual struggles even though I think we can all agree that we are observing others go through hardships that are unimaginable for most of us reading this article. And as logically as we can concur that starvation, for example, is worse than any daily struggle we might be facing, there is a major difference between the internal responses of judgement and perspective on our part. It is important to note that there is no universal scale for measuring emotions comparatively and more importantly, there isn’t a use for one either. Your emotions don’t negate anyone else’s and similarly negating or undermining your own feelings will not help anyone else either. When we judge ourselves for feeling things, we are judging emotions, which are inherently irrational and out of our direct control. Emotions are not “right” or “wrong”, they just are. So when we try to qualify them, we are just rejecting a very real sensation, and as you can imagine this doesn’t make them disappear and likely contributes to even more difficult emotions being compounded. But, when we look at perspective, well this is addressing something that we have more active control over—our thinking! So yes, do allow yourself to feel all of your emotions without judgement WHILE adopting the discerning perspective that these challenges may not be “the worst thing in the world” as they may seem like in the moment, but even so your experience is still valid.
Speaking of thinking… our thought patterns and belief systems have a great impact on how we feel, as evident above. And this is no exception with guilt. All forms of guilt are not made equal and when we find ourselves experiencing paralyzing guilt over situations that we cannot directly affect, which can easily transform into chronic guilt that can negatively impact us in long run. Fortunately, we have a lot more power over of thoughts that we think (no pun intended!) An example is through the practice of gratefulness. If you would think of privilege guilt as feeling bad for what you have, then gratefulness could be defined as consciously and actively being thankful, gracious, appreciative and grateful for the privileges we have. Although the concept may appear simplistic, our minds seem to be hotwired by conditioning to lean towards guilt/shame thinking. But like any skill, it requires mindful practice and perseverance. A great way to begin is to make a gratefulness journal, to note the things you are grateful for each day or week: Anything that is personal to you, e.g. “I am so grateful for the existence of chocolate” OR “I am so grateful to have shelter and roof over my head.” We may find ourselves subconsciously resisting these shifts in thinking and the subsequent positive feelings at this time, most likely out of…guilt! But be wary that these feelings may be built on a foundation of thoughts regarding our sense of responsibility for certain situations, without rationally addressing that punishing ourselves via denial is not the solution to solve the inspiration for our guilt.
As we have been discussing, our thoughts lead to emotions and when combined they can largely define our behaviour. As humans, we have free will to behave differently than our emotions inspire us to, especially when they might be based on erroneous thoughts. So rather than hoping to vanquish guilt, it is even more important to be mindful of how we respond to it. When guilt guides our actions, unfortunately many resort to self-destructive or self-punishing behaviours. This is partly due to a belief that punishing ourselves will somehow even the scales, and ease someone else’s suffering. However in cases like this, these behaviours have no utility to you or those that you sympathize with. For example, if you stop eating food this will not necessarily place foods on the plates of others. So depriving yourself is neither helping you or the other person.
When faced with any emotion, our behaviour can either be maladaptive or adaptive. Maladaptive behaviour would be any path that negatively affects us in the long-run. An adaptive alternate to the example above would be:
If you and/or your family earn a stable income, even during the lockdown, and usually spend a total of Rs. X a month on external recreational activities such as going to the cinema, dining out, ordering in, going to concerts, retail shopping etc. These costs would have been saved during the last month or at least till the end of lockdown. Consider calculating this number and redirecting this amount to a foundation working to feed the thousands of Indians who are facing hunger at this time. What makes this behaviour adaptive is not only that it benefits someone else in line with our internal desire that wasn’t being met previously (which fostered the initial guilt) but it is also something that is not going to severely negatively impact you as well.
It is important to state here that these kinds of behaviours are not intended to eradicate guilt completely or be a slap dash solution for not feeling guilty anymore. But rather, they are an example navigating a more adaptive and functional way to act on our feelings of guilt without judging our own feelings or punishing ourselves indefinitely. Similarly, please note that even if you are not able to monetarily contribute to organizations, there are still ways to lend a hand to people during these challenging times. Perhaps spending some time do research into volunteering your time or expertise to foundations or people who may need some help right now. For example, helping someone technologically challenged to set up an email account and training them on how to use it.
It is clear that guilt is a complex and interesting feeling, and is certainly a normal part of our emotional range as humans. But if you find that your feelings of guilt become overwhelming and that they begin to dictate your behaviour in ways that cause inevitable harm to you, it is important to keep your beliefs in check, and make sure that your actions reflect building something better and not tearing yourself down. Our aim here isn’t to eradicate feelings, even of guilt, but to rather be mindful of our ways of thinking and our responses to these emotions especially during challenging times.