Feeling like a Cheater? Survivor Guilt & the Down-Side to Winning in Social Comparison
This seems to be the year of survivor guilt. It might be thanks to the pandemic.
If you stay healthy, you feel survivor guilt towards everyone who’s sick with Covid-19. If no one in your circle of family and friends died in the past 18 months, you feel survivor guilt towards everyone who lost a loved one.
If you’re healthy you feel survivor guilt. If you’re in a happy marriage, or working in a pro-worker office, or successfully building a practice or business, if you’re the first in your family to go to college or become a doctor or attorney — survivor guilt is the downside to winning at social comparison.
It wasn’t long ago — when I’d start talking about survivor guilt, eyes would glaze over. I was boring my listener.
Things have changed. Explaining survivor guilt — feeling guilty for being happy, or successful — even feeling guilty for being able to get up in the morning and go to a job you really like — suddenly everyone seems to understand. We might be afraid of failure, but often we’re even more afraid of success.
The big picture
There has to be a reason survivor guilt has emerged in our collective awareness. Perhaps difficulties spawn wisdom. Large economic discrepancies between the haves and have-nots end with discomfort in the general population. Getting used to lives defined by uncertainty, the fear of an epidemic in our neighborhood, and uneasiness about climate change — it’s happening now, not in some distant future — it’s all changing us. Pending danger has a way of shaking people up. When we face our vulnerability straight on, we get smarter, more analytical, we try to understand our experience. Living in the midst of uncertainty and chaos may force us to pay closer attention to our feelings.
But this feeling, the thing we call survivor guilt, seems to mainly live undercover. It may be so familiar like the air we breathe, and yet we don’t see it in ourselves.
Even though I’d spent years conducting research, talking and writing about survivor guilt, when it comes to my own life, it escapes me. In the life of a client? Easy, I rarely miss it.
Survivor guilt stays in hiding until I do something self-sacrificial and stupid. Then I know enough to start looking — and I find it.
We may spend years believing we’re paralyzed by fear of failure, or laziness, or anxiety. We may be absolutely sure we’re just not good enough.
When my psychoanalyst and mentor told me I had a problem with survivor guilt — being more successful than my older sister as well as my mother — I didn’t believe him. But now it’s so in my face, I can’t miss it.
My closest friends are facing chronic illnesses and escalating disabilities, and I hate telling them I’m excited about a newsletter we’re starting. Everyone’s retiring and I’m just getting started. Life begins at 80. Each day someone — a client, a student, a friend or an acquaintance tells me how badly they feel for the suffering of someone they dearly love.
Smart people seem to have known about the anxious, depressive sense of dread we feel when we’re literally surviving someone’s death. Sigmund Freud, writing letters to his friend, colleague, and drug-buddy Fleiss, discussed it when describing his reaction to his father’s death. Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary theory, wrote about it vividly in the Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals. Neither of them gave it a name, it was just something that happens.
Less dramatic, ordinary, daily life survivor guilt — the guilt we feel when we’re being happier or more successful than others, didn’t have formal a name until a psychoanalyst, Neiderland, started treating Holocaust survivors who’d come to the US in the wake of Nazi Germany’s annihilation of European Jews.
Noting survivors walking around “as if they were dead,” unable to stop identifying with the family members who’d been murdered, Neiderland gave it a name; identifying the problem, he coined the term “survivor guilt”. Ernst Modell and Joseph Weiss continued writing about it in psychoanalytic journals, extending the concept to include the unhappiness that accompanies surpassing loved ones.
Then in the mid-1990s, after I’d started working as a clinician — and seeing how much my clients were held back by fears of surpassing others — my closest colleague statistician and psychologist, Jack Berry and I developed a reliable pen and paper measure, the Interpersonal Guilt Questionnaire-67, assessing how much people were suffering from survivor and other types of closely related guilt.
We began a years-long program of research, confirming that survivor guilt is often a component of numerous psychological problems. When the Internet made it possible to easily gather data from ordinary people all around the world, international researchers began to use our measure and we extended our own studies on the role of guilt in anxiety, depression, along with numerous other mental disorders and ordinary problem in living.
Cheater-detection turned inward
Evolutionary Psychologist Lida Cosmides and her husband John Tooby at the University of California, Santa Barbara, conducted studies on what they described as “cheater-detection.” It turns out we all have a remarkable ability to detect cheaters when presented with almost any problem in which it’s a factor. They wrote about cheater detection as a neurological model, evolved in our highly social species. While we tend to be prosocial in our unconscious intensions, through cultural evolution we developed this remarkable capacity that seems to be present by the age of four or five.
That’s right, even small children can smell a rat, having learned early to detect cheaters.
In survivor guilt, we turn that ability to detect a cheater onto ourselves. We’re accusing ourselves of being the cheater who is “getting more of the goods than they deserve.” The capacity to detect cheaters is at play when we feel guilty about being luckier, healthier, richer, or more successful than others. Survivor guilt is that awful feeling we are enduring when the cheater detection module is turned inward, when it’s turned upon ourselves.
Why do those with less feel more guilt about surviving or succeeding?
From anecdotal and our quantitative data, we know that women are inclined to suffer more intensely from survivor guilt than men. Likewise, members of lower socioeconomic status and minority communities tend to feel greater survivor guilt in general. But why would politically oppressed people suffer more from the guilt that comes with success and achievement?
Women, minorities, and people living with financial hardship are routinely victims of daily micro-aggressions and made to feel as if they don’t deserve to surpass others. When the disadvantaged or stereotyped do well, when they somehow find good fortune, they may quickly feel they’ve got something they’re not supposed to have. Under the surface of conscious awareness, they believe — because they’re insidiously told day after day that they’re not supposed to win anything — they only succeeded by cheating. Feeling like a cheater goes hand in hand with survivor guilt and together they make it hard to relish any victories. This particular form of suffering endured by marginalized or stereotyped people is a psychological ramification of the inequality of contemporary society.
Under the surface of conscious awareness, we’re wired for prosocial and adaptive intentions and motivation. When we see someone suffering, our brains fire much as they fire in the neural structure of the suffering victim. This is how we’re made, and this is how we manage to live and thrive as such a complex and highly social species.
Some dark political ramifications of survivor guilt
In extreme cases, high survivor guilt-proneness may be a subtle psychological factor in dangerous, even murderous political behavior. The terrorist attack of 9/11 was perpetrated by men who grew up in wealthy families in Saudi Arabia, where most people are living at or close to the poverty level.
In April 2013, a bombing carried out by two brothers, Tamerian and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, shattered the Boston Marathon. The brothers were doing relatively well as immigrants in the United States, their adopted country. When Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older brother, paid a visit to Kyrgyzstan, where he and his brother had lived as children, he witnessed the dire poverty and desperation of the people with whom he shared a childhood. Upon his return to the US, the brothers planned and carried out the attack, killing 3 and injuring 280 others attending the Boston Marathon.
Survivor guilt, unrecognized, can be a grim partner leading to self and other destruction.
In the 1970s, veterans of the civil rights movement, white students who’d put their lives on the line registering Black Americans for elections, and fighting for integration in the still remaining segregated institutions, became the “weathermen,” ending up committing acts of violence and spending years in prison. When heroes of the Black movement in the 1960s — Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver for example — were becoming cultural stars, with opportunities to speak for high stipends, appearing in highly rated documentaries and making large sums for publishing their stories — instead of thriving, they fell apart in the wake of uncontrolled illegal drug addiction.
Whenever you run into massive self-sabotage there’s a good chance survivor guilt is lurking in the picture.
An African American writer, Dayon Cotton, has been addressing the survivor guilt Black Americans suffer as they become successful sports and media stars. Describing the pain of “leaving their families and friends” behind as they're growing more and more successful in terms of fame and financial advantage, they’re telling us how survivor guilt mars their happiness, in the midst of being rewarded for years of struggles and extended effort.
And finally: Depression and immigration
Depression is common in people who have recently immigrated from their homeland to a new nation. According to psychologists and counselors treating immigrant populations — new arrivals or even those who have been in the US for a long time, suffer from depression because of the enormity of their loss. They’ve lost their language, their customs, they’ve lost their whole culture.
Our research team thought this might be an erroneous perspective, one influenced by the fact that so many psychologists are of European descent. White in other words.
Some of our students whose families had immigrated to the U.S. suggested that depression — as they were seeing it in their own families — was more about feeling survivor guilt towards the family members and friends they left behind, in their countries of origin. They’d immigrated because they wanted more successful lives, they’d expected that — but when success arrives they find themselves ruminating about the misery of those they left behind.
One Iranian American student described her mother on daily phone calls to Iran, talking to her sister, our student’s maternal aunt, still living in Iran. She described hearing her mother, carefully omitting discussion of anything that would indicate how well the family was doing. She never mentioned their large and beautiful home, her husband’s business success, her younger children enjoying a great education in a private school. Her mother worried about her sister and the parents she left behind and indeed experienced intermittent depression, relieved only by these phone calls when she could reassure herself that while conditions might be far better for the family in the US, the family she’d left behind were surviving.
All emotions serve a function — and may have a positive or a negative impact, depending upon the context and specific situation. As a highly complex and cooperative species, we have wired-in, evolved mechanisms that support us as cooperators. Our emotions serve to hold us together and when needed, to help us separate. Survivor guilt is one of the more subtle prosocial emotions — subtle in that it is most often under the surface of conscious awareness and prosocial in that it motivates us to help others. In essence, although this is not always conscious, we want others to achieve the same happiness and success we want for ourselves. Survivor guilt becomes a problem when our prosocial intentions become over-run by self-sacrificial behavior.
Survivor guilt has run amuck when it is associated with an unconscious belief that our successes will make others feel inadequate by comparison — and we then engage in self-sacrificial actions. In our effort to level the playing field, we may interrupt our own success and happiness. This is when survivor guilt becomes a problem and blends into pathological altruism. In fact, our successes rarely make others feel inadequate — more often they serve as an inspiration to others.
People often tell me things like this: “OK, so I get it, so I know I feel terrible about my sister’s problems” followed by: “So what can I do about it?”
“Sit with it” is my response, and: “Just don’t act on it.”
If survivor guilt is one of your problems, please write to me and tell me your story. And if you want to read more about related topics, please join my email list.
O’Connor L.E, Berry J.W., Weiss J. Interpersonal guilt, shame, and psychological problems. J Soc Clin Psychol 1999; 18(2):181–203.
Weiss J. Unconscious guilt. In: The Psychoanalytic Process: Theory, Clinical Observation and Empirical Research. Weiss J, Sampson H, eds. New York, NY: Guilford, 1986; 43–67.