Shame and Judgement in the COVID-Era

Published on: 19 Aug 2020
Clinically Reviewed by Ashley Ertel, LCSW, BCD
Four masked people staring at observer

The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly brought out the worst in some of us… myself included. For many of us, our mental health has taken a hit during these unprecedented times (as they say) and with the lack of a unified message and many different “beliefs” about the virus a divide has sprung up between many of us.

Some of us may be facing judgement from others, or maybe we are the one judging others — judging and labelling those who are traveling or hanging out with friends during the pandemic. By the same token, some of us might be feeling guilt or shame when we take the occasional risk or we may be shaming others.

Sometimes, it’s hard to know what the “right” thing to do is. Tension is running high. Many of us have been trapped at home for five or six months. There are mixed emotions and mixed messages that we’re receiving from the media. There isn’t a solid, unified message recommending a specific course of action, and it shows.

Combatting Shame and Judgment

One thing that we can — and should be doing right now — is be kind and compassionate to ourselves and others. Prioritize being someone who makes others feel better, not worse.

So, how do we do that? How do we combat shame and judgment in the COVID-era?

Here are some places to start.

Recognize that people have different levels of comfort

Just as in everyday life pre-pandemic, we are all comfortable with different things. Some people would kill to go skydiving, while others wouldn’t jump out of a plane for a million dollars. Some people feel comfortable with big crowds at parties, and others feel extreme social anxiety and fear in these settings. When it comes down to it, everyone’s different. And during this pandemic, it’s the same. Everyone is going to have different comfort levels and be more or less comfortable with the risks associated with specific behavior and activities. Anything we do these days that involves being near other people or going out in public is, to some extent, a risk.

One person may feel very comfortable going to a backyard barbeque with ten people who are semi-social distancing and sort of wearing masks, while another person may only feel comfortable hanging out with one person at a time, from a strict six-foot distance, with strict mask precautions. Ultimately, it comes down to that person’s choice. We should encourage safe behavior that doesn’t endanger others who are more vulnerable than us, but we can’t control what other people are comfortable with. Being judgemental or calling people names when you think they’re being too reckless or too careful doesn’t really help anyone. It’s best to try to educate and use your empathy to understand where others are coming from.

Don’t make assumptions

If you find yourself getting very judgemental and feeling angry, take a step back and ask yourself if you’re making assumptions. Most of what we know about others these days comes from social media. We scroll through our feeds and see what friends, family, and acquaintances are up to.

We don’t know other peoples’ stories (unless they literally have told you what they’re doing). Maybe the person you’re cursing who is posting pictures from vacation in Hawaii was very safe in their home state, got tested before flying out, and quarantined for 14 days once they were there, and then went on with their trip. Maybe the group of friends that you see posting photos from the beach are all housemates who already live together and have their own quarantine pod.

You don’t know the story behind the picture (or Instagram story, or TikTok), so try not to invent one that gives you a sense of superiority.

Don’t make others feel shame

Trust me — I get it that it can be really hard to keep our judgy-ness down when people are being downright disrespectful or reckless. In this case, you can go one of two paths. The first path: ignore it. Go by the age-old principle of “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all.” The second path: gently educate them and have a calm conversation, not a fight. You don’t want to straight-up tell them they’re being a bad person if they’re not wearing a mask, for example. Rather, you can try to hear them out and see where they’re coming from. If you make them feel horrible, you’re only going to create a stronger divide than there already is in this world right now.

Give yourself a break from shame

On the flip side, it’s possible that you are feeling shame or guilt for your actions during the pandemic. Maybe you feel like you haven’t been careful enough. Maybe you feel guilty for going to a not-socially-distanced party last weekend. Your best option here is to not beat yourself up. We can’t change the past, but we can move forward. Learn from the experience. If you ended up going to that party and feeling super uncomfortable, acknowledge your feelings, but give yourself some self-compassion. You don’t need to call yourself names. Next time, avoid the party and let your friends know that it might not be the best idea.

The bottom line: it’s easy to assume the worst in other people. It takes more work to try to see the best in people and give them the benefit of the doubt. Pandemic or no pandemic, we shouldn’t be tearing each other apart. We should be lifting each other up. We can’t get through this alone. Now more than ever, we need each other because we’re all in it together.

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