Survivor Guilt

On the evening of the 6th anniversary of 9/11 I watched the heart wrenching television images of children of those whose lives were tragically taken on that ill fated morning in 2001. These images stirred me to write about the topic of survivor guilt that is never too far from my heart as a psychotherapist and an American Jew.

One doesn’t have to lose a loved one to a tragic and unnecessary death to suffer survivor guilt. This symptom for lack of a better description is a recipe for chronic unhappiness. It is in simplest terms feeling guilty about being happy with one’s lot in life. It is not necessarily induced by the experience of a tragic loss of a parent or parental surrogate. It is nonetheless, the legacy of what I do consider to be tragedies if the victims do not get help in adulthood to treat their problems. They are tragedies because generations of family members may go through their lives with countless blessings from which to derive meaning, joy and happiness from and yet, not feel entitled to enjoy any of them. They do no better than survive.
Misery is as much who they are as their right arms and they feel that they have no choice but to suffer if they are to have even a temporary respite from feeling guilty and experience some happiness.

This article will explore the types of experiences that shape survivor guilt and what those of us who suffer from it must do to move toward overcoming it.

The formula I’m proposing for the transmission of survivor guilt from one generation to the next goes something as follows:

1) A parent or parental surrogate wears his unhappiness and stress on his sleeve as a direct consequence of feeling stuck in their miserable existences. They learn not to not trust themselves and to not take themselves seriously. Consequently, they do not stand up for their rights to peace, joy and happiness.

For example, a wife and mother might let her immature and passive aggressive husband and father of her son get away with murder by opting out on his responsibilities to her and her son while she runs herself ragged. She is so stressed out that the child’s normal needs are responded to as burdensome.

2) The child is victimized as a direct consequence of a parent victimizing himself or in the case above; herself.

An example of this is where a grandparent takes on the parenting responsibilities for a grandchild because his adult alcoholic child can no longer manage his parental duties and resents doing
so only to take it out on the grandchild.

3) The parent or parental surrogate expects the child to be happy and happy with them despite setting the child up to be unhappy. The parent typically cannot tolerate the child’s unhappiness anymore than his own.

A father says to his daughter: “Why are you so unhappy in college. You should be happy. You’d think you were drafted and sent over to Iraq. I’m the one who should be unhappy. I didn’t get to go to college. I wound up in Viet Nam.” The child is shamed into silence.

4) Meanwhile, paradoxically such a parent isn’t any happier with himself or his child when the child is happy. The parent envies everyone who is happier than himself including his child. He feels deprived, envious and sorry for himself as if he’s an undeserving “have not” and those who are happy and deserving of happiness are “haves.” So, even though, the parent is a victim of his own envy he feels attacked by those he envies and retaliates.

Below, we can have what on face value seems to be a fairly harmless situation but, in truth is a crazy making experience for the child as he is made to feel guilty about being contented in his own right and left without anyway to make amends to his parent.

A mother is not satisfied with the fact that her child did not eat everything on his plate even though he enjoyed the meal she prepared and stopped eating when he became full. She becomes irate when he doesn’t finish everything on his plate and while throwing what was left over in the garbage yells: “Do you know there are children starving in Africa?”

The children in these scenarios learn that when all is said and done they are to blame for their parents unhappiness and therefore, they are not entitled to any more happiness in their lives. This translates to short lived moments of happiness punctuated by longer periods of pain and suffering either self inflicted or inflicted by others. When they grow up they live at an impoverished level of happiness no matter whether or not they have 4 car garages or live in someone’s garage. The best they can do is to please their parents by becoming their parents. Again, misery loves company. They feel they owe this to them.

The way out of this emotional hell hole is for the children with survivor guilt to grow up and begin to observe, reflect on and challenge their irrational guilt feelings and the associated thoughts that pave the way for these adults to make their sense of badness a reality. Their guilt stems from the rage, hatred, anger, spitefulness, vindictiveness, that are overly stimulated by the parents and parental surrogates depicted above. These are normal aspects of all human experience that are not acknowledged, not normalized and regarded as characteristics of bad people. So, those who suffer with survivor guilt and grow up in crazy making environments where they feel as if they are killed off as special, valuable people learn that they are being punished for their badness and therefore do not feel entitled to complain. In fact, when retaliatory hostile feelings and thoughts try to break into consciousness the guilt triggered results in misery generating ways of relating to self and others.

Therapy provides a holding environment; an environment of acceptance, interest and concern for the client and his guilt provoking wishes, feelings, fantasies, etc. The therapist nurtures the client’s entitlement to enjoy his life and to stand up against his self defeating and misery generating patterns of being.

The therapist encourages the client to voice his hostilities, and accepts them without being killed off by them and/or taking measures of revenge. Within a framework of mutual respect and consideration the client gets what he can get in terms of re-parenting and learns tools to neutralize survivor guilt when it rears its ugly head before it has another opportunity to generate misery. Forgiveness of self and parents and evidence that one is not a life long victim of survivor guilt mutually reinforce each other. Thus, the survivors of survivor guilt learn to do better than just survive.

Author's Bio: 

Mitchell Milch, LCSW is a psychotherapist in private practice in Ridgewood, NJ and a writer. His treatment specialties include: Couples Counseling, Life Transitions; Divorce, Anger & Stress Management Counseling, Parent Education, Performance Anxieties, and Mood Disorders.
Many of his articles can be found on his website at: