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6 Ways to Survive Survivor Guilt

When tragedy befalls those around us but leaves us unscathed, some of us thank our lucky stars, but some of us feel guilty. “Why not me?” we ask, or, “What could I have done to prevent this?” These statements are the hallmarks of an unofficial but very real phenomenon called survivor guilt. This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen offers 6 ways to soothe the guilt and move forward.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
April 7, 2017
Episode #149

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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.

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