Why We Feel Guilty When Bad Things Happen
What you should know about Survivor's Guilt.
The world has felt heavy lately. Or perhaps I should say, heav-ier.
If it’s not a rapidly spreading virus that forces the world to shut down, it’s wars or rumours of it.
During my brief and unexplained (?unexplainable) absence, I’d thought often about the concept of feeling helpless. Yet it also seemed there was something beyond that.
You see, it wasn’t enough to feel hopeless about a situation. I also had to feel guilty. Guilty that my life wasn’t “so bad” in comparison. Guilty that I got off easy. I mean, isn’t it mundane of me to do a 3-step skincare routine or to complain about the driver who cut in front of me on my drive to work, at a time such as this?
“There’s people dying, Kim,” - Kourtney Kardashian (as Kim endlessly indulges in taking selfies)
Certainly, life must go on. Right?
Well, at least that’s what I’d thought.
Survivor’s Guilt who?
Simply put, it’s when we feel guilty for surviving a life-threatening situation when others have not. The latter phrase is important because this only seems to come up when we start to compare ourselves.
It’s a parent comparing their long life to the unfortunate demise of their young son or the soldiers during a war to those that didn’t make it.
Commonly associated with the survivors of the Holocaust, survivor’s guilt isn’t limited to grand negative occurrences. And it can manifest as irritability/anger, poor sleep, obsessive thoughts about the event or the full-blown range of PTSD symptoms.
Yet not all of us experience it.
Does this mean others are less empathetic? More selfish? Better adjusted?
Who experiences survivor guilt?
"Survivor guilt typically arises in people who have been exposed to, or witnessed, death and have stayed alive leading to emotional distress and negative self-appraisal.” — Robert Jay Lifton
And why not?
In a social media age, we don't need to physically be in a place to acutely feel the sting of loss and grief. Even when it's for people we'll never even meet.
One of the intriguing theories I came across was that this was useful in evolutionary psychology to encourage altruism. Perhaps it’s our connectedness to the human race. Is it guilt that makes us open our home up to a stranger after they’ve suffered an intense loss that could have been us?
Another was the Equity Theory, which suggests that some people are just more drawn to fairness and all-that-is-right-with-the-world. People that are more justice-prone tend to suffer more because where is the equity in suffering? Shouldn’t we suffer (and its opposite) equally?
Also in those prone to overthinking and rumination which can feed into hindsight bias. Not only wishing we could have done better, but also ‘knowing’ that we could have. This is, of course, not often true.
But somehow, that doesn’t seem to help very much, does it?
What, then, helps survivor’s guilt?
Is there a solution?
In my experience, one thing that has helped ties in closely with one of the above theories — being kind to others.
Whether it’s cooking someone a nice meal, buying a thoughtful gift, or giving a genuine compliment, there’s something nice about doing something nice. And while that may not altogether erase feelings of guilt, it’s a healthy start.
But it doesn't stop with others — being kind to self, as well.
Sidenote: is this simply a compensatory mechanism?
Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of data even though it’s a real phenomenon. However some forms of treatment have been proposed, such as logotherapy (finding meaning and purpose in suffering).
Of course, (different forms of) therapy could also be considered, such as cognitive behavioural therapy.
“You’re here. Isn’t it a better tribute to truly live?
🔌 Recommendation of the month!
This calming YouTube channel that reminds me that the world can (still) be an inherently beautiful place.