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Guilt

So You Thrived in the Pandemic, Turning Guilt into Gratitude

Here's how to manage "thriver's guilt" as you move out of the pandemic.

Key points

  • Thriver's guilt arises when one thrives despite, and even because of, a situation that has caused harm to others. 
  • Post-pandemic, survivor's guilt and thriver's guilt are on the rise.
  • Turning thriver's guilt into gratitude can be a powerful way to give back to your team and community.
  • Research suggests that expressing gratitude supports worker well-being and productivity.

For the past month, I’ve been hosting a weekly facilitated sprint for business leaders as they prepare for re-entry. When we introduced ourselves on the first day, several participants spoke about thriving during the pandemic. Some of these leaders were also feeling guilty about the successes they had realized as others suffered. Their revelations raised an important question for me. Why do some of us feel guilty about what we achieved during the pandemic, and what can we do with these feelings?

Survivor’s Guilt Versus Thriver’s Guilt

While guilt may feel bad, guilt isn’t inherently bad. Guilt is a self-conscious emotion that arises when one reflects on their situation. In this sense, guilt can be a sign of self-awareness. For example, when one has intentionally or unintentionally caused harm, feeling guilty can help one reflect on and modify their behavior to avoid repeating it in the future. But sometimes, feelings of guilt arise for the wrong reasons.

Consider the case of survivor’s guilt. Survivor’s guilt arises when one is untouched by a situation that harmed others. Survivor’s guilt is common among people who survive collective tragedies such as natural disasters. It is also common among people who avoid or survive an illness but know others who were not so lucky.

It is not a surprise that survivor’s guilt is on the rise as we emerge from the pandemic. But what I’m seeing among some clients is more than survivor’s guilt, it’s thriver’s guilt. Unlike survivor’s guilt, there is no official definition for thriver’s guilt. I define it as the feelings of guilt that arise when one thrives despite and even because of a situation that has caused harm to others.

What can or should you do if you’re currently experiencing thriver’s guilt?

Be Grateful and Express Your Gratitude for Others

If you’re currently experiencing thriver’s guilt, you’re not alone. Despite and even because of the pandemic, some people in some industries thrived. First, as everything moved online, the demand for people with expertise in online learning and digital commerce surged. Other sectors, including the construction industry, also thrived as people sought to build new homes and renovate existing ones for remote work. Naturally, suppliers serving sectors that expanded during the pandemic also benefited.

All in all, millions of people saw their businesses boom rather than bust during the pandemic. If you were fortunate enough to be working in one of these industries, take time out to own your privilege and be grateful. Also, share your gratitude with others, including everyone who was part of your team during the pandemic.

Sharing gratitude with team members is more than a nice thing to do. Research suggests that expressing gratitude has a positive impact on worker well-being and productivity. In this sense, being grateful and expressing your gratitude for others is a potentially powerful way to transform your thriver's guilt into something that will have a positive ripple on you, your team, and your organization for years to come.

Give Back to Your Community

Beyond expressing gratitude, consider giving something back to your community.

If your business grew despite or because of the pandemic, explore concrete ways to help others recover. For example, can you create new positions to help laid-off workers get back in the workforce? Do you have the capacity to retrain workers who were laid off in other fields? Can you leverage your organization’s resources to support other pressing concerns in your community (e.g., housing or food insecurity)?

Pre-pandemic, you may have lacked the time or resources needed to volunteer or engage in philanthropic work. If you thrived during the pandemic, rather than feel guilty, reassess your capacity to give back. Doing so is the best way to help others while also moving beyond thriver’s guilt and out of the pandemic.

References

Di Fabio A, Palazzeschi L and Bucci O (2017) Gratitude in Organizations: A Contribution for Healthy Organizational Contexts. Front. Psychol.8:2025. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.02025

Hutson SP, Hall JM, Pack FL. Survivor guilt: analyzing the concept and its contexts. ANS Adv Nurs Sci. 2015 Jan-Mar;38(1):20-33. doi: 10.1097/ANS.0000000000000058. PMID: 25635503.

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