It would not be an exaggeration to say that the past few months have been tough on everyone. The pandemic has caused enough chaos to last us several lifetimes. The second wave has been more devastating than the first as we hear of people who are young, hale and hearty who have succumbed to the illness.The mad scramble for hospital beds and oxygen, answering calls for neighbours, friends and relatives for information about the all precious oxygen beds and anxiously scanning whatsapp feeds to check who else has succumbed to the illness has become an everyday affair. 

The media is chock full of information either about the pathos or filled with stories of good samaritans or heroes who have used their smarts and helped the public handle the crisis better. We scan facebook and instagram accounts  of doctors and nurses who have worked above and beyond their call of duty in caring for patients.

For most of us though, it is a time of staying put at home, anxiously waiting (for the pandemic to subside), going to work with the mild worry of inadvertently catching the virus and managing our homes and families. Basically, going on with our routine with a dash of anxiety!

And so, for the past few weeks, I have been experiencing a newfound sense of unease, confusion about how effectively to spend my leisure time and a bizzare sense of guilt. Now guilt is basically a “moral” emotion which occurs when a person believes (accurately or not) that she has made a mistake or has compromised her own standard of conduct and hence feels responsible for the problem. Despite doing my work,handling my day to day responsibilities, and helping out as much as I can towards the pandemic, the guilt stubbornly remained. It felt unnatural, but I could not shake it away for the life of me. 

Browsing the internet idly a few days ago, I realised that this guilt was not unique to me. There were a lot of people around who were experiencing it in varying different ways, as in:

  • The survivors’ guilt.

This occurs when someone in the family succumbs to covid and the rest who live,feel guilty for surviving. It usually stikes the older generation and the dependents when the young, healthy and the breadwinners in the family die. In smaller doses, it can also occur when the whole family is suffering from covid, but a few stay healthy despite sharing the same space. 

  • The guilt of being unable to help.

As I mentioned earlier, people who are lucky to stay at home, those in the medical profession who are not on the frontlines of the deadly war and people in professions which are completely unrelated to the pandemic ( for example fashion designers or writers) suffer from this sort of guilt. They are ill qualified to help despite good intentions. These people suffer from a sense of helplessness and a dissatisfaction about their vocation, which is uncalled for.


  • The guilt of not being brave enough to help.

This occurs when a person gets a opportunity to help but gives it up because of fear. The fear of catching the virus, spreading it to the young and old in the family and worrying about the financial implications of hospitalization. An average human being, I believe possesses the goodness of heart to help people in need. But in today’s scenario, an average human being is also equally petrified of the consequences of succumbing to the disease. Knowing that he/she could have helped but chose not to, is a miserable feeling to live with, one which makes the person feel very selfish.


  • The guilt of being ok when others are not.

This happens to those who have the luxury of working from home, those who are not hampered by financial responsibilities and the rare few who are lucky enough to have their whole family healthy, safe and sound.These people deserve their happiness,but are guilty of experiencing it when the whole world around them is in a state of disruption. They worry about their luck running out and are scared to share their happiness on social media for fear of being trolled or accused of being tone deaf to the surroundings. These people appear to be suffering from the  “paradox of privilege” ..i.e. having the privilege but being unable to enjoy it fully.


Unfortunately, guilt is not a healthy emotion to let fester within us. It can lead to a sense of helplessness and depression. 

Therefore , we need to first acknowledge and accept it. Guilt usually causes irritability, frustration and self absorption. Due to these outcomes, we may lose our ability to handle our day to day chores or be emotionally unavailable to our children or family. Therefore, when we feel the guilt, it is important to first recognise it and discuss it with our near and dear ones. Their reassurance that the guilt is unnecessary may help assuage it. If nothing, accepting that it is a part of your emotional repertoire and letting it pass may help.We need to accept that just as all people cannot become olympic athletes or space scientists, it is not possible for all of us to help on the frontlines of the covid war. We can sincerely express our gratitude to those who are working and patiently wait for our turn to help, some other day, some other time.

Doing our mundane day to day work gives us a sense of calm and control. If guilt overtakes this, it may lead to problems. On the one hand, we may start ignoring  responsibilities and on the other, we may take rash and impulsive decisions in a bid to do something to help, which usually backfires. Hence, we need to keep track of our behaviour. Stop unnecessary comparisons, monitor social media time and concentrate on using your time wisely. If you feel that your emotions swing drastically, seek help.

It is important to remember that the pandemic is not our fault. We were normal humans, doing normal human things before it struck us. Yes, we may have flouted a few social distancing norms, but our transgressions are minor in comparison to the price that we are paying for it. Hence, we need to repeatedly remind ourselves that even if we are sitting at home, we are doing good by helping curtail the spread of the disease. By following the rules, we are decreasing the burden on the health care system. We need to change imagining ourselves as ‘useless’ to thinking of ourselves as ‘responsible’. Doing less, in this case, is better than doing wrong! Therefore, we are allowed to be happy and grateful for our good health, luck and hard work.

Try and imagine a friend feeling the guilt that you are facing. Think about how you would help that person and apply it yourself. We are usually more kind to others than we are to ourselves. If we can practice being kind to ourselves and making time to care for our health, both mentally and physically, we can handle our emotions better.

If despite all of these, the guilt stays back stubbornly, seek help from a professional. As the saying goes, “Guilt is meant for the wrong person, but eats the right one!”. 


About the Author

Preethi Shanbhag


My name is Preethi Shanbhag. I am a psychiatrist and a mother. In my free time I love to read, write, travel and cook.

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