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When You Feel Guilty About Exposing Others to COVID

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Seth J. Gillihan, PhD - Blogs
By Seth J. Gillihan, PhDClinical psychologistNovember 16, 2020

A friend’s wife recently learned that she had been exposed to COVID-19 at work. He and his family have to quarantine at home for 14 days -- and pull their three kids out of in-person school.

His wife’s co-worker, who’d been asymptomatic at the time, felt terribly guilty about exposing others to the coronavirus. Now the lives of everyone in her office will be disrupted. The guilt will surely be worse if any of them become seriously ill, or God forbid, die.

There have been more than 11 million cases of COVID in the U.S. That’s a lot of virus transmission -- and millions of opportunities for guilt. It also means there have been a lot of “Oops, I may have exposed you” conversations, which are generally quite awkward. Some people may even avoid telling those they’ve come into contact with and cross their fingers that they didn’t infect them. COVID silence is obviously a problem as it would likely lead to additional infections that could have been prevented.

Question Your Assumptions

When we’re wracked with guilt, we tend to believe things that aren’t true. These thinking errors can distort our reality and compound our guilt.

Personalizing

If you’re dealing with COVID-related guilt, remember that the virus isn’t personal. There’s a reason we’re experiencing a global pandemic: SARS-CoV-2 is an especially contagious virus, and we can spread it even when we’re symptom free. Those disease dynamics make it easy to pass it along. And while it’s normal to feel guilty for causing harm to others, it doesn’t mean that we’ve done anything wrong.

Hindsight Bias

We might fall prey to the hindsight bias, telling ourselves we “should’ve known” that we were contagious and would spread it to others. But we’re probably basing that judgment on information we didn’t have when we spread the virus, like knowing we were COVID-positive and that others would get it from us. As much as possible, evaluate your choices based on the information you had when you made them.

Discounting the Positive

We might also discount the positive, like ignoring the measures we did take to prevent the spread of the virus. Maybe we passed the virus on to a co-worker, for example, but thankfully avoided family gatherings. Perhaps it would have been worse if not for the precautions we took.

Ignoring Tradeoffs

All of us are doing the best we can to manage the tradeoffs between controlling the virus and living our lives. The costs of social distancing have been enormous -- financial, interpersonal, emotional, spiritual. A growing body of data is showing the ways that our mental health has suffered since the spring of 2020. Each of us has to decide what level of risk we’re willing to take. Many parents in our district, for example, chose the hybrid model for their kids’ schooling, while others (including our family) chose the all-virtual option. So while we want to protect life and happiness to the greatest possible degree, we have to make decisions about which risks we’ll choose to minimize.

Overgeneralizing

Beware also of assuming that this incident says something about your overall character, like that you’re careless or inconsiderate, for example. Most likely what it says about you is that you were alive in 2020, when a novel coronavirus ravaged our world.

But What If I Was Careless ...?

It might be especially easy to suffer with guilt if you didn’t take the recommended precautions, either because you denied the seriousness of the virus or for some other reason. But it’s easy to understand how a person might have miscalculated the risk, especially if their area hadn’t yet been affected, or if they were on the receiving end of a lot of the misinformation that was spread about COVID (e.g., that it was a hoax).

We act based on what we know at the time. Most likely you were acting in good faith, based on your understanding. If you’ve since recognized how serious COVID can be, you might think that you should have known better in the past. But that assumption would be the kind of hindsight bias that I described earlier.

If you’re feeling guilty, I can all but guarantee you didn’t pass it along deliberately. Had you known you were going to infect others, you probably would have acted differently. The best we can do when we have new information is to apply it going forward (and certainly tell anyone that we may have exposed to the virus). We might let our loved ones know the potential dangers of holiday gatherings, for example, where a Thanksgiving celebration could turn into a superspreader event. Life is learning, and we can grow from any experience.

We can’t reverse the unintentional harm we cause. What’s done is done. Our task now is to show as much love as possible to those around us. Love and connection, not guilt, will get us through this ongoing pandemic.

 

 

 

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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and host of the weekly Think Act Be podcast. He is author of The CBT Deck, Retrain Your Brain, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple, and co-author with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh of A Mindful Year: 365 Ways to Find Connection and the Sacred in Everyday Life. Dr. Gillihan provides resources for managing stress, anxiety, and other conditions on the Think Act Be website.

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