Healing and Moving Forward from the ‘COVID-19 Pariah’

By Stacee Reicherzer, PhD,

If you’ve contracted COVID-19, you not only had health problems that may have been life-threatening, but perhaps also experienced the aftermath of people distancing themselves from you, even shunning you and treating you like a pariah. 

The physical symptoms were bad enough, and you may not yet be fully recovered even months later. According to the Mayo Clinic, some “long haulers” are reporting continuing symptoms like respiratory issues, fatigue, trouble with concentration, and loss of taste and smell. 

As sick as you got, the harder part still may have been in the way that people treated you as a result of having COVID; and how you’ve treated yourself. 

There’s the guilt, if you were an unknowing carrier who passed the virus along, perhaps to someone who experienced worse symptoms than your own. Certainly, you’re left with a lot of grief if you lost someone close to you. All of this is compounded by the feeling of stigma, like people are looking at you with a level of judgment now that you’ve had COVID. 

It doesn’t help that you’re experiencing these things in isolation. It’s hard to be alone when facing any life crisis. But to face a crisis like this pandemic, which brought the words “social distance” into our vocabulary, would debilitate even those who’ve never struggled with their mental health.

So if you’re feeling like a pariah right now, it’s easy to see why. 

But that’s not the end of the story. In fact, there are things you can do right now to address this matrix of guilt, shame, loss, and isolation that’s got you in a holding pattern right now.

Getting Clear on this ‘Pariah’ Feeling

To begin, consider where these pariah messages are coming from. Perhaps people have said things or taken actions that leave you feeling cast out. Maybe they were strangers at the store who scattered when you sneezed behind your mask. They of course wouldn’t have known your health circumstances, but it’s hard not to feel that level of social treatment. Or maybe they’re family or people in your circle who are holding you in resentment, anger, disgust, or a host of other emotions for what they believe you should or shouldn’t have done.

And whereas you can’t change how people are treating you, you can recognize the extent to which their behaviors are controlling your own life. 

To help address this, consider whether people’s treatment of you is in any way helpful. Can it shape a decision you now need to make? Determine whether amends are actually needed. Is there someone whose forgiveness you require? If not, then there truly is nothing that needs to be said or done for others at this point. 

Perhaps there are amends to be made to these people or someone else in your circle who’s now suffering. Alternatively, your experience with their resentment might prompt you to make some small effort toward a larger cause, like a donation to a local hospital or other nonprofit. 

Whereas you giving a bag of canned goods to the local pantry won’t change somebody’s mind if they’ve decided to cast you out, it will allow you to feel that you’ve done what is in your power. This may be especially helpful if direct amends are not possible in a relationship in which extreme conflict necessitates distance. There’s the added bonus that you’ll have made the world better in a small way.

One truth about being the pariah is that the coals heaped on us don’t solely come from other sources. No matter what terrible things people have said or done to you, probably nothing is as bad as the things you’ve said and done to yourself. Get clear on this ‘pariah message’ that’s floating around in your head, and notice how much of it is coming from shame that you are carrying. When you close your eyes and think about it, whose voices are the ones you hear shaming you? Chances are, the loudest one is your own. Notice this. From here, you can learn from the next tool in changing this mindset: compassion.

Self-Compassion

You may naturally be a person who’s pretty hard on yourself. You strive to be your best, holding yourself to high standards whether in school, work, family, or other parts of your life that are significant. You continually raise the bar, expecting more and more from yourself.

And when you believe you made a wrong decision of any sort, you default into heavy self-criticism. 

Self-criticism may have been your starting point after you contracted COVID-19. You probably spiraled pretty deeply, perhaps even into old places of self-loathing that only show up in extreme low points for your life. This may even be true if you took all of the precautions you could, and still contracted the virus.

This is not helpful to you, and your emotional punishment over a past you cannot control will do nothing to improve your own life or that of anyone else. You had an experience. Learn whatever there is to learn from it. And heal the rest.

To do this, recognize that you are worthy of compassion, of being loved and respected. You’re a human being who does really human things, just like the rest of us. So spend a few moments really picturing yourself in that place of deepest hurt and self-loathing, as if you were approaching this person in an empty room. Consider what you would say to this person if it was someone you loved deeply. If this was your child, what might you now say? 

Maybe it helps to hold this mental picture of yourself as a much younger ‘you’ who was stumbling around and making mistakes because you didn’t know any better. The truth is that you really didn’t know what to do about COVID-19. No one you know has survived anything resembling this pandemic. 

Even if you watched a news briefing from the CDC immediately before walking out of the house without a mask and into the most crowded place you could find, you did so from a place of unknowing. For those of us who’ve felt like we’re in control of our destiny, it’s sometimes hardest to believe how very frail and susceptible we are to things like viruses. 

This is especially true when we have to choose between a risk and something like missing a family Thanksgiving or other holiday. We don’t want to take time with people for granted, and each of us has faced real dilemmas with each passing holiday. Zoom isn’t a substitute for time with people we love; and we can’t be faulted for having that most human of needs: companionship. 

Whatever your circumstances are and by whatever means you contracted the virus, it’s time for you to have compassion for yourself and the choices you made. As well, it’s time to find a creative new solution for planning the next steps for your life.

Creating a Path Forward

Whether you needed to make amends or not, you will reach a point where you can no longer let the pariah-makers determine your beliefs about yourself. Whenever you’ve reached the decision that people who are shaming you and trying to control you with guilt are no longer your reference point, you can choose a different direction for you emotional energy. You get to set your compass point in a direction that works for your path forward. 

If you were especially sick from COVID-19, you probably have given some time since then to big life questions. If not, now is the time to ask them. 

Pull out the bucket list and evaluate the things you’ve always said you needed to do. What’s standing out now as something which feels most important, most urgent? Is it a class? Did you discover a need to reconnect with a hobby? Maybe you want to dive into a faith tradition, or dive literally from a plane. Maybe it’s a change to a relationship that you’ve been putting off, or a big life move that needs to happen. Whatever is standing out for you is the place to invest your energy now.

With that energy, begin laying the groundwork and specific action steps that will propel you forward. Stay with it when old feelings of doubt and shame try to return. They will. Shame’s a powerful enemy of our wellness. But exercising the choice to live fully is what takes the bite out of shame.

The people who care most about you will be around. Or they’ll return because they want to be in your life. Others may slip away entirely; but if this is what happens in the relationship, it’s probably run its natural course. No one who cares about you, who respects you, would ever invest time and energy in keeping you locked in a place of hurt. They’ll forgive, they’ll deal with their own stuff and recognize that whatever feelings they’re holding onto are their own responsibility. Those who do not see this, or perhaps gain some sense of power by attempting to hold you in a perpetual state of guilt, are not in the direction your compass is pointing you.

Be well, be brave. And move with the light that you’ve placed in front of you.

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Stacee Reicherzer, PhD, is a Chicago, Illinois-based transgender counselor, educator, and public speaker for the stories of the bullied, forgotten, and oppressed. The San Antonio, TX, native serves as clinical faculty of counseling at Southern New Hampshire University, where she received the distinguished faculty award in 2018. She travels the globe to teach and engage audiences around diverse topics of otherness, self-sabotage, and imposter phenomenon. She is the author of The Healing Otherness Handbook (New Harbinger, April 1, 2021). 

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