Amid the grim coronavirus headlines, there is good news to be found.
Babies are being born. Couples are getting married. High schoolers are receiving college acceptance letters.
But with thousands dying from COVID-19 and scores of Americans losing their jobs from the resulting economic slowdown, many are hesitant to share their uplifting stories. Instead of feeling happy, they’re wracked with guilt.
Mental health experts say that’s understandable, but likely unwarranted.
“It’s certainly a normal reaction, feeling guilt about doing well when others don’t,” says Dr. Renee Binder, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco and former president of the American Psychiatric Association. “The issue is that those things are not related. It’s absolutely nothing that they did. Life goes on, even during times of extreme stress.”
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The feelings are similar to survivor’s guilt, Binder says, when someone who lived through a plane crash or mass shooting wonders why they’re still alive when others aren’t. She suggests talking with others about what you’re feeling rather than keeping your emotions bottled up.
“You have to really, really enjoy the good things in life,” she said. “You have to feel good. If you talk to someone, they’ll say, ‘What are you talking about? You have nothing to be guilty about.’ “
Social media’s vast reach can play a role in these feelings of guilt, according to Art Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and co-host of the “Two Guys on Your Head” podcast. Parts of our lives that used to be shared only among close friends are now blasted out to the world on social media with just a few clicks.
“Twenty-five years ago, if you got a promotion at work, you wouldn’t take out an ad in the local newspaper. You’d tell your friends and family,” he said. “Now, hundreds or even thousands come across it, not all of whom are close friends to us. It feels a little weird to be blaring positive news to a bunch of people, most of whom are not that engaged by us.”
Mary Benton, a senior staffer for the city of Houston, saw that firsthand this week, when she announced a promotion on Twitter. While virtually all the replies were positive, there was pushback from one follower.
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“Not to be insensitive, but 1000s of people in this city have lost their jobs and still haven’t paid rent because they can’t,” the follower wrote. “It doesn’t seem appropriate to be posting about getting a promotion in your city office job right now.”
Markman says many are in “avoidance mode, which is incompatible with good news.” That means, for now at least, it might not be a bad idea to hold off on some social media boasting.
“Go a little old school on this,” he said. “Definitely celebrate your accomplishment, but do it with the people who matter most to you.”
The Rev. Michael Barber has witnessed the highest of highs and the lowest of lows during his decade at St. David’s Medical Center in Austin, Texas, where he currently serves as manager of pastoral care and clinical ethics committee chair. He says it’s “appropriate to feel guilt, but not to wallow in it.”
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“We’re all human and part of our common human experience is to feel emotions,” he said. “That includes our stress and anxiety — and our joy, too. Celebrating good things is completely appropriate.
“Just temper that and hold that balance. You don’t want to throw it into someone’s face,” he said.
‘It feels wrong to be celebrating’ during coronavirus pandemic
After more than a decade of leasing apartments in Central Texas, Will Mitschke desperately wanted to buy a home of his own.
“I did the math the other day and realized I’ve had 13 different addresses since moving to the area,” he said.
After realizing he didn’t have enough yet in savings, he ramped up contributions in 2018. That extra cash plus lower mortgage rates this year, fueled by the coronavirus pandemic, made it possible for him to buy a newly constructed home in Georgetown, just north of Austin.
He likes the home’s high ceilings, open kitchen and flex space, among other features.
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While Mitschke is extremely proud of his accomplishment, he hasn’t said much about it. That’s because he realizes many who’ve been impacted financially by COVID-19 are worried about making their next rent or mortgage payment.
“I’ve been wanting to post on social media and share the news that I’m buying a house because it’s an exciting thing, but I’ve refrained from doing so because of the outbreak,” he said. “It feels wrong to be celebrating buying a house. I’m a pretty empathetic person by nature, often putting others before myself, and it feels somewhat at odds with who I am knowing that I’m spending this money to buy a house that could be used to help others.”
Posting good news helps an expectant mom ‘keep my sanity’
Carissa McAtee is expecting her first child — a girl — next month.
Life was already filled with changes as she and her husband worked to prepare for the arrival of their daughter. McAtee, an Austinite, was planning to shift fulltime to what had been a side hustle, selling her handmade Remedy Designs jewelry. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit.
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Like many Americans, her husband is now without work after his company closed indefinitely. McAtee feels “blessed” to have income generated by her business, but says it’s “scary” because she sells most of her wares at markets, which are currently closed too.
Restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19 mean her husband has to “attend” doctors’ appointments via FaceTime. McAtee says her mom won’t be able to hold her hand in the delivery room. But she’s choosing to stay positive, and has ramped up her social media posts.
“A few years ago, in an effort to break through a period of depression, I started a daily gratitude list in the morning and a nightly journal of three good things that happened each day,” she said. When bad news related to coronavirus started to hit, she started the practice again.
“Like everyone else, I feel the need to connect right now, but it’s difficult when there is so much fear and anger being spread on social media,” she said. “I know that to some people it may seem insensitive to be only posting about ‘good things’ in life right now, but this ritual is important to me to keep my sanity, and hopefully encourage others to try to find the good happening right now.”
A pandemic can shine a light on what’s important to you
In the middle of a pandemic, Michael Massad popped the question.
The timing, he says, just seemed right.
“We’ve been talking about this for a long time,” said Massad, who lives in Nashville with his fiance, Katin Liphart. “There were a number of events that have happened in the last six weeks that made me realize what was really important.”
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Those events include attending a wedding for a cousin, followed by his grandfather’s funeral.
Within 12 hours of getting a ring from Liphart’s family, Massad had his “yes” and the two started planning their wedding for spring break next year.
“It’s a strange time, but it felt natural and it felt easy,” he said.
Massad’s Facebook post announcing the engagement has nearly 500 “likes” and more than 100 comments. He says he never once hesitated to share the news.
“People have been overjoyed,” he said. “A number of people have been like, ‘Finally, some good news.’ They’re very happy and very excited.”
‘What can I do to make someone smile?’
Michele Gary is proud of two things: her two boys and her career in commercial real estate. Both are the focus of frequent posts on her various social media accounts, but not so much lately. COVID-19 has changed things, at least for now.
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“I’ve chosen to dial things back, not only for my family and sanity, but so that I can be of better service to my clients who need more of my time and focus right now,” says Gary, a vice president for Endeavor Real Estate Group in Austin.
That extra attention includes frequent calls and texts with her clients, including a number of the city’s most popular restaurants — businesses that have had to dramatically alter how they operate due to stay-at-home orders.
Gary says she has treasured getting to spend more time with Christopher, 8, and Zaid, 7. Both boys are currently learning remotely while their school is closed. When coronavirus passes, she says she hopes they’ll remember the positives, not the negatives.
Each morning, to help herself focus, Gary asks herself a series of questions.
“What can I do to make today great? To make someone smile? To create special memories with my kiddos in this time I would normally be rushing through life, chasing productivity and success?” she said. “Those are the questions I ask myself every morning that I’m actually blessed to wake.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus: Getting good news during a pandemic triggers guilt