The theme of Survivor’s Guilt has been quite popular in pop culture these days. We’ve seen it in films like Creed 3, shows like The Last of Us, and even referenced in music. Even outside of pop culture, survivor’s guilt continues to be a relevant topic as many people are experiencing and surviving highly stressful and even traumatic experiences while others in their lives may be impacted differently.
What is survivor’s guilt?
Survivor’s guilt can be thought of as a concept in which a person experiences highly stressful or even traumatic event(s) alongside others and survives or escapes while others around them may have experienced a different outcome. Sometimes, the event doesn’t have to be experienced directly alongside others but typically occurs within a similar life experience or context. The event is often out of the person’s control and/or related to experiencing different circumstances or outcomes. Survivors’ guilt can often (but not always) occur alongside other psychological concerns, including Post-traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD.
Survivors’ guilt has typically been reserved for discussion as it relates to professions like the military, firefighters, and law enforcement. While it is true that many people in those professions may experience this type of guilt, it is not limited to those professions. Survivors’ guilt can be experienced by anyone.
Some examples of survivor’s guilt may include (but are not limited to):
- Surviving a natural disaster when others didn’t (hurricane, fire, flood, etc)
- Surviving acts of terror or crime when others didn’t (mass shooting, robbery, online financial scam, etc.)
- Being the first in your lineage to experience or have something that others in your family and/or neighborhood haven’t had due to having different access to opportunities (or utilizing similar opportunities differently)
- Leaving a very stressful or dangerous work environment and leaving co-workers at the job
- Moving away from stressful circumstances and feeling like you’ve left others behind
- Surviving a diagnosis or health issue that others may not have survived
- Immigrating from a different country and feeling responsible for family/friends in your home country
- Outliving a friend or family member
How might we experience it?
We all process our experiences differently and survivor’s guilt is no different. There are many factors that can impact how and if people experience this type of guilt. Survivors’ guilt can be experienced both internally and externally. Here are some ways you may notice it:
Intense feelings of discomfort as it relates to the event(s) or people surrounding the event(s)
Unpleasant dreams or nightmares
Flashbacks of the event
Intense feelings of sadness and guilt
Intense feelings of shame, inadequacy, incompetence
Thoughts or feelings of wanting to die
Thoughts such as “Why was I spared?” or “Why me but not them?”
Irritability or agitation
Overcompensating behaviors (acting within guilt, sharing money or resources out of perceived obligation, busying oneself with tasks, etc.)
An expression that they should have experienced the same misfortune or circumstances as others
Isolating self from others
How do we navigate it?
Survivor’s guilt may resolve itself over time, and sometimes it lingers for some time after the event(s) have occurred and develops into a more complex situation. It is important to realize that sometimes the circumstances that lead to survivor’s guilt can be ongoing and may not have a foreseeable end. In either situation, the ability to navigate the guilt is an ongoing and evolving process. We have the ability to acknowledge and engage with our emotions while approaching ourselves with compassion.
Learn to interact with your feelings. It can be helpful to put a name to what you are feeling and why you are feeling it. Interacting with feelings does not necessarily mean to be consumed by them, but rather learning to understand the emotions you may experience. Name the guilt and recognize that situations that result in the development of survivor’s guilt can be complex and nuanced. There may not be a clear “right” or “wrong” in situations that are out of our control. Even if there is a level of control, admitting that you are a fallible human is powerful in the journey of self-forgiveness. It is okay to feel guilt and remorse as it shows that you are affected by the experiences of others.
Connect with yourself and others. Guilt and shame are often experienced in isolation, which can intensify the experience of the feeling. Sharing about the guilt with safe and trusted people can help you connect with yourself and express the thoughts and feelings that are concealed from others. It gives the chance to hear other perspectives, experience the benefits of compassion and empathy, and connect through vulnerability. Therapy can be a great place to share your thoughts and feelings in a confidential and non-judgemental space.
Find meaning in helping others. Trying to find or create meaning in loss or change can be challenging. Instead of engaging in behaviors or activities out of guilt, consider addressing the guilt and find ways to be of service that honor your experience. Volunteering, contributing time and/or resources to organizations that support the community affected by the event(s), and finding everyday ways to honor those who were or continue to be impacted by the event(s) are a few ways to honor the experience.
- Survivor’s guilt is something that anyone can experience. It can be difficult to reconcile the thoughts and emotions that accompany this guilt.
- The guilt can manifest in both internal and external ways.
- Guilt can be addressed by learning to engage with our emotions, expressing emotions with safe people and in safe spaces, and practicing compassion and grace with ourselves and others.
- Finding active ways to honor the experience through helping others can help address feelings of guilt.