When tragedy befalls those around us but leaves us unscathed, some of us feel guilty. Here's how to understand and cope with survivor guilt.
Survivor guilt happens when a person perceives themselves to have done something wrong by surviving a catastrophe or injustice while others died or suffered. Its intensity can run the gamut from bittersweet to all-out despair. Survivor guilt is conventionally associated with large-scale catastrophes like the battlefield or a plane crash, but it can pop up in more common situations too.
In 2020, survivor guilt might be more salient than usual.
For example, one study found that 65 percent of cancer patient caretakers experience survivor guilt. Anyone who has participated in a cancer support group will recognize the many layers of grief after the group loses one of its members. The survivors ask each other, “Why did she die while we’re still here? She was kind and giving and left two kids behind—why are we the lucky ones?”
In 2020, survivor guilt might be more salient than usual. Think, for example, of a grad student from Florida despairing over the fate of his family and country while he studies physics in Germany, watching the coronavirus numbers soar at home. He says, “I didn’t do anything to deserve being safe. How can I sit and play with equations all day when my community back home is suffering?”
What about survivors of economic devastation? An employee who keeps her job while her equally qualified coworker is laid off in a large-scale corporate “right-sizing” may feel uneasy about her unjustified privilege. “Why not me?” she asks. “Do I really deserve to have this job more than my coworkers did?”
Finally, and tragically, survivor guilt has been a well-known experience among war veterans, for whom this experience can be a significant risk factor for PTSD and even suicidal thoughts and attempts. In a research study interview, one veteran recounts:
The only thing I've really had issues dealing with was when I got wounded how I came away relatively scot‐free if you will, whereas the guy on my right died and the guy on my left can't lift his arm higher than this anymore.”
Themes of survivor guilt
There are scores of examples, but in general, survivors have these experiences, alone or in combination.
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 COVID-19 pandemic, by being granted asylum—you may feel you don’t deserve your safety, believe that you should have succumbed too, or question the wisdom and fairness of the world.
2. Guilt over what you “should have” done
You feel guilty that you didn’t do enough. You should have known, should have tried harder, you should have warned them. Maybe you tried to rescue someone from addiction but failed. There’s an over-exaggerated sense of failure or responsibility: “If only I had done something differently.”
3. Guilt over what you did
You may feel guilty for things you did, from running without looking back for your friends 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 musicians Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens. When Jennings told Buddy Holly he had given up his seat as a favor to 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.”
4. Avoiding thinking or talking about it
Jennings said he tried not to think or talk about the plane crash, which is a common reaction called avoidance. While survivor guilt isn’t an official diagnosis, it’s closely associated with PTSD, which is. In one study with participants with PTSD, 90 percent of those who had survived an event where others died experienced survivor guilt. Avoidance is a core symptom of PTSD, along with feeling overly vigilant, on edge, or numb and disconnected.
5. A changed worldview
There are other ways that survivor guilt is like PTSD too, such as: 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. Your whole way of thinking about yourself, other people, and the world may be shaken up forever. The resulting self-condemnation and isolation take a toll on your health and your relationships.
How to cope with survivor guilt
So what to do? It takes time and patience, but here are six things to try when your very existence makes you feel guilty.
1. Ask who is truly responsible
Remind yourself who is actually to blame.
Mourn those who were lost, but don’t take on the responsibility for the loss.
Is the American grad student truly responsible for his country’s suffering from COVID-19? No, instead, he can look to the virus itself, the authorities responsible for managing the crisis, and environmental and sociopolitical forces outside of his control. Is the employee responsible for her colleague's layoff? No—look to corporate leaders, short-sighted policy, and 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, like Waylon Jennings, may still feel responsible. Every one of us overestimates how much we actually knew before a catastrophe. “I shouldn’t have ordered my troops into a building that turned out to be a minefield of IEDs.” “I shouldn’t have gotten into a car with faulty brakes.” Those "should haves" don't make sense if the person didn't actually know the IEDs existed or the brakes were faulty. This overestimation leads to a skewed assessment of their responsibility.
In situations where you couldn’t possibly have known a disaster was about to happen 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.
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 whims of random forces.
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 healing and makes the wound fester over time.
Experiencing intense emotions may feel unsafe, but it’s not.
Experiencing intense emotions 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 truly feel.
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.
4. Remember 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 no greater order to things, but once we do, we may feel absolved.
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 the future. It can remind us to look for ways to commemorate, serve, or otherwise honor those who were lost.
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 an actor on the research team) 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.
We may think of guilt as regret about the past, but it also makes us look toward the future.
The other half were told the partner 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 their partner, thus inducing guilt. To make matters worse, they were told their partner had earned many points for them.
As each participant left the study room, they were 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.
6. 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. If you persistently feel down, unmotivated, on edge, or generally unable to live to the fullest, and especially if you have thoughts about suicide, you should look for professional help. PTSD shows up in many forms, including more subtle ones than nightmares and flashbacks. The good news is that there are effective evidence-based treatments, such as cognitive processing therapy.
Guilt has a place in our emotional repertoire. It motivates us to right wrongs and make amends. But in survivor guilt, it's misplaced and unhelpful. So grieve your losses, but remember: It wasn’t your fault, others are glad you’re still here, and that you can use your survival to pay it forward.
This article was originally written by Dr. Ellen Hendriksen. It has been substantially updated by Dr. Jade Wu.