During the COVID-19 pandemic, acknowledging our own emotions and struggles has been a real challenge. Whether you became unemployed, haven’t seen your friends properly this whole year or had to cancel on an international trip, it’s hard to fully accept your situation and allow yourself to be upset, angry or even share what’s going in your life with friends. When looking at how dramatically this pandemic has affected other people, it’s easy to find yourself feeling guilty and choosing to not talk about your feelings, in fear of offending or coming across as selfish. It’s a common thing that I and several others I’ve spoken to have admitted to experiencing.
No matter how you’re coping, it’s easy to feel guilty about your emotions and talking about them with family and friends when you know someone else who’s been hit harder by this pandemic. But, why do we feel this and what are some things we can do to break out of this mental block? Syrup spoke to content creator and psychologist at The Indigo Project, Ash King, to find out more.
Why are we feeling guilty about acknowledging our own emotions and experiences during this pandemic?
“I think a lot of us deal with guilt experiences confronting any of our emotions, and whether we have the right to be able to feel a certain way or to be able to own a certain feeling,” King told Syrup.
“The pandemic has brought up a lot of really challenging emotions for people and people often balance that experience—those sort of exponential emotions— with how they think they should be feeling. With all of the stuff that’s being shared on social media, particularly where people are putting their best face forward, as they often are online, it makes us feel like we’re failing in some way if we’re not feeling or behaving as productively as others.”
What are those emotions?
“Well, when it comes to emotions, and the things that we consider to be acceptable and unacceptable, I think it’s really personal,” added King. “It comes down to the individual.”
“Maybe people are thinking, ‘well, we don’t have it as bad as in the US’, or [for] people in Sydney, ‘we don’t have it as bad as in Melbourne, at least we’re not in shutdown, so I should be feeling better.’ Or, if life is starting to go back to normal, maybe you’re going back to work in the office or you can start going back to the gym, you’re going, ‘why do I still feel as shit as I did when everything was shut down?’”
“And it felt like that was an excuse and validated these feelings. But these feelings continue to be present. I think that we can’t prescribe a certain emotional response to this. It is a global pandemic. It’s unexpected, and we are all going to face it differently. And I always go back to the idea that every emotion is valid and every emotion is trying to tell us something.”
What relationship does this experience have with social distancing and self-isolating?
“It has a lot to do with self-isolating. This is an experience that we probably have never gone through, it’s a new type of reality and a new process. There’s also heaps of loss and disruption, which comes from canceled wedding plans, parties, maybe a trip that you had to look forward to.”
“The year looks very different to the one that you maybe had planned in January, February. And uncertainty is a huge factor here because although our lives are drenched in uncertainty, we often like to construct this idea of having some element of control. But with this pandemic, we don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t know how long it’ll take before there’s a vaccine, or before we get the all clear, we’re sitting around waiting for a lot of unknowns, and that can be really hard to stick with.”
What are some of the behaviours of denying our own feelings we should look out for?
“We tend to use our behaviors as a way to respond to things that don’t sit comfortably with us,” explains King. “We try to distract ourselves and a lot of the time, you can use behaviors effectively, but we can also choose ineffective behaviors that actually tend to make things worse.”
“Things such as overworking are really common, I think amongst a lot of people. Shutting yourself off. Not wanting to have conversations, not wanting to talk about your feelings… you might try to create a little fortress around yourself so that you don’t open up and say, ‘you don’t have to dig deep there.’”
“Other things like we can emotionally overeat, we can have really disruptive sleep patterns, you know, maybe not getting any sleep or or over sleeping. Some people can over exercise, some people can turn into super couch potatoes. So there’s not one behavior that you can be like, Whoa, that’s a warning sign that’s suggestive that there’s something that you maybe aren’t confronting, that it could be helpful to confront. We’re all going to respond in different ways.”
“If you are finding yourself with more depressive symptoms, then there’s definitely other behaviors that will counteract those. So that’s, you know, similar to what I was saying about the oversleeping and cutting yourself off, you know, those are, you know, some symptoms of depression. So we would suggest that if someone’s very tired, and they have depression, not necessarily to go and sleep more, we would want to create a healthier sleep hygiene for them, maybe create a bed time and a time to wake up, make it important to get out and to move their bodies. Make sure that they’re still engaging with other people. So you’re not canceling on social events, and chatting to friends, connecting with people.”
How can we learn to normalise these feelings that we’re having and be able to talk with our friends about them?
“Getting therapy is really helpful because that is a safe space in which you won’t be judged and you will be encouraged to explore your emotional experience with someone who is qualified to sit with you and walk you through it,” advises King.
“I think that once you start to get a bit better at defining your emotions, a lot of the time, we just have like a generic, you know, ‘how you going?’ ‘oh, fine.’ Or, ‘how you feeling? ‘Oh, shit,’ you know, we can reduce them to a sort of one word response. Whereas I think it could be more beneficial for us to really understand that it’s okay to say, ‘I’m feeling really disappointed at the moment because I was really looking forward to all of this stuff that was coming up this year, and then none of it’s happening,’ or ‘I’m actually feeling really frustrated and I find that my temper is really short and I don’t have a lot of time for people because everything that someone says sends me off, and I’m frustrated at the different things that I maybe wanted to achieve this year that now are no longer possible, or relationships that I was hoping to invest more time and effort in that can’t be done because we can’t be seeing each other as regularly.’ Little things like that.
“My first suggestion would be to just talk. Be that person in a group who is real about your feelings. I understand that that could be quite intimidating and it really does come down to the types of connections you have in your life, the people that you can feel safe and comfortable to disclose this sort of thing with.”
“And like I mentioned before, if you don’t, then a therapist is a really, really good idea for you, because it also helps, you know, they’re not just there to offer you these tools and strategies but are also offering you this experience of opening up and finding the words to talk about your emotions, and finding out more about what they mean and how you can learn to sit with them.”
“I think that journaling is a really good practice as well. Sometimes it’s hard for us to make sense of things when they’re just inside our head, but once we start to put things down onto paper, it can offer us a little bit more clarity, so we can explore. Where am I feeling this emotion? Where does it sit in my mind and body? Is it hot? Is it cold? Does it have a colour? Does it have a texture? Is it rough? Is it smooth? And soon enough, we start to develop a shape for our emotions and sort of a whole fully rounded experience where we can understand ‘Okay, I see this is anxiety coming up for me, and this is what I need in this moment.’”
What advice do you have for people who might start falling into that mentality of comparing their struggles with someone else’s?
“It’s really easy to do and we do it quite frequently,” reassures King. “The first step is noticing that’s coming up for you, or recognising you’re feeling guilty being sad or angry right now. You want to notice that feeling of guilt. And, once again, you can get better at noticing even something like guilt when you start doing some of these practices that we chatted about, you know, talking to a therapist or journaling about how guilt feels in your body.
“When it comes to an emotional experience, you want to try to meet those feelings of guilt and shame with some self compassion. Tell yourself that it’s okay that you’re feeling sad. It’s okay that you’re feeling angry right now. You don’t need to be justified in your emotions and your feelings. They’re all worthy. And they’re all okay.”
“So I think that just being able to accept that your emotional truth is your emotional truth for now. And then you can also sort of add some extra compassion saying, ‘You know what? No feeling is final.’ And so if you’re worried that you’re gonna have to hold this feeling forever, it’s not going to happen. Feelings are like visitors, you let them come, and then you know, they’ll go or they’re not gonna stick around forever.’”
If you or anyone you know is feeling distressed or has experienced a traumatic event, know that there are people who are ready and willing to listen. Contact Beyond Blue (1300 22 4636), Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800) or QLife (1800 184 527). If you feel your life is in danger or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, please talk to the folks at Lifeline (13 11 14), 1800Respect (1800 737 732) or 000. And, if you’d like to book a therapy appointment (even, over Zoom), you can contact The Indigo Project at 02 9212 5469, firstname.lastname@example.org, or go to their website for more details.