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Pandemic: Complex Emotions in Complex Times

Updated: Sep 20, 2020

Volume XVII, Number 1 Spring 2020

-written with Ruth Steverlynck, founder and Principal of Your Family Enterprise Advisors Inc,

a boutique firm helping families navigate the human and relational aspects of their wealth

Clients have taught us perspective for wealthy individuals and families in the current pandemic crisis. Their experiences have brought to light specific attitudes and behaviors that can be challenging, isolating and distressing for this relatively small population. Here we have developed hopeful advice for you.

The Range of Emotions

In the Covid-19 pandemic environment, emotions and attitudes are complicated. Speaking personally, we have not experienced anything like this in our lifetimes. For both of us, our emotions have been all over the place … initially denialThis is all a bit overkill,” to panicWow this is very real,” “What am I going to do?” to low grade anxiety, and then feelings of gratitudeI feel so fortunate,” which rapidly morphed to vulnerabilityIs everything as ok as I think it is?” “Is my family going to be ok?” “What about my twenty-something children whose futures now look very different from just two months ago?” And most recently, many of us are just tired of all the unknowns, the restrictions, the limitations, the losses.

For our clients we also see that the spectrum of emotions and feelings they are managing is wide: all the way from fear, anger and guilt through grief to relief, strength and gratitude. The range of emotions has many additional features along this spectrum. Some of our more social clients are feeling isolated. They typically have retreat properties where complying with a stay-at-home order could be easy and even comforting, but normally they could arrange contact with others when they want it. Now they can’t, if they can even travel there at all. Some are in the attic and unused rooms going through photos, mementos, papers from the past, feeling like they are in a prison of their own making. These feelings of isolation, sadness, vulnerability, deprivation are real, but who will listen?

There is the general attitude in society that if you have financial wealth you are not allowed to complain about anything. Somehow, being wealthy means that you should be immune from feeling anything but strength and gratitude. To feel otherwise is frowned upon when you are rich. After all, “What do you have to complain about?”

Recently, we read a letter written by “Stefan and Joy” titled “We are Not All in The Same Boat.” They affirmed that what we are all experiencing is pretty universal … they articulated the complications of all of us being in the same storm but not in the same boat. Some of us are on our private yachts, our sailboats, our kayaks. Some of our boats were well-stocked with toilet paper and other essentials, others were not stocked at all. Our boats vary tremendously, yet we are all grappling with the same global storm. The fears and worries and vulnerability still come when you are in a storm, irrespective of the kind of boat you have. What is of particular interest in this article is that it touched on one common but very complicated emotion – guilt.

What About Guilt?

Guilt is a complex emotion with many facets. There are downsides to guilt: a common one is the self-criticism associated with feeling guilt. “I am just not a good person.” Guilt can hold us back and cause us to behave in ways we don’t intend. But guilt can have a positive side too. Guilt serves the powerful social function of policing our behavior. People prone to guilt tend to work harder and perform better. It can motivate us to be better friends, partners, and lovers.

If feeling guilt is something you are struggling with, pause. Take stock. Notice your behaviors. Don't judge them. Commit to doing one thing good for yourself and one thing good for others and shift the pervasive feeling of discomfort to one of “doing good”.

What About Relational Strains During a Pandemic?

It is important to consider where you were in the relationship before this crisis hit. If you were already strained and talking about splitting up, then the stay-at-home orders will probably just make you more sure. Do not make any decisions now. Realize that there is value in the increased clarity of the issues. It is now something that can be addressed. Take care of yourselves, get out for walks alone and exercise. Eat healthy. Do things at home that you like: read, watch TV, make art or do something creative. Find a source for online or phone counseling.

What About Respect for Others?

What about the variety of ways others treat the quarantine? Are they more scared and protective of their personal space than we are? Are they less, not taking the quarantine as seriously as we are? How do we behave regarding this? How do we best use our great resources to isolate responsibly?

Err on the side of being too careful. Many people are afraid, and it’s the uncertainty as well as the known risks. Be generous in your social distancing. Fight the urge to be judgmental. Just don’t go there. It can help to think of someone whom you genuinely feel compassionate toward and think of them when you are around others.

What Do We Do When Asked for Loans?

Another complexity is what to do when asked for money during extreme circumstances. The financial impact for many is heartbreaking. How much of this suffering can we alleviate? How? Loans? Gifts? What is wise? Honestly, gifts are usually the better choice and they can be anonymous if that helps. One way to accomplish anonymity is through an organization like a community fund, food bank or church.

In closing we would like to share six steps to take to manage these complex emotions:

1. If you think you are a bad person, you are more likely to do bad things. Once we think of ourselves as already bad, there is not much incentive to do right! So it is best to think well of ourselves while we self-examine the opportunity for growth. Build your awareness of the positive steps you have made. If you have trouble doing this, ask for help. Have compassion for yourself, your network of loved ones, and the strangers all around you.

2. Stop magnifying/distorting. You don't go to prison for a parking ticket, yet we can sentence ourselves to months of emotional pain over stuff that is either minor or out of our control.

3. How long have you been experiencing difficult and negative feelings? How intense are they? You may benefit from medical support, and this can be a useful resource. Contact your doctor to explore options.

4. When friends and family need help, think through their challenges with them. Ask: What are you afraid of? What do you want? Tell me about a meaningful time of your life that you remember. What did you learn from that experience that you can apply now? What are your priorities? Let’s help you line up your actions with them.

5. If you have a neglected or estranged family member, reach out to them. Just check in with them to see how they are doing. No time like the present for this. Break that ice.

6. Finally, give. This is a time when helping others can provide connectedness for you. There are many avenues for this: family, friends, strangers. Ultimately, giving with love strengthens us and helps to dissipate the negative emotions we feel.

When the storm subsides, we will go ashore and be able to look at ourselves and know that we gave what we could. In so doing, we made the storm a little easier than it might have been. We will make it through this.

~ This newsletter is excerpted from the full article with many examples and the “Decision Tree for Loaning Money,” which is available at

© 2020 Thayer Cheatham Willis. All Rights Reserved.

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