I was in Los Angeles when I learned that Russia had invaded Ukraine. Specifically, I was sitting in my friend’s car, all hot and bothered and panicking because my corona-check app wasn’t working, and we had made lunch reservations. Reading the BBC notification, I was hit with that coldness only self-alienation can bring – how silly am I to even think that not getting into a restaurant could matter.
Since coming back to the Netherlands, the resonating emotion seems to be a kind of pervasive guilt. I feel guilty that I am not doing enough to help, I feel even guiltier that I am still worrying about banalities in my personal life, and I feel guilty that I think my emotions matter at all. I also feel guilty about how relieved I am that the pandemic seems old news. It is as though we are all willing ourselves into a kind of social amnesia, which feels wrong, so I feel guilty. I Google climate change and read about how scientists warn it is quite literally a now or never situation. I then panic and feel more guilty. I mean, I still eat meat.
I become so full of guilt that I cannot do anything in response to it. I panic and fret, and then I put my laptop away. But I think the problem is not that I feel scared; we live in frightening times. It’s that I do not know how to manage these fears. But why would a kind of toxic guilt be my brain’s coping strategy for fear of the future? And are there alternative methods we could use to manage these fears?
Toxic guilt can function as a defence mechanism
In Civilisation and its Discontents (1930), Freud argued that while certain forms of guilt can be helpful, there is another kind of ‘unconscious guilt’ expressed in various self-torment patterns. For Freud, this kind of guilt is rooted in one of our earliest fears – the loss of love. For example, imagine a child who is punished for behaving aggressively. The punishment sparks fear that the child will lose their parent’s love, which also means they will be unprotected, threatening their survival. The fear they now feel is immense. So, the brain adapts by introjecting both the fear and punishment and turning it into ‘guilt’. In other words, we develop a conscience that prevents us from acting in socially unacceptable ways and therefore safeguarding our parent’s love.
This type of guilt often turns into the hyper-responsibility type that I mentioned earlier. I find it typical amongst my generation, and I believe it is to do with the fact that we face threats to our lives – climate change, war, a pandemic – that feel as unbearable as the loss of love did when we were five.
So, my anxious brain does what it learnt to do: it turns that fear into guilt so that I can attain an illusionary sense of control over it. But the problem is that in so doing, I have found my conclusion; I am self-obsessed and part of the problem. This is an uncomfortable thought and one that I don’t want to dwell on, so it renders me actionless and stuck in a perpetual state of panic.
Okay, but how can we manage these fears?
One of the most helpful ways to feel the fear – rather than turn it into chronic guilt – is to allow yourself ‘windows of intensity’throughout your day. Sit for five, ten or thirty minutes and think about how frightening and strange the world is. Try to take deep breaths and feel as much of it as you can. Then, once that window is over, try to go about your life as best you can.
Further, try to find ways to regain a sense of control. For example, in the case of climate change, I should eat less meat. That is a clear-cut way I can channel my anxiety into a call to action. In the case of war, donate money, provide clothing, offer shelter, or whatever it is that you can do. But, if all of that still feels too close to the fear, try first to regain control in simpler ways.
For example, try practising the worst-case scenario exercise. Write down a list of your fears and what would happen if they came true, and keep going until you’ve exhausted the list of worst possible outcomes. In so doing, we can process our emotional reactions and separate them from reality. This can give us a sense of control over the situation.
Finally, try to remember that, as Beckett poignantly put it in his 1953 novel The Unnamable: “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
Written by Molly Fitz