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It’s OK to Feel OK Right Now

By Char Adams | August 17, 2020 | The New York Times

When the coronavirus pandemic began to spread, I expected it to upend my life. As a Black disabled woman living in New York, once the American epicenter of the crisis, I thought I would bear the brunt of whatever was about to come.

I dreaded almost every work meeting, fearing I’d be on the chopping block amid coronavirus budget cuts. I worried a family member would get sick and there would be nothing I could do. I feared I wouldn’t be able to access the food and supplies I need. But none of that happened. In fact, I’ve fared well — I’ve enjoyed working from home, my family is healthy and I’ve even learned to cook some new dishes.

But my feelings of gratefulness were fleeting. I was quickly overwhelmed with a bizarre form of survivor guilt as my friends and peers lost jobs, cared for sick family members and more. How could I be doing well while the people I care for suffer? How dare I? And is it right to feel good during such a horrific time?

As it turns out, feeling bad about feeling good is common. It’s called a meta-emotion, a feeling that occurs in response to other feelings, according to research published in Emotion, a journal from the American Psychological Association. Feeling guilty about experiencing joy, happiness or wellness during times of crisis is a negative-positive meta-emotion. These secondary feelings are powerful because they are linked to depression and can be an indicator of our level of emotional awareness, the study shows.

“Meta-emotions play a really critical role in our mental health. The rejection or nonacceptance of emotions is related to all sorts of negative outcomes including depression, anxiety and lower overall well-being,” said Natasha Bailen, of Washington University in St. Louis, who co-wrote the study.

“Our study shows that people tend to report more meta-emotions when they’re paying more attention to their emotions in general,” she said. “And right now people have a lot more time than they’re used to, to notice what they’re thinking and feeling. I think meta-emotions could be more common right now due to Covid.”

Lessons learned in childhood play a role in our emotions as adults, too, guiding our instincts on when it is socially acceptable to be happy, sad, angry and so on. Experts say we internalize these lessons and, in turn, have expectations of how we should feel about any given situation. So when we have feelings we believe aren’t appropriate, the result can be guilt and even shame. Societal messages can affirm these beliefs about what feelings are right and which are wrong.

“I think it’s a social comparison thing. No one likes to feel like an outlier. You see a lot of fear, a lot of anger, and pain going on,” said Ryan Howes, a clinical psychologist in Pasadena, Calif., and author of “Mental Health Journal for Men.” “If you feel like, ‘Wow, this doesn’t match my experience,’ you conclude, ‘There must be something wrong with me. I must be a monster.’”

This is, no doubt, a privileged position. It is a luxury not only to have a job during the pandemic but also to have the means to work comfortably from home. More than 5 million people have tested positive for the coronavirus in the United States, and more than 160,000 have died from the illness. Essential employees face risky work environments daily, and unemployment claims are hitting record levels.

So, yes, this mild form of survivor guilt is the least of the nation’s worries. But the pandemic, and the array of emotions it has spurred, presents an opportunity for us to think about the complexity of our feelings and how to manage them. Dr. Howes said some of his clients had reported feelings of comfort and even joy amid the pandemic — and questioned the morality of the emotions.

“There’s a portion of my clients — probably about a third of them — who were doing OK during the coronavirus. That’s still the case,” Dr. Howes said. “People who had led very busy, active lives in their work and social lives, they were enjoying the downtime. People who were working from home, there was a sense of, ‘OK, everyone, just do what you can. We’re not going to hold you to the same standards we did before.’ And that was a nice thing for people.”

He added: “All of these emotions are valid. I like to say that feelings are nonnegotiable. We have them. We can feel guilty about behaviors, but we don’t need to feel guilty about feelings.”

But our emotions can influence our behavior. Miriam Kirmayer, a Montreal clinical psychologist and self-proclaimed friendship expert, said feelings of guilt and shame could prompt destructive behaviors that negatively impact our relationships.

“Emotions are normal, but unless we’re finding appropriate outlets for those emotions, that can take a toll on our well-being. And that, too, could lead to interpersonal challenges with friends,” Dr. Kirmayer said. “The difficulty is when those feelings translate into certain actions that only further disconnection. When these feelings are so intense that they cause us to retreat, that can be a problem.”

Dr. Kirmayer said she saw this variation of survivor guilt manifest in three ways: avoidance, irritability and self-absorption. When we experience emotions that feel overwhelming or confusing, our natural tendency is to avoid thinking about the things that make us uncomfortable, avoid having difficult conversations, and even to avoid the people in our lives who are suffering. When these emotions go unmanaged, they can wreak havoc on our relationships, Dr. Kirmayer said.

“The experience of shame is really a powerful force for disconnection. When we’re feeling this storm of emotions, we can get caught up in that and we’re less able to support the people around us,” she said. “We’re not taught that we can have conflicting emotions, and how to have conflicting emotions.”

So what do we do about all of this?

Suzanne Degges-White, a counselor and professor at Northern Illinois University, said the first step is to acknowledge our feelings. Studies show that suppressing emotions can cause physical distress and mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Although ignoring negative feelings can sometimes seem appealing, Dr. Degges-White said that when we suppress how we’re feeling, we’re unable to adequately address and manage the emotions.

“When we try to push away negative feelings, they start bubbling up in odd places. So many of us don’t want to feel bad feelings,” she said. “We think of all these negative feelings that we think we shouldn’t have because we should be ‘focused on the positive.’ But until we acknowledge the negative things that are getting us down, we can’t break them down. And that’s what we need to do, break them down.”

Dr. Kirmayer added that it’s also important to normalize negative emotions.

“Working to not judge ourselves, and normalize this truth that we’re capable of having many different emotions,” she said. “This can reduce the intensity of the feeling and provide clarity and validation.”

Dr. Howes suggests discussing these feelings only with people we trust, as it can provide the emotional bandwidth for us to support our friends and loved ones who may be struggling.

“Talking about it with people around you would be a very practical move because shame dies when you bring it into the light. It’s OK to feel joy right now,” Dr. Howes said. “Ask, ‘How can I multiply this joy? How can I use this to help other people?’”

He added: “Spreading joy to the people around you is the best stance to take. That’s the best mind-set to have about this.”

© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES COMPANY

Char Adams
The New York Times