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Survivor's guilt

When we act out of gratitude instead of guilt, our actions bring us a sense of warmth and happiness

01 June 2020, at 7:10am

It’s difficult to be upbeat at the moment when all around us people are losing their jobs, being abused in their own homes and dying alone. Or is it?

The weather has been unseasonably gorgeous, many of us are on 80 percent pay while essentially on holidays, there’s no traffic on the roads and off-licences are deemed to be “essential”.

The contradictions in our minds between loving lockdown and all the benefits it brings, and knowing all the while that more people than not worldwide are suffering, can bring on massive and overwhelming feelings of guilt: survivor’s guilt.

Maybe you feel guilty for not being on the frontline at the NHS or for not volunteering to make PPE. Maybe you feel guilty for having enough toilet paper, hand steriliser and Tesco delivery slots. Is it guilt for having a comfortable home during lockdown with a nice garden and the time to tend to it? Or perhaps you have kept your job and your family are safe too which brings on guilty feelings.

Being self-aware is the first competency of emotional intelligence. So, understanding that you are feeling guilty is fantastic. Now, what to do with these feelings. As self-awareness is the first, then self-regulation is the second: our internal and external reactions to this emotion are totally within our control. Especially now that the pace of life has slowed down enough for us all to be more emotionally intelligent than we are during busy times.

What is guilt?

Guilt is a wired-in emotion evoked when we believe we have done something bad. It’s quite a complex emotion and an inhibitory one. For example, if I have done something unkind to another person, I may feel guilty afterwards. This overriding emotion blocks out the other emotions which could otherwise arise such as anger towards that person or towards myself, or sadness at the downgrading of our friendship.

The evolutionary purpose of guilt is to keep us positively connected to others. It’s an advantage for humans to work together, so it’s important that we have an emotion to override selfishness. Guilt pushes us to stay in the good graces of the people we need. The uncomfortable physical feeling that guilt evokes in us propels us to do the less harmful thing next time, or to make amends.

Guilt can be misused. For example, if I express out loud to others that I am feeling guilty or ashamed about the way I acted, then that can be a way to absolve myself of all responsibility for what I have done rather than face the uncomfortable facts. Narcissists typically express their guilt to others to evoke sympathy from the masses, rather than welcoming their friends’ constructive criticism which could be painful.

Guilt can be misplaced. For example, guilt for having limits when it comes to helping others is very different to guilt for knowingly being unkind to another person. Acceptance of your feeling of misplaced guilt is paramount if you are to use it in a positive way. So, try to really own your feelings regarding not working on the frontline at the NHS, having a nice garden and enough Andrex for you and your family.

Accepting your limits is a painful but necessary step towards accepting your feelings of guilt and shame. My limits are many. I have children to look after first and foremost. Does that make me selfish? They come before anonymous COVID patients, is that wrong?

If I am to look after their emotional needs, I have to keep myself strong mentally and physically: the metaphor of putting your own oxygen mask on before helping others with theirs. Should I feel guilty about that?

At work, I am not doing everything I could be doing for my patients: I’m not sampling every mass and I’m not taking radiographs of every lameness. Is that shameful? Or social distancing?

My point is that we each have our own limitations and it is so important to realise your own limits and to accept them if you are to move to accepting your feelings of guilt and shame. Trying to push them away will not be as effective as accepting them. Acceptance of your feelings and owning them will paradoxically help you to feel less “bad”.

Guilt can be useful when it’s the driving force to make amends for something truly bad that we have done to another. Once our emotionally intelligent self has identified that what we are feeling is guilt, it can be the impetus for change to becoming a better person.

However, misplaced guilt can be harmful. For example, guilt for feeling good when others are suffering, or guilt for surviving COVID-19 when hundreds of thousands have not, can bring us down and can prevent us from being a source of strength and happiness for others.

So how do I transform misplaced guilt into something beneficial?

What’s another way to deal with our good luck and good fortune? Shift from guilt to gratitude. Here’s how you do it: Think about what you have (eg enough room in your house for everyone to have privacy) or what you don’t have to do (work in a hospital) that makes you feel guilty. Now, feel grateful for it.

For example, I feel guilty that I can still work in my regular job and put food on the table for my family as normal. I experience my guilt as a sinking feeling in my stomach reaching down to my toes.

Now I shift into gratitude. I say out loud “I’m so lucky that being a vet is deemed as essential work. It’s fantastic that I am still earning and I have job security.”

Try not to shift into “I don’t deserve it” or even “I do deserve it” because we all deserve job security. That’s not the issue. The issue is that gratitude is so much more useful to us and to others than misplaced guilt is.

How to use gratitude

First, be aware of the feelings associated with gratitude and be mindful of what you are grateful for. For example, I’m grateful for that Tesco slot where I bought a new shower gel. Now I’m going to shower slowly and breathe in the gorgeous scent so I can truly and mindfully appreciate it.

I’m grateful that I have more time on my hands than before to mow the lawn. So, I’m going to thoroughly enjoy it, focus on nothing else and smell the sweet smell of newly cut grass.

I’m grateful that our clients at work seem more thankful than ever during these hard times. Just being open and there for them has brought out the best in our clients. I’m going to pause after each consultation for just a minute and allow their comments to sink in.

Now, you can use the inner strength and calm that the gratitude brings and put it to good use. There are so many ways: donating to the food bank, sending photos with a letter to an elderly relative, reaching out to our clients to ease their anxieties about more than just their pets.

And most importantly, we can be with those we love in a more mindful and actively caring way, showering them with positive actions driven by gratitude rather than by guilt. It’s OK to feel OK; we are allowed to feel good even during this pandemic.