First Steps Towards Overcoming Survivor's Guilt

By Julia Thomas|Updated April 6, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Laura Angers, NCC, LPC

If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for help immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255, and is available 24/7.

Trauma, adversity, tragedy—often when instances like these affect the lives of those around us, they serve as a wake-up call or as a catalyst for introspection. We offer our condolences or support to these coworkers, friends, family, or loved ones, while at the same time being grateful that we have not suffered as much as others have. However, on the flip side of this, a lot of us often unintentionally go the other way completely. We may become overcome with survivor's guilt, and assign irrational blame to ourselves for being survivors.

"What could I have done to stop this from happening?"

"I should have been able to prevent this."

"Why didn't I stay with them?"

"It should have been me."

Many people encounter these types of thoughts daily when they think about their loved ones or coworkers who have been seriously injured or fatally wounded. Survivor's guilt can be a serious threat to mental health, and it is observed to be a frequent precursor to other mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, and addiction.

So, Who Is Affected by Survivor's Guilt

Short answer: Everyone.

The long answer, however, is more intricate and nuanced.

Military Personnel, Firefighters, Police Officers, and Other First Responders

In the United States, survivor's guilt is quite often linked to two subsets of individuals - military personnel and people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These statistics start to get even more complex when we realize that there is a large overlap between the two groups. This is understandable since the United States comes in third in the ranking of countries with the most active military personnel - behind only China and India, countries with significantly higher populations.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and The National Center for PTSD has stated that, on average, at least 20 percent of veterans were reported to have been diagnosed with PTSD. The specific statistics vary by service area:

  • An estimated 30 percent of Vietnam veterans have had PTSD in their lifetime;
  • Approximately 12 percent of Gulf War (Desert Storm) veterans have had PTSD in their lifetime; and
  • Somewhere in the region of 15 percent of Operations Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Enduring Freedom (OEF) veterans have had PTSD in their lifetime.

Keep in mind that these statistics apply only to those who have been officially diagnosed. It is estimated that at least an equal amount of veterans (and active service members) haven't been officially diagnosed with PTSD but experience the symptoms.

So, these statistics paint an unmistakable picture of what group of people would be most likely to live with PTSD and by extension survivor's guilt - persons that are faced with the persistent threats of violence, danger, injury, and death in their line of work. Other similar occupations share these threats with military personnel. First responders, like firefighters and police officers, are often faced with scenarios that can lead to the death or serious injury of their colleagues or the civilians that they are tasked to protect. These unfortunate scenarios can often lead to survivor's guilt and PTSD as well.

Parents, Employees, Siblings… Everyone

Now, the statistics above are not meant to be exclusionary in any way; the fact of the matter is that anyone, at any time, can experience the devastating thoughts and emotions that come with survivor's guilt. A parent who has lost a child could be overcome with grief, leading to thoughts like: "I should have been able to protect them. Why didn't I pick them up from school earlier? I should have died instead."

Suicide is also another issue that can directly lead to survivor's guilt. This is particularly seen among family members and loved ones who knew the individual who died. Loved ones who were a daily part of the individual’s life often find themselves wondering why they could never see the signs. Too often they can have thoughts like: "Why did I leave them alone that one night? Why didn't I pick up the phone when they were calling?" On the other hand, a person who hasn't been in contact with their sibling for a long time may blame themselves after their suicide: "I should have kept in contact. I could have stopped them. I could have saved them."

It is also worth noting that in some uncommon cases, survivor's guilt can manifest as a result of completely nonviolent and nonfatal situations. For example, two employees with equal qualifications and skill levels could be faced with corporate downsizing in their department. However, only one of them is laid off while the other is allowed to keep their job. The one that is laid off ends up losing their home and having their familial relationships upended due to their financial problems. The "survivor" of the corporate downsizing may look on and be consumed with thoughts like: "Why did I get to keep my job? Do I deserve to be happy while he and his family are miserable?

The Various Themes of Survivor's Guilt

The various themes of survivor's guilt were touched upon in the examples above. However, to help you recognize if you or a loved one are suffering from survivor's guilt, here is a simple outline of the common themes.

Guilt About Surviving

As the name suggests, this is what comes to mind when most people think about survivor's guilt. At this time, the individual has begun to question the fairness of the world around them. This is, at its core, based on the fact that you managed to remain safe while others in your life or a similar situation, suffered in some way. You may feel as if you don't deserve to be safe and that you should have suffered as well.

Guilt as A Result of What You Should Have Done

This is a bit more straightforward by comparison. The individual starts to feel remorseful because they think that they did not do enough to prevent the tragedy. This is like a firefighter who tried to save their comrade. "I should have tried harder. I should have seen the signs." The sense of responsibility and failure in these situations of survivor's guilt is overinflated.

Guilt Because of Something You Did

This is more often than not one of the hardest types of survivor's guilt to come to terms with and overcome. This is because these individuals often feel as if the evidence before them is irrefutable. "I pushed others out of the way to escape during a shooting" or "I left my family and a life of poverty behind to pursue better opportunities abroad" are just two examples of how individuals can punishingly blame themselves.

How Can I Start Coping with and Overcoming Survivor's Guilt?

If you (or a loved one) are being affected by survivor's guilt, then what can you do (or say to them) to help with overcoming this mental distress?

You Were Not Responsible

Most individuals who experience survivor's guilt see letting go of the feeling of responsibility as being dishonorable or lying to themselves. But this is not true. This is not a means of deflecting blame, but simply a means of coming to terms with the situation at hand and rationally assigning responsibility and blame.

A firefighter is not to be blamed for the out of control blaze that took his comrade's life; there was nothing more he could have done to save him. Just because the mother wasn't on time to pick up her son that one day, that doesn't mean that she is to blame for his death; the drunk driver who jumped the curb in front of the school is to blame.

And sometimes there isn't anyone responsible or to blame. Natural disasters occur, random misfortunes happen every day, hindsight is 20/20, but we cannot go back in time. The best thing we can do is move forward.

Do Not Bury Your Emotions

Guilt is a horrible feeling to have, there is no doubt about that. However, some studies have shown that individuals who experience survivor's guilt often use this guilt as a coping mechanism so that they don't have to face the true emotions that they have buried deep down in their minds.

These individuals often unintentionally find that dealing with the guilt is easier than accepting the loss that they have experienced and coming to terms with the sadness that comes with it.

Recognize That There Are People That Are Happy That You Survived

If we were to delve into the deeper psychology behind survivor's guilt (and guilt in general), then we would find substantial evidence that points toward one thing: it is selfish. This is not an attempt to make anyone feel bad about their guilt but instead an attempt to help them realize that their guilt is simply primarily about themselves. What about the people in your life?

There is at least one person that is happy that you survived. Your family is happy that you still have your job and you weren't laid off, and you put food on the table and a roof over their heads. Your friends are happy that you survived the war and your spouse is glad that you weren't hurt.

There are people in your life that depend on you and that love you. Live for them.

Getting Help Can Stop Survivor's Guilt From Consuming You

The negative repercussions of survivor's guilt, such as anxiety, depression, addiction, and other mental conditions, can negatively impact your life and also the lives of those around you. Seeking out professional help does not mean that you are trying to absolve yourself of your self-imposed burdens. First and foremost, it simply means that you are trying to regain control of your life for the sake of your mental health and the betterment of the lives of your friends, family, and loved ones. If you are a survivor, then let your life have enough meaning for yourself and for those who didn't make it.

Professional help can come in the form of therapy and counseling. If you are unsure about attending traditional therapy, or if such therapeutic options are not available in your area, you may consider looking into online therapy. For example, psychotherapy that uses compassion-focused techniques is linked to reduced symptoms of shame and self-criticism. Some studies have shown a direct correlation between reductions in feelings of guilt and shame, and therapy that focuses on managing emotional states. Additionally, an article featured by the American Psychological Association found that war veterans reported reduced symptoms of PTSD and depression after participating in online interventions. More than half of participants reported significant reductions in symptoms, while others noted alleviations in daily symptoms and better quality of daily life.

If you are uncertain about online counseling, know that platforms such as BetterHelp recruit licensed, trained, and highly qualified therapists who often specialize in different areas of mental concern. You can connect with a real and uniquely qualified professional who can help lay the groundwork for healing and self-understanding. Online therapy is also often much more accessible than in-person therapy, as online therapists can be contacted via phone calls, text messages, and video conferences.

Read below for a few testimonials who have used BetterHelp for similar issues and concerns:

“Roc has been a thoughtful and trustworthy guide for me through several major life transitions. Even when i struggle to follow through on actions we have discussed in a prior session Roc never makes me feel guilty or bad for struggling. Instead he engages in a mindful conversation helping both of us explore the inner workings of my mind and work through whatever personal history and context has taken me to the place i am at today. Don’t judge a book by its cover (or do if that suits you). Roc is a very accomplished professional that knows his craft well and will help and seek to better learn and understand anyone he works with.”

“I use humor as a means to deflect so when I started my therapy with Cyre, I was like--so how long will I be healed? Will it be 6-7 sessions? Cyre has been patient with me as I deflect, invaded and struggled and she focused on helping me deal with my trauma by letting conversations unfold for me. It's a lot and I'm grateful to have her support and guidance on my healing journey. I know now that it will take as long as I need it to be.”

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