Dealing with the guilt of privilege

JR Ilagan

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Dealing with the guilt of privilege
Here are some tips to help manage that guilt and put that privilege to better use

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that suffering is felt differently across our country’s class structures.

At the beginning of enhanced community quarantine (ECQ), this was made apparent by how people reacted to the news of a potential recession. On one side, there was a clamor for relief and amelioration; on the other, there was the hoarding of goods. Shortly after, breaches in quarantine were also handled in opposing ways.

For some of the more privileged, “compassion” was the solution. For many without this advantage, “the law was the law.”

These examples reflect two opposing ends on the spectrum of privilege. But privilege can also manifest itself in less extreme ways, such as holding onto a job and having access to food and shelter despite the effects of COVID-19 on the economy.  

As we approach a “new normal” under general community quarantine (GCQ) guidelines, the societal inequalities highlighted by the pandemic will continue to persist. For those not out-of-touch, experiencing feelings of guilt associated with being in a privileged position amid a global crisis can be a thing. 

If left unaddressed, these feelings can crystallize into thoughts, such as “Why am I okay when others are not?” and “What right do I have to take care of myself when so many other people are suffering?”

Once these thoughts become the norm in our mental space, this feeling of guilt becomes hard to shake off – which may also be detrimental to one’s well-being.

Understanding guilt and privilege

Guilt is an emotional reaction to having done something wrong. When someone experiences guilt, that person is inhibited from feeling sad, happy, angry, afraid, or grateful. From an evolutionary perspective, guilt allows people to come together and avoid doing wrongful things to one another.

On the other hand, privilege can be seen as the ease of access to resources because of one’s social class. This may exist independently of personal action, awareness, belief system, and attitude. Also, a person’s experience of privilege (or the lack thereof) can be dependent on the circumstances they are born into.

For example, if a person was born into a wealthy family, that person would have access to a good education, avenues to speak and be heard, social and financial capital, career aspirations, and many more opportunities for personal advancement. A person born into poverty, however, will not have these same opportunities. Both individuals could work equally hard, but their respective returns may not be equal. 

The guilt that many have begun experiencing in this pandemic may be attributed to increased self-awareness of their advantaged position. As with any emotion, the feeling of guilt is valid and normal in light of a realization like this, but it is just as important to realize that being privileged, in itself, is not wrong. Privilege is often something that is given, not something that is chosen. However, what can be chosen is what to do with privilege.  

Overcoming and channeling the guilt of privilege

As much as a new sense of self-awareness is a step in the right direction, the feeling of guilt that comes with it can be very discomforting. As with any emotion, learning to regulate this feeling can prove beneficial to overall mental health and well-being.

Here are some tips to help manage the guilt that accompanies the experience of privilege:

  1. Coming to terms with limitations – Many people are plagued by the idea that they should be doing more to help everyone in need. However, the truth (and the most challenging thing to accept) is that you have your own personal limitations. Unfortunately, there is only so much that can be done without sacrificing your own well-being. As cliché as it may sound, you can only take care of others when you have taken care of yourself too.

    For example, choosing to help or advocate for a particular group or organization may allow you to maximize your time and effort to a targeted population instead of trying to help everyone in need. In doing something like this, you may realize that it’s okay to address only those within your reach.

    Oftentimes, this kind of guilt can also be a byproduct of realizing one’s privilege and remembering times when you had taken advantage of it. In this GCQ, for example, some people may feel guilty for having gone out to public places just because they could. To manage this, it could help to not only come to terms with our limitations but to also set personal limitations – such as limiting the times you go out, only doing so when necessary. By doing this, you come up with a way to avoid feeling guilty by not abusing your privilege.  

  2. Knowing when to utilize guilt – When you have done something wrong, feeling guilt is okay. As mentioned, this emotion helps you feel bad about something, which can motivate you to apologize and make things right. Again, being privileged in itself is not wrong. Therefore, the guilt associated with it may be unwarranted.

    However, if the guilt is also a product of inaction, then this feeling can serve as a driving force to get involved somehow. After coming to terms with your own privilege, a next step might be to learn more about how this places you at a societal advantage. Being aware of your societal position can guide you on how to get involved.

    Do you have a following on social media? If so, engaging in discourse online with your followers could be an option. Do you teach or conduct training sessions and webinars? Incorporating this concept into your lesson plans could be the way to go. Are you an artist? Maybe spreading awareness through your medium is the kind of social action you want to get into.

    At the end of the day, the way you get involved and the level of involvement you are willing to get into is up to you.     

  3. Turning guilt into gratitude – Often, when faced with the guilt of privilege, the professional advice would be to “turn guilt into gratitude.” You would be told to actively challenge your negative thoughts with alternative ones. For example, every time the thought “I don’t deserve to be comfortable while people are suffering” surfaces, you would be asked to actively and consciously tell yourself “I am lucky to be in this position.” In doing so, your negative guilt-inducing thoughts are restructured into gratuitous ones. 

    Challenging these negative thoughts to bring about a sense of gratitude can do wonders for one’s well-being, but it fails to consider the source of this guilt. Although unwarranted, this guilt comes from the awareness of being privileged in a society where others are clearly disadvantaged. If the feeling of guilt helps people come together, it can be transformed into empathy, which serves a similar purpose. 

    Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. The awareness and acceptance of your privilege, coupled with empathy for those in less advantaged positions, can serve as starting points towards whatever form of social action you choose to make.  –

 JR is a practicing psychologist and the Director for Personnel Management and Development in Gray Matters Psychological and Consultancy Inc. Most of his cases involve depression, anxiety, self-harm, adjustment difficulties, and career-related issues. For consultations with Gray Matters, check out their website here and their online counseling portal here. He is also a lecturer in the Psychology Department of Ateneo de Manila University, where he is currently taking his Ph.D. in Psychology. When he isn’t “psychologizing” and teaching, he likes spending his time boxing and making music with his band, Ars.

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