Aline, who requested to be identified by her first name only for privacy reasons, is still puzzling over how she got the virus — was it because she wore a cloth mask rather than a medical-grade one? — and worries that the cough she has now could worsen because she has diabetes. That’s not the most painful part of the ordeal, though: “I feel very embarrassed and dumb,” she says, and upset that she’s causing her family stress. “It’s eye-opening that I feel so much shame from it. I’m realizing how much judgment I was secretly harboring against people who got it before.”
Aline is part of a rapid uptick in cases in the United States. As two variants collide and states hit new records daily, breakthrough cases are becoming more normal and less of an exception; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns these cases are now “likely” to occur. For many people who test positive during this latest surge, the virus is sparking yet another unpleasant feeling in an ordeal that’s churned out plenty: shame.
“There’s been this large narrative about the importance of controlling your actions to prevent yourself from getting sick, and from transmitting the illness to other people,” says Jessica Stern, a clinical psychologist at NYU Langone Health. “Because the narrative is so closely connected to our behaviors, I think there’s this implication, or this assumption, that if you get sick, you must have done something wrong to bring it onto yourself.” That’s not true, she stresses, “but unfortunately it’s inherent in the way we’ve been thinking about and talking about covid.” That can lead to shame, which Stern defines as “the combination of embarrassment or guilt and identity — one of the most visceral emotions.”