Michael Bader: Do you have survivor guilt?
August 9, 2016
Most of my patients suffer from some form of survivor guilt. Survivor guilt is the guilt one feels at having survived (or even thrived) when others have not. It was originally noted among Jewish survivors of concentration camps and is often seen among survivors of other catastrophic events, such as natural disasters, the AIDS epidemic or military combat. In these dramatic situations, the guilt that survivors feel is often conscious and extreme. Survivors might feel responsible for not saving others, or for saving themselves while others suffered or died around them. Movies have been made that feature survivor guilt, such as Sophie's Choice and Ordinary People, as well as television shows like Rescue Me in which a New York City firefighter, Tommy Gavin, who survived 9/11, is visited by the ghosts of those fellow firefighters who did not.
Survivor guilt, however, does not have to be limited to extreme situations in which one's physical survival is the imagined crime. Most often, survivor guilt is not conscious and, when investigated, usually involves the painful and guilty belief that one is enjoying the good things in life — independence, financial or occupational success, success in love, trusting friendships, sexual pleasure, the capacity for confident self assertion, etc. — while loved ones could or did not. Being happy is the crime, not survival.
Children of depressed or unhappy parents, for example, often grow up with the unspoken sense that they shouldn't be happier or more successful than their parents, that such successes feel like betrayals of their parents, and even — irrational as it might be — that their successes are the cause of their parents failures. Such children live in a zero-sum world in which the more happiness they acquire, the less they believe their loved ones can enjoy. They grow up with a subliminal conviction that they're not supposed to be happy or successful because such good things feel like symbolic abandonments of their roots, their families and communities of origin. Their unconscious logic tells them that escaping a sinking ship is a crime.
Sometimes parents explicitly guilt-trip their children in just this way, begrudging their successes, complaining about their children's lack of attention or help. Other times, children acquire survivor guilt based beliefs all on their own, inferring that the problems they see in their families are the way life is supposed to be and that achieving more is unacceptable.
When success feels like a betrayal, the afflicted person secretly feels cut off from the "herd," living a good life that he or she is not supposed to live. The problems survivor guilt creates stem from unconscious attempts to undo success and to identify with or reconnect with the suffering or misfortunes of those who one has left behind.
Examples abound in the public world, for example, in stories of athletes or entertainers who grew up in dire circumstances, make a success of themselves, and then manage to sabotage that success by using drugs or getting themselves into financial trouble. Self-sabotage, then, can be seen as the result of subliminal efforts to get rid of survivor guilt by sharing the failures or disappointments of loved ones. People with survivor guilt might drop out of school one semester short of graduation. They will choose a bad partner or make a good one into a bad one in order to not outdo the unhappy relationships they saw growing up. People who succeed in spite of their survivor guilt will often secretly believe that they're someplace they don't belong and feel like a fraud or an imposter as a result.
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Many forms of psychological suffering and inhibition stem from attempts to retreat from good things in order not to surpass, leave behind, or otherwise outdo one's family and community of origin.
Such attempts to run away from success because of survivor guilt, when deeply understood, can yield a greater acceptance of one's authentic accomplishments and healthy satisfactions.
As spiritual teacher and author, Marianne Williamson, put it:
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, "Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do."
Michael Bader, DMH, is a psychologist in private practice in Grass Valley. He can be contacted at email@example.com.