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How to Live with Survivor Guilt

It’s hard to be happy when someone you love is suffering.

Key points

  • Many people dislike feeling better off than others, and may experience survivor guilt when they do.
  • Humans are wired to endure traumatic lives.
  • You can't stop feeling survivor guilt by bringing yourself down, or trying to level the playing field.
  • There is a treatment for the pain of survivor guilt
Pieter Bruegel © Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte CC BY-NC-ND
Source: Pieter Bruegel © Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte CC BY-NC-ND

Survivor Guilt in Daily Life Hides Under Psychological Problems

One of my best friends, a psychologist with a 20-year-long Parkinson’s diagnosis, recently broke her hip and is now in rehab, unsure of her future. Depression is written across her face.

It's hard to tell her I published a new story and admit how happy it made me. I worry that might make her feel bad, simply by comparison. What might be worse —if I stopped writing, just to "level the playing field." Or, if I screwed up at my clinical job, just because I felt so guilty about doing something my friend can't —at the moment— think about doing.

Over two decades ago I started conducting empirical studies of survivor guilt and how it connects to depression. Not because I could recognize it when it was plaguing me —but because I found it to be the hidden emotion negatively impacting most of my clients, friends, and colleagues,

Most of you have probably—at some time or another—felt terrible because someone you love is suffering, while you're feeling happy or successful. When you find you're surpassing someone you love, you may think you're causing her unhappiness, simply by comparison. Survivor guilt is that feeling you get when you think your success is making someone else suffer.

Survivor guilt is sometimes called "survivor's guilt"

Survivor guilt is sometimes called "survivor's guilt" and the two terms are often used interchangeably. I use "survivor guilt" because you can feel it, even if you're not exactly a "survivor."

Survivor guilt was first used to describe how we feel when someone we love has died. Both Freud and Darwin wrote vividly about the guilt-based suffering that came with mourning the death of a loved one. Later, Neiderland spoke of the survivors of concentration camps in WW II, walking around "as if they were dead," wondering why they were still alive while their families had all been killed by the Nazis.

Later, several psychoanalysts, Weiss and Modell expanded the term to describe the experience of surpassing people you love in more ordinary, less catastrophic conditions.

Survivor guilt may affect us in the most ordinary circumstances: Early in the pandemic, I got a Peloton bike and started riding daily. I love it. Meanwhile, my husband couldn't even mount it because he needed hip replacement surgery. The more I loved the Peloton, the more I suffered from survivor guilt toward him. Maybe he suffered from jealousy, while I was angsting about his suffering. (He finally had surgery, and I'm so happy he's finally on the Peloton).

Suffering is normal. The "First Noble Truth" in Buddhism is the truth of suffering. What I think the Buddha meant was that all people experience suffering, sometimes more painfully, sometimes less. Given the truth of suffering, there's no way to always avoid it —in yourself or in others.

Many psychology-minded people have unrealistic and idealistic beliefs that trauma is the villain. But everyone has good and difficult times. Big ups and big downs are normal.

We're wired to endure traumatic lives.

While the past thousand years may have been particularly well-suited to human thriving, the growth of the developed world has been based on a climate that made it possible to produce enough of almost everything for a rapidly enlarging population. But when there should have been "enough” for everyone, our competitive, socially, and economically unequal socio-economic organization made a world of abundance impossible for many.

So, we’ve all had to endure the pain of seeing people we love and indeed, large groups we never meet, suffer.

Mirror Neurons & the Empathy System: If you're suffering, I'm suffering

Seeing others’ suffering set’s off something similar in our neurological system. If I see you fall and break your ankle, and you are howling in pain, a pain-sensitive neuron starts firing in my brain. Sometimes called “mirror neurons” or more vaguely described as some part of our complex empathy system, most of us are uncomfortable with inequity, and thus we find ourselves not quite making it to the top, we do something self-destructive. While we think we want to “win,” somehow, without consciousness, we stop short of taking those final steps that would make us “the winner.”

It's hard to be successful and happy if you grow up with unhappy parents. It's difficult to enjoy academic success when your learning-disabled sibling is an academic failure. It's painful to love your job when your partner hates his.

We all believe we want to be winners, but there's a downside to winning at social comparison. Survivor guilt is a subtle and often unconscious emotion that sits behind many of our most common problems.

Everyone's Born with Ambition

Everyone is born with a wired-in need to be recognized, noticed, and important. From infancy, in order to learn, we need someone to recognize and admire us. Ambition may be universal, but believing your victories are costly to others is a common source of conflict.

Feeling survivor guilt can be normal in daily life. The angst that grabs you when you win an award and your coworker is unrecognized, or when you realize you’re still in love with your husband while your best friend is recently divorced and certain she’ll be alone forever—that awful feeling that comes like a weight on your shoulders, pushing you down, that may be survivor guilt. It’s so under the surface we rarely recognize it—it feels like waves of inexplicable anxiety, or depression.

So how can you stop yourself from trying to level the playing field, doing something self-destructive and guaranteed to lower your status, or in some way bringing yourself down to whoever it is you’re feeling so badly for?

3 Steps to Better Tolerate and Cope with Survivor Guilt

  1. Take stock of your feelings of anxiety and/or depression, own them, allow them, and recognize when they started. You will likely find the source of your survivor guilt. Recognizing survivor guilt is perhaps the hardest step because it’s often hidden. After all, we feel guilty even thinking we might be more fortunate than another. We’ve all learned to hate cheaters by four or five years old—and survivor guilt is like “cheater detection” turned inward. Because we so often believe we don’t deserve good fortune, we think whatever good time we have we somehow gain by cheating. Only rarely is that realistic. Steps 2 and 3 require active visualizations.
  2. Put your hand on your heart or throw your arms around yourself and think “self-compassion.” Sit quietly and consider all the hardships you’ve endured at times in your life, and think “self-compassion.” Think hard about extending the compassion you extend towards others, towards yourself.
  3. Imagine the people you love who are suffering. With each breath in, imagine breathing in all their misery and suffering. Some people imagine this as dark smoke. Imagine it coming into you on your breath and entering your heart, where it is broken up, thrown around, and slowly dissolved. Breathe out every drop of happiness you’ve ever felt. You might imagine it as a white light as you breathe out, letting it expand to all of the people whose suffering you’ve witnessed. Imagine your good fortune and happiness flowing to those suffering. Imagine it flowing into them on the out-breath. Give yourself time to practice this visualization—it may be difficult at first, but then it gets easy, even natural.

This practice will allow you to live with survivor guilt, without doing something to bring yourself down. You don’t have to level the playing field. In fact, it’s better for everyone for you to be a winner—and not just a winner, but a happy, or at least comfortable—winner. As a winner, you become a model for others.


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Neiderland, W. G. (1961). The problem of the survivor. Journal of Hillside Hospital, 10, 233-247

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Weiss, J. (1986). Unconscious guilt. In J. Weiss & H. Sampson (Eds.), The psychoanalytic process: Theory, clinical observation, and empirical research, (pp 43-67). New York: Guilford Press.

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