Over the last few weeks in doing consultation with other therapists about dealing with the current crisis, I’ve found that many are experiencing feelings of guilt about not doing enough to help those in need during this time. For some, this is as a result of limitations from their agencies, practices or even client base. For example, counselors who treat those without internet access, transitioning to online sessions has not been possible. Or for those who see elderly clients without access to computers, meeting online also may not be an option. Likewise, for many school counselors, who may have experienced various obstacles to being able to reach their student clients.
While as therapists we are likely familiar with processing and diffusing feelings of guilt in our clients, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it is easy to deal with our own emotional experiences of this type. It is important to note, however, that not all guilt is inherently bad. Guilt is by nature, a feeling that tells us we could be doing something different or something more. Where it can get toxic is if it compounds to be too great so as to be paralyzing, or where it slides into feelings of shame. Shame is different from guilt in that it is more about who we are as people, and this is why shame can inherently be such a toxic feeling. But guilt in small does can actually be a useful driver of our behavior. The drive to appease feelings of guilt can push us to get things done, or to complete tasks more quickly that we might have, or to a higher quality that we would have otherwise.
But of course, I am not suggesting that it would be healthy to live in a space of feeling guilty about how much we are doing right now. When guilt arises, if possible we want to learn from it what we can and then move on; to be able to let go of the rest.
So in attempting to field the question of how to deal with the guilt of not helping enough, through examining both my own experiences as well as those of my consultees, here are a few ideas that I’ve had.
First of all, I think it’s important to be realistic about the external limitations on what we can do right now. We have to acknowledge these to ourselves rather than unconsciously taking on personal responsibility for all that has changed in our circumstances. For example, there may be very real limitations on who we can and can’t see online. These might come from an agency, or school, or due to a client’s lack of internet access or the fact that some clients may not want to do teletherapy. There may be further limitations by home’s layout or by the amount of time you have available due to lack of childcare or taking care of family members. With regard to these areas our main focus can be on accepting what we cannot control.
Next is to take a look at our expectation of ourselves. This is a time period where a lot of people are feeling a pressure to be productive; to somehow make the most of this time in quarantine. But we have to approach this with balance and gentleness: we are experiencing a truly challenging moment in modern human history. We are bound to not be always at our best.
We can then direct our focus and energy towards what we are able to do. If you bring closer awareness to this, you may come to understand that you are doing more than you initially realized. For example, you may be spending less time in sessions with clients, but more time in checking on or helping neighbors or other members of your community. Or spending more time with your family or supporting friends from a distance. Even if the energy and efforts you are making do not go directly towards your usual job, they are still important during this time.
An extension of this is to keep focused on our priorities. Doing the work that we are still responsible for is important, as it taking care of ourselves and our families. We can acknowledge that caring for self and family might take more energy right now than usual and so this might mean that it would be a moment where we can be our most productive in other aspects. Self-care must be a priority if we are going to be truly available to giving to others.
If conducting sessions online is something that for whatever reason has been limited by our organizations, it can be helpful to brainstorm creative ways to connect with our clients so that we take ownership of still being helpful to them and ensuring that they don’t feel we have forgotten them. Even if we are not in a position to be able to deliver direct counseling sessions with some of them, we can still search for creative ways to reach out and help them feel connected and supported, whether it’s through a newsletter, a podcast or a video posted to youtube. Or we can look for other ways to serve as advocates or helpers within our community.
Some people find that it can be helpful to even make some notes at the end of the day to keep track of the tasks that they are accomplishing. Although these may be less achievement oriented than you are used to, it may end up being more than you think! These could be put into different categories, such as direct counseling done, other help & support provided, self care, creative activities. It does not have to be big things. Anything is welcome on the list, from the smallest of things like: ate a healthy breakfast, enjoyed reading a story to the kids, paid bills, or wrote emails to a couple of friends to check in.
By taking this moment to acknowledge in writing what we are doing, we give ourselves the opportunity to take satisfaction in all the different elements of our day. Our daily engagement with our lives likely looks very different right now from how it does during our normal routines, but it can still be satisfying and meaningful. Shifting our focus away from what we cannot do right now and instead acknowledging all that we are doing, whether through mental notes or written ones, also affords us the opportunity to experience gratitude for it. And from there we are able to take steps towards supporting our own well-being as well as that of those around us.
Christine Forte is a counselor working in private practice online with the globally mobile community. She has recently repatriated to the US with her family after ten years of living and working in Shanghai, China. You can contact her at Christine(at)forteklotz.com or read more about her practice at www.forteklotz.com