COVID-19 has changed the way we do so many things as a society. It has affected the little things, like shaking hands when you meet someone new, or hugging someone you haven’t seen in a long time.
We have had to adapt in bigger ways too, like wearing a mask everywhere we go. The worst adjustments have come in those moments when we have had to isolate, cancel plans with family, and not celebrate the holidays in the way we are used to doing. Each of the situations, whether we have elected to go or cancel, comes with a version of COVID-19 social guilt.
What does COVID social guilt mean?
According to Michael R. Ent, Department of Psychology, at Towson University, one thing that causes humans to feel guilt within their social relationships is “resentment among others even when such resentment is not one’s fault.”
Clearly, COVID is not our fault, but everyone has an opinion on the right way to respond to it, and even among friends and families that response is varied.
There are people who have not left their house in nearly a year, avoiding people at all costs. Then you have the people who limited their activities outside of the home but do what they consider to be reasonably safe activities. They may take part in a pandemic bubble, instead of complete social distancing.
Of course, then you have those who carry on as if it’s just life as usual and refuse to wear masks or mitigate the damage in any way. It is more than likely that you fall under one of these groups and have people you love and care about in the other two camps.
Divided opinions contribute to the social guilt
It is no wonder that we are feeling guilty given the politicized state of affairs surrounding COVID, the varying degrees of severity people are attributing to their response and the fact that our social constructs have been in place for our entire lives.
For example, your best friend’s daughter is celebrating her 16th birthday. You and her mom have been friends since you were 16. You treat this child like she is a niece or another daughter. You have been at every birthday since she was born, heck; you were probably in the room when she was born!
This situation creates all kinds of guilt:
Mom, Dad, and the daughter know that 16 is a huge milestone. There is a social obligation to make it a birthday to remember. Everyone wants to be safe, but as parents we want our children to have the things we feel they deserve.
Maybe the grandparents, who usually fly in for annual visits, were planning on coming to this big birthday bash. They don’t see their granddaughter as much as they like (even more guilt) so they want to be there. Everyone is feeling the pressure to mark the occasion.
Now, maybe you and this family live close by and have been a part of a pandemic bubble since March. You might have even just seen them last week and you are planning on getting together for her birthday.
Then you find out that the family has decided (most likely to avoid guilt), to have a small gathering with family that hasn’t been around, like grandma and grandpa.
Your friend assures you it will be primarily outdoors, and when people are inside, everyone will wear masks, windows will be open, and the fan will pull the air up and away from everyone. You don’t like it, but you feel guilty missing this important part of the child’s life, and you have been together for months, so you feel guilty saying no.
You decide to go. You get there and there are more people than you thought would be there. Many are not wearing masks, and the weather isn’t great so people migrate indoors.
Do you drop off your present and leave? No one else seems to believe there is a problem, and you overhear some guests mocking those mask wearing ‘covidiots.’’
You don’t want to make a scene and cause your friend any additional stress. So, you wear your mask, try to stay socially distant, and hope for the best. A week later, you can’t breathe, taste, or smell. You hear from your friend that her grandma is in the ICU with COVID.
She feels an immense amount of guilt for throwing the birthday party, as grandma dies alone in a hospital room. You recover just fine, but also feel guilty about going, wondering who you might have spread it to in the days after.
The social guilt we are all feeling is overwhelming
The experts at the CDC have weighed in, offering this little blurb about holidays and stress. The guidelines remain the same though: stay 6 ft apart, wear a mask, wash your hands, and avoid crowds. Avoid traveling unless it is necessary.
The information hasn’t changed, but our level of risk versus reward is different now that Christmas and New Year’s are upon us, because we feel guilty being the ones deciding to opt-out of our normal festivities.
Or maybe you are having a slimmed-down gathering based on who has been in contact with whom, and you feel bad for excluding people you love.
You might be someone who decided to do everything that you usually do but with some covid modifications, like having people eat in familial pods, spread out around the house. You told everyone in the invite that masks would be required at all times and had to listen to family members grumble. You feel guilty for being ‘difficult.’
The answer to this overwhelming pressure is to do whatever is best for your family, your comfort level, and your sanity. It is like being a teenager again and trying to avoid peer pressure.
People are going to pressure you to stay home and avoid those not in your immediate family, others will pressure you to lighten up and spend time with people you love, and others will mock you for whatever decision you go with. Weigh the risks and make a decision that you can live with.
Christmas looks a little different for my family this year
I live within a ten-mile radius of two of my sisters. My household is a family of four, one sister (who is a foster parent) has a family of eight, and the other sister has a household size of 1 (well, she had two dog babies).
Even though we are only 3 households, we are a sizeable group. When news of this pandemic broke in March, we avoided one another completely for three months.
It was awful, and I hated every moment, but we didn’t know what we were dealing with, and I wanted to do the right thing. We ordered our groceries and didn’t go inside the store. We wore masks, ordered food from restaurants but ate at home, and followed all the governor mandated guidelines.
Then they opened everything back up, but we remained cautious. I used to take my family to the movie theater at least once a month, maybe twice a month depending on what movies were out, but we haven’t been back there since March. That reward is not worth the risk to me.
We eat out in a restaurant much less than we ever have; either cooking more at home or still opting for the takeout. I didn’t really like ordering my groceries online (I’m old), so I go into the store, but instead of doing big trips, I just run in and get what I need and get out (masked and hand sanitizer at the ready).
However, our households quickly formed a bubble. We don’t have anyone in one of the highest risk areas. We have two people with asthma, but one works in a bank, and the other is my son with exercise-induced asthma. We also all either work remotely or in controlled environments where everyone wears a mask.
We resumed our weekly dinner and game nights, but we are masked inside her house, as are our children. I rationalized that if they could go to school, then they could play with their cousins.
However, I actually kept my son home doing online school, and he is thriving. I think he needs that time to socialize with other kids though, and it is the same 6 children once a week. We have the windows open, even though it’s winter in Montana. It is cold, and I freeze, but I value the time spent with my family.
So there is really no difference between our households gathering this Friday on Christmas, or the game day we had this past Saturday. Christmas itself will be a little different because we won’t be going to Perkins on Christmas Eve, we will order it and eat it at the house. It will be in the upper 40s on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, so at least I won’t have snow billowing inside the open windows.
Weigh the facts, weigh the risks, follow the guidelines as best you can and have a Merry Christmas with as little social guilt as possible. You can only control your actions, not those of others around you. I hope that you and your loved ones stay as safe as possible.