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What if You're Not the Only One Having Trouble Functioning?

Yes, many people feel guilty about the way they're coping during the pandemic.

Before reading the rest of this post, please complete the following quiz to assess your level of functioning during this pandemic. Keep track of how many times you answer "yes" to the following items.

Since the pandemic started, have you had episodes in which you:

  • Planned productive activities that you haven’t been able to get yourself to start or complete?
  • Had trouble feeling motivated or energetic enough to plan productive activities?
  • Attempted to do something productive but had trouble focusing?
  • Had trouble sleeping and/or getting up in the morning? (And/or taken long naps during the day?)
  • Spent several hours passively watching TV, surfing the internet, or doing other things just to pass time?
  • Eaten more food than you’d like and/or less-healthy food than you’d like?
  • Experienced feelings of loneliness, anxiety, panic, depression, boredom, irritation, and/or numbness?
  • Felt anxious, guilty, or upset about experiencing these emotions, especially since so many people are in worse situations than you are? (Or felt guilty whenever you felt happy, since so many people are suffering?)
  • Felt anxious, guilty, and/or frustrated with yourself because you know (or at least assume) that you're having episodes when you're not coping as well as most people are?
  • Felt like you should be handling things better than you are?


Thanks for taking the quiz. Now for the scoring. Give yourself one point for every "yes" answer.

If your total number of "yes" answers falls in the range of 2 to 10, that means that … you are handling this crisis much like most people are handling it. And if you answered “yes” to fewer than 2 of the questions, then... I suspect you may be some sort of superhuman destined to fight crime and save the world. (Sorry to break it to you in a Psychology Today post.)

I don't mean to make light of the situation. I know that people are struggling. I've talked to dozens of people about their reactions to this crisis. Some have continued working (from home or otherwise), and others have lost jobs. Some are stable financially; others cannot pay rent. Some live alone; others live with families. Some are dealing with illness; others are the picture of health. However, regardless of circumstances, I’ve noticed one common factor:

Almost everyone has episodes when they feel like they should be handling things better than they are.

Of note is that some of these people have posted messages on social media about how much they have accomplished and how grateful they are for the extra time at home. Others initially responded to inquiries by saying that they were doing well… and only later admitted to having difficulty.

Most of us know that (newsflash!) people’s social media posts or answers in social situations don’t always reflect their full lives. And yet, we are so bombarded with positively skewed social media and conversations, as well as ubiquitous articles about how to use this time productively, that it can be easy to believe that everyone else is responding much more adaptively than we are—and then feel impatient and frustrated with ourselves as a result.

What’s more, many people also judge themselves based on what they would expect to accomplish during a standard break from social activities.

Newsflash #2: Your extra time at home during the pandemic is not a vacation or a break.

Nothing about this time is standard. The world has suddenly morphed into a dystopian sci-fi film, and nobody knows exactly how or when it will be resolved. People are experiencing a tremendous amount of stress and other difficult emotions, and almost everyone has had at least some trouble functioning.

Expecting yourself to act as if the extra time at home were a nice gift is just not realistic.

However, people tend to hold unrealistic expectations about how they should be functioning during this surreal time, and then become critical and frustrated with themselves when they don't meet those expectations. Ironically, many people think that this self-criticism and frustration is beneficial, as they think these reactions will motivate them to "improve" their behavior.

Reality is actually the opposite.

Harsh self-criticism and judgments just lead to increased stress and additional negative emotions (such as shame, hopelessness, and despair). If a person already has trouble functioning with their current levels of stress and negative emotions, that person is going to have even more trouble functioning once the stress and negative emotions increase.

In other words, your self-critical reactions can become a vicious cycle. The more you judge yourself for not functioning up to your expectations, the more difficulty you will have functioning at all. And so on.

So what’s the solution? I’m not advocating giving up all goals and just floating through the rest of this pandemic with no effort. Instead, I encourage you to:

1. Work to modify your expectations based on these unprecedented circumstances.

a. There's not only one "right" way to cope during this time. On some days, a realistic expectation might simply be just to survive one more day.

2. Work to be patient and compassionate with yourself when you do have trouble functioning. Remind yourself that:

a. Almost everyone is having at least some difficulty coping.

b. Criticizing and judging yourself will only increase the stress and negative emotions, which will leave you feeling less motivated and even less able to function adaptively.

c. The way you’re functioning in this unprecedented situation is not predictive of how you will function for the rest of your life.

It's not going to be easy, and (surprise, surprise) all of your guilt and self-criticism won't suddenly disappear. But I urge you to at least consider working on the above.

One important point: I don't want to minimize the fact that some people's situations are more dire than others', often through no fault of their own. However, as unfair as that is, it still doesn't change the facts that a) almost everyone is having at least some trouble dealing with the current crisis, and b) judging oneself based on some unrealistic ideal of the "correct" way to function will just increase the stress and impede the ability to function.

My next post will discuss potential strategies for coping during this crisis. Foreshadowing: None of the strategies are the "right" or "best" way to cope for everyone, and none will make your stress disappear. (You won't turn into a superhuman.)

In summary of this post: If you have difficulty letting go of your self-judgments, just ask yourself:

What is your goal during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Is your goal to be tough on yourself while increasing your stress and decreasing your perceived ability to function? Or is your goal to get through the crisis as effectively as possible, even if it means that you may experience some bumps (or mountains) along the way?

If the latter, then remember:

♦ Working to be patient and compassionate toward yourself does not mean that you need to give up all expectations or stop working toward goals.

♦ Instead, it means that you will likely be more effective—and less stressed—if you:

• remind yourself that the world is in the middle of an unprecedented event,

• remind yourself that most people are having at least some trouble functioning, and

• give yourself some leeway when you don't achieve what you expect to achieve or feel what you expect to feel. You're not the only one.

Special thanks to Nancy Burns for her assistance.

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