Lockdown guilt: why your inner critic is louder than ever right now – and how to handle it

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Lauren Geall
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Feeling guilty about how you’re feeling or not being productive “enough” during lockdown? You’re not alone.

Lockdown has been a rollercoaster ride of emotions. One minute, you find yourself randomly bursting out in tears, and the next, you’re comparing your situation to all the fun things people are doing on social media. 

All of the feelings we would have experienced pre-lockdown – sadness, happiness, jealousy etc – are now amplified.

Two such feelings which seem to have been given a massive boost under lockdown are guilt and self-criticism. We can’t be the only ones who seem to be beating ourselves up more than usual; now more than ever, our actions (and non-actions) seem to come with a newfound sense of moral responsibility – we feel guilty about not getting enough done, we feel guilty for coping “too well” and we feel guilty for feeling low.

With that feeling comes all-too familiar need to police our behaviour – to criticise how we’re feeling, what we’re doing and how we’re responding. Among the team here at Stylist, many of us have found our inner-critic get louder in lockdown.

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“I know I should be exercising more, but – in between working full days from home, catching up with people on Zoom, cooking dinner, and sleeping – I just haven’t found time,” explains Kayleigh Dray, digital editor-at-large. “My step count has dropped from a very healthy 12K to a measly 3,000, I’ve ignored all the 5K challenges I’ve been tagged in on Instagram, and I’ve done… ooh, one workout video since lockdown began?

“I know it’s not good enough, and it’s really getting me down. But, when you’re only allowed out once a day, how on earth am I meant to keep on top of things?”

A working from home set-up
“I’m torn between seeing this time as an opportunity to rest, and a chance to get shit done.”

Senior digital writer Megan Murray has been feeling guilty about not using her “spare time” productively, even though she knows it’s OK to rest.

“Like I imagine many people are, I’m torn between seeing this time as an opportunity to rest, and a chance to get shit done,” she explains.

“My notebooks are full of bucket lists and goals of things I want to do in my spare time and now I have so much of it, I feel overwhelmed by the expectation I’ve put on myself to achieve it all. I feel guilty for feeling tired even though I haven’t exerted my body all day, I feel guilty when I simply can’t be bothered for not wanting to tick something off one of those lists and I feel guilty for not spending a bit of money on art supplies or a new book – even though I know if I saw a dress that I liked I most likely splurge instantly.

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“I’m wrestling with a mixture of these feelings a lot at the moment, but I think for me balance is key. I’m trying to keep my brain occupied with hobbies that stimulate me, but I need to know it’s okay to slow down and do nothing, too.”

On top of this pressure to be productive and keep on top of things like working out and eating healthy, many people are also finding themselves feeling guilty about feeling low or anxious during this difficult time and comparing themselves to others who “have it worse”.

As mental health advocate Jo Love recently articulated on Instagram: “Stop feeling bad for feeling bad. I’m fighting this so hard myself right now but we cannot rank our suffering. There is no point system where we can give our feelings a value and decide if they are allowed in or not.”

It’s clear that our high-running emotions and worries about the future are leaving us more vulnerable to feelings of guilt and self-criticism – but why does this happen?

Charlotte Armitage, a media and business psychologist, explains that we’re struggling to adapt our expectations to the change in circumstances, meaning we’re finding ourselves falling short of what we expect our daily achievements or emotions to look like.

“Our lives have been turned upside down within days and our routines have been abolished for now,” she explains. 

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“Through these changes, we have become unstable, not quite knowing what we are supposed to be doing with our days. These significant changes require significant adjustment and that takes a long time to facilitate. In a short space of time, there have been huge behavioural changes between what we had become used to achieving in a day, to what we now achieve in a day.”

Armitage explains that this “gap” between our pre-lockdown achievement expectations and what we expect to achieve now creates “cognitive dissonance” – a phenomenon which leads to the guilt we’re all feeling right now.

“Cognitive dissonance is where our thoughts and beliefs don’t match up with our behaviours – this consequently makes us feel uncomfortable and it is this feeling that one might describe as feeling guilty,” she says.

“In order to relieve this feeling of guilt, we have to change our psychological approach to the situation and not expect too much of ourselves. 

“Once we accept the impact that this is having on our ability to function normally, the less guilty we will feel for not achieving as much as we normally do.

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“This is a very stressful time and the most important thing we can do is to be kind to ourselves and do what feels right for us. Don’t pay too much attention to what others’ are doing, everyone has their own ways of coping which will be different to yours, so just do what feels right for you.”

It seems we all need to cut ourselves a little bit of slack when it comes to the hoops we’re giving ourselves to jump through. Taking the time to sit back, re-evaluate things and be kind to ourselves is more important than ever.

How to silence your inner-critic in lockdown

If you’re finding it hard to control your negative thoughts at the moment, life coach and founder of Confident and Killing It Tiwalola Ogunlesi recommends asking yourself these five questions:

1. Am I comparing myself to others?

“Comparison is the biggest trigger of negative thoughts. We can overcome it by learning to celebrate ourselves, own our stories and be grateful for how far we’ve come.

2. Is it a fact or an assumption?

“Not every thought in your mind is 100% true. Let’s learn to challenge negative thoughts.”

3. Does it empower me or sabotage me?

“Our minds are so powerful and we have the power of choice to decide what to believe in. If a thought holds you back…DUMP it and decide to believe something else.”

4. Would I ever speak to someone else like this?

“Why find it so easy to encourage others but sometimes we’re so mean to ourselves. Let’s start speaking to ourselves the way we speak to friends and loved one’s.”

5. Is there something positive about myself I can say back to it?

“It’s ok to own your strengths. It’s not bragging if it’s based on facts. Your strengths are your truth. Be unapologetic about embracing them.”

If you’re an avid Stylist fan, you’ll know it’s not always possible to find an issue of our magazine. Often they’re gone before you head into work (they disappear fast!), or you live in a part of the UK where you can’t get your hands on a copy. Add to this the fact that millions of us are not commuting right now, and we wanted to ensure you don’t miss out on the magazine any longer.

Which is why we’re delighted to let you know that Stylist magazine is now available in a digital format, both for Apple and Android users, allowing you to download the full magazine directly to your smartphone or tablet, wherever you may be.

Pricing for our digital magazine starts at just 99p for a single issue, or £21.99 for a full year’s subscription –that’s less than 50p a week! Simply click on the link to activate your Stylist app download from either the Apple store or Google Play and enjoy!

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time.

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