Why Therapists Say You May Feel More Selfish Because of the Coronavirus—and What to Do About It

During the past few months, many people have self-isolated in quarantine to fight the spread of the coronavirus. This shift in routine combined with the lack of certainty about the future—as it relates to public health, employment, personal relationships, and beyond—can surely compromise a person's emotional state. I, for one, have noticed an increase in my feelings of selfishness during the coronavirus. I’ve been doing a more for myself than normal, I've been putting my needs first, and if an ask is a drain on my energy, I opt to do something else.

Now, if I don’t want to FaceTime my mom because I simply don't feel like it, I feel totally comfortable ignoring the call, even though I know she misses me. Or maybe my friend is texting for advice about a recurring fight she's had with her boyfriend, and don't text her back immediately because I just don’t feel like listening to another long story about a problem they seem to have every week or so. It seems both my patience and compassion reserves are capped.

“In the time of a pandemic, it may feel like you are pouring into your own cup but there is a hole in the bottom, so you never get full enough to then pour into others' cups.” —therapist Katie Cunningham

According to a therapist, it makes sense that the current conditions of the world amid the pandemic would shift our need to prioritize the self. "In therapy, I always use this analogy—you cannot pour from an empty cup, in that you have to take care of yourself first before you can care for others,” says therapist Katie Cunningham. “In the time of a pandemic, it may feel like you are pouring into your own cup but there is a hole in the bottom, so you never get full enough to then pour into others' cups,” she says.

Below, learn why experts say feelings of selfishness during the coronavirus may be higher—and what to do about it.

2 reasons you might be feeling more selfish in quarantine

1. Stress

If you feel like more selfish and self-centered tendencies have come to light as stress and worry about what’s to come amid the pandemic continue to rise, it makes sense. Whenever stress and uncertainty persist, there will be a subtle and profound impact on our moods and energy levels, says licensed psychotherapist Alexandra Finkel, LCSW. “The mind and body may be forced to operate in ‘survival mode’ for extended periods of time. This perpetual state of fight, flight, or freeze can either lead to being over-productive, or in many cases, under-productive—with accompanying feelings of intense fatigue.”

And since many of our normal coping mechanisms are not available right now, we're forced to figure things out in a new way, all while managing the stress—and that's a lot. “Anxiety and stress can often cause people to turn inward and be unable to carry the burden of others' struggles as the weight of their own is too heavy,” Finkel says. We cannot care for others when we are depleted ourselves.

2. Compassion fatigue

“Many people in the U.S. are experiencing symptoms of compassion fatigue right now because we are all so immersed in the COVID-19 crisis," says Cunningham. The American Institute of Stress defines the condition as “the emotional residue or strain of exposure to working with those suffering from the consequences of traumatic events.” And, as Cunningham notes, "many people are unaware that what they are experiencing right now is a community trauma.”

While pandemic-centric stress, from yourself and from others, is rising, you can only have so much compassion to offer—and your first priority is (and should be) to help yourself.  “People may be looking more selfish, but in reality, this is an effective coping strategy," Cunningham says. Since taking care of personal needs during a pandemic requires more energy than usual, you’re left with little energy remaining to offer others.

What can you do about your higher feelings of selfishness during the coronavirus?

Of course the awareness that you’re acting more selfishly than usual can be tough to bear. It goes against your character, but it’s a struggle to find that natural compassion that you once had.

“If you normally consider yourself to be an empathetic and caring person, feeling like you are acting selfish is likely causing cognitive dissonance,” says Finkel. Dissonance occurs when we have conflicting thoughts, especially when those thoughts contradict who we believe ourselves to be, perhaps leaving you to feel "at odds" with yourself.

Luckily, you can work on it to get rid of the guilt and still be there for yourself, but also put in some more effort. “There are several tips that I would give someone who is experiencing these symptoms. But first, we must normalize this reaction,” says Cunningham. By understanding this is a common, understandable, and, yes, normal emotional response to the situation, you'll inherently be able to remove some of the guilt you feel.

And since everyone responds to crises differently, dedicate some of your compassion reserves to giving yourself grace on your own feelings of selfishness during the coronavirus and how you feel about it. “Simply noticing and acknowledging your uncomfortable feelings can serve as a powerful step in giving yourself permission to have them in the first place,” says Finkel.

Next, continue working on a healthy self-care routine, but one that that promotes structure and includes the dedicated intention to ease personal stress so you can find more room to provide your help and attention to others. “Get regular sleep, exercise, and proper nutrition; many individuals are struggling with the basics right now, so attending to these three components will have a dramatic effect,” says Cunningham. You can also talk about your feelings of selfishness with a friend, partner, family member, or professional. “By ignoring our anxieties, they only manifest and show up in our behaviors more," she adds.

You could also commit yourself to scheduling low-stakes selfless acts to ease into offering compassion outwardly. By making a plan, you're more likely to follow through and have the ability to consider why you feel a certain way about it. For example, maybe you make yourself a note to send a supportive text message to one friend on Wednesday at 7 p.m. If you find yourself not wanting to engage when the scheduled time comes, notice that and think on why that might be. Do what you need, says Finkel, but try to stick with these small efforts if doing so is important to you—adhering to your selfless intentions will get easier with time.

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