Survivor guilt happens when an individual perceives himself to have done something wrong by surviving a catastrophe where others died or otherwise succumbed, and its intensity can run the gamut from bittersweet to all-out despair. Survivor guilt is conventionally associated with large-scale catastrophe like the battlefield or a plane crash, but it can pop up in unexpected ways.
For instance, a grad student from Syria despairs over the fate of his family and country while he studies mathematics in the United States. He says, “I didn’t do anything to deserve being safe. How can I sit and play with numbers all day when my family is suffering?”
A cancer support group mourns the loss of one of their members. They ask each other, “Why did she die while we’re still here? She left two kids behind—why are we the lucky ones?”
An employee who keeps her job while her equally qualified coworker is laid off in a corporate “right-sizing” feels uneasy about her unjustified privilege. “Why not me?” she asks.
Finally, a man grieves the loss of his sister, who recently committed suicide. He misses her with all his heart and blames himself: “If only I had kept in better touch with her. I could have stopped her.”
There are scores of examples, but in general, survivor guilt falls into one of three themes:
Theme #1: Guilt about surviving
This is what we classically think of as survivor guilt. If you remained safe while others suffered—in an accident, in a war, in the 1980’s AIDS pandemic, by being granted asylum—you may feel you don’t deserve your safety, that you should have succumbed too, or you question the wisdom and fairness of the world.
Theme #2: Guilt over what you “should” have done
You feel guilty that you didn’t do enough. You should have known, you should have tried harder, you should have warned them. Maybe you tried to rescue someone but failed. There’s an over-exaggerated sense of failure or responsibility: “If only I had done something differently.”
Theme #3: Guilt over what you did
You may feel guilty for things you did, from pushing others out of the way while escaping a burning building to escaping poverty by leaving your family to go to college.
Or you may feel intense guilt for things you did that were mere coincidence. On “the day the music died” in 1959, country music star Waylon Jennings was supposed to be on the plane that killed Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens. When he told Buddy Holly he had given up his seat as a favor to the the flu-stricken Big Bopper and was going to take the unheated tour bus, Holly joked he hoped Jennings froze on the bus. Twenty-year-old Jennings joked back, “I hope your ol’ plane crashes.” In an interview decades later, he said, “God Almighty, for years I thought I caused it.”
Jennings said he tried not to think or talk about it, which is a common reaction called avoidance. While survivor guilt isn’t an official diagnosis, it’s closely associated with PTSD, which is. Avoidance is a core symptom of PTSD, along with feeling overly vigilant, on edge, or numb and disconnected.
But there are additional signs of survivor guilt: being haunted over what happened, feeling confused or ambivalent about living, obsessing about the meaning of life, or being tormented by the sense that no matter where you go, you’re never really safe. The resulting self-condemnation and isolation takes a toll on your health and you relationships.
See also: 5 Signs of PTSD
So what to do? It takes time and patience, but here are six things to try when your very existence makes you feel guilty.
Tip #1: Ask who is truly responsible
Remind yourself who is actually to blame. Is the Syrian grad student truly responsible for his country’s suffering? No, instead, look to the Syrian government, ISIS, and other global forces out of his control. Is the employee responsible for her colleague’s downsizing? No—look to corporate leaders, short-sighted policy, even the market. In the end, mourn those who were lost, but don’t take on the responsibility for the loss.
Other times, there’s no one responsible. Perhaps it was a force of nature, random misfortune, or nothing you could have predicted. Regardless, we still feel responsible; every one of us overestimates how much they actually knew before a catastrophe. “I shouldn’t have ordered my troops into a building that was booby-trapped.” “I shouldn’t have gotten in a car with faulty brakes.” This overestimation leads to a skewed assessment of their responsibility.
Here’s why: In situations where you couldn’t possibly have known but you still feel guilty, guilt may be functioning as a false sense of control. By feeling guilty and taking responsibility, we tell ourselves that it wasn’t all pointless and random.
By feeling guilty and taking responsibility, we tell ourselves that it wasn’t all pointless and random.
Guilt feels lousy, but it protects us from the even more overwhelming feelings of helplessness and powerlessness we experience when we fall victim to the unjust and uncontrollable whim of random forces.
Tip #2: Remind yourself you can handle sadness and loss
As horrible as the guilt is, it can be easier than the devastation of grief. Staying focused on guilt can be a subtle way to avoid searing sadness. But avoiding the true emotion bubbling underneath the guilt stands in the way of feeling better and makes things worse over time.
Experiencing intense emotion may feel unsafe, but it’s not. You can do it in any way that suits you. You may not be the scream-and-cry type, and that’s okay. You can feel sadness or pain in any way you want, quiet or loud, as long as you let yourself feel what you feel.
Tip #3: Think about how people who love you feel about your survival
Even if you suspect, somehow, you shouldn’t still be here, remind yourself of who would be devastated if you were not. Think of everyone who is happy and relieved that you’re okay. You’ve been given the gift of survival, so rather than rejecting that gift because you somehow feel undeserving, share it with those who love you. At the very least, they deserve it.
Tip #4: It’s not a zero-sum game
Underlying survivor guilt is the idea that there’s only so much luck to go around, and that to benefit from good fortune is to deprive someone else of it. But luck is random. Let’s use the lottery to illustrate: sometimes no one has the winning lottery number; sometimes multiple people share the prize. The chances of you specifically hitting it big aren’t increased or decreased by anyone else’s picks. It’s hard to accept that there’s not greater order to things, but once we do, we feel absolved.
Tip #5: Do something meaningful for someone else
Guilt, at its best, is a motivator for meaningful, purposeful action. We may think of guilt as regret about the past, but it also makes us look toward to the future.
If we feel guilty, it motivates us to make things right. Looking for ways to commemorate, serve, or otherwise honor those who were lost gives us a chance to, in our minds, reduce the guilt.
For example, a classic 1966 study divided participants into two groups. Half were told that the study task would help their partner, who was secretly a confederate, earn bonus points in a course he needed to graduate from college, keep his job, and support his wife and child. In short, the pressure was on.
The other half were told the confederate was auditing the course and therefore didn’t need the bonus points at all. After working on (and failing at) three impossible tasks, the researchers informed each participant they had not earned any bonus points for the confederate, thus inducing guilt. To make matters worse, they were told the confederate had earned many points for them.
As each participant left the study room, another confederate posing as a volunteer for a local blood bank approached and asked if they would donate blood. Unsurprisingly, participants who felt guilty about imperiling their partner’s job prospects and family security were much more likely to agree.
Giving blood had nothing to do with the situation, but to the participant, it felt like something that could even out karma. The logic behind the agreement might have been faulty, but it made them feel better and led to a good deed in the process.
Tip #6: This goes without saying, but take care of yourself
If you’ve survived a harrowing experience or have otherwise been left behind, taking care of yourself is essential for healing, whether physical or emotional. Eat well, sleep well, move your body, and recruit support to help make sense of it all.
To sum up, guilt has a place in our emotional repertoire. It motivates us to right wrongs and made amends. But in survivor guilt, its misplaced. So grieve your losses, but remember that it wasn’t your fault, others are glad you’re still here, and that you can use your survival to pay it forward.
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