COVID-19: Feeling worthless? It's not you, it's the virus

Let’s get straight to the point. We haven’t felt like ourselves in quite a while. With death and disease loitering in our backyard, even the most cheerful and optimistic among us is acting out of character. The incessant images of burning pyres and oxygen deprived patients gasping for breath has put our country in collective grieving mode.

We cannot underplay the fact that this many-headed beast called Covid has made us all suffer in unique ways. Lately, what I have been experiencing is not necessarily grief or anxiety, rather a sense of worthlessness. In clinical literature, worthlessness can be described as a feeling that arises when one feels insignificant or incapable of being valuable to the world. One major element of worthlessness is self-blame i.e. ‘I am responsible for whatever misfortune has fallen upon me’.

I haven’t had a permanent job and a steady income for almost a year now. Following a string of failed negotiations and missed opportunities, early this year, I bagged a project with a Buddhist school, that would help me work with students and teachers from an economically weaker segment. I was elated. It was the perfect fit for me. And then, we were hit by the second lockdown, stalling the project. All the things that I could do, all my gifts that I wanted to offer as my service, the platform itself was taken away from me in one fell swoop.

Among the many social media posts on medical emergencies, it isn’t unusual to come across posts by friends desperately wanting to go back to work. An internationally renowned dancer friend of mine is pining for his stage, just as another globetrotting musician has been putting up pictures of his past live performances even as he recovers from Covid. This wish to jumpstart our career even as the pandemic reaches its peak is counter-intuitive.

However, it’s important to also account for the fact that people will want to break free of restrictions because their sense of self is destroyed when they are kept away from things they love for a long period of time. This explains why it is difficult to get people to stop going out, even when they are fully aware of the risks involved. The tug of war between preserving our physical body and our psychological sense of self eternally keeps us in a state of flux. In the last one year, pay cuts, suspended appraisals, and job losses have left working professionals in a lurch. They have lost all metrics of evaluating how well they are doing in their lives, professionally and individually. In such a scenario, we are prone to feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness and depression more than ever before.

Thus, cultivating the awareness that these professional setbacks are not an assessment of our competence but a side-effect of a global crisis will go a long way in lifting our sagging self-esteem. At the same time, it is important to create small goals that we can internally validate to keep our self-worth intact.

Making small internal commitments that only we can assess – eating healthy, exercising daily, observing our thoughts, writing a journal, calling a friend and connecting with family members can restore our self-worth. To try to make a difference in places where we can, may give us a sense of control as opposed to falling prey to a deluge of tragic news and losing the will to do anything at all. It might feel extremely selfish to attend to our personal suffering now. But it is equally true that not all of us have lost someone dear.

Some of us have lost jobs, others have had to shift homes, some have been separated from their loved ones and stuck in different locations and yet others have been victims of domestic violence and child marriage. There has also been a spike in divorces and break-ups. Many have had to drop out of school or college. And some are experiencing mental breakdown.

The universal advice that often comes from well-wishers whenever we are overwhelmed is “you must simply express gratitude for having evaded death and this country’s broken medical system”. Not only is such a line of defence dangerous for our emotional well-being, it is antithetical to everything that gratitude is. One cannot feel thankful for simply escaping misery that befell on someone else.

Forced positivity never healed anyone. It would be far better if we used the pandemic to examine how it has made us feel, which parts of us have been affected the most, and which are the areas we need to heal even as we join everyone else in their hour of loss. 

(The writer is a mental health and behavioral sciences columnist, conducts art therapy workshops and provides personality development sessions for young adults.)

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