What is survivor’s guilt? Google dictionary describes it this way:
A condition of persistent mental and emotional stress experienced by someone who has survived an incident in which others died. For example, “He escaped with his life but suffered from survivor’s guilt.”
This is the definition most people think of as “survivor’s guilt.” But mental health professionals and therapists know that this concept applies far more widely than this description would suggest. Because we see survivor’s guilt in our offices every single day, but it’s a slightly different type.
The guilt people often experience as they make healthy choices and take steps to heal themselves emotionally, as each step takes them farther away from the dysfunctional people in their lives.
For many hard-working, well-meaning folks, there is no way around it: in order to heal yourself, you must leave someone behind.
Healing from abuse, trauma, or childhood emotional neglect (CEN) is accomplished by taking a series of small steps. As you make healthy changes in yourself and your life, each of these small steps takes you somewhere. You are literally moving forward.
Subtle shifts in your perspective on what happened to you, the sharing of your experience with another person, or the validation of your feelings; as you take these steps, bit by bit, you change.
As you change yourself, you are, in an important way, saving yourself. You may be pulling yourself out of a deep hole that you have shared with some important family or long-time friends. You may be taking steps out of an addiction or a depression or a dysfunctional social system.
Whichever it is, you will probably not be able to save everyone (more on that later in this blog). At some point, you may face a fateful choice. Do I save myself? Is it wrong to do so? What about the people I have shared dysfunction with all these years?
This is the petri dish in which your survivor’s guilt is born.
There are no words for feelings in my family and I have always been astonished when I read what you say about the role of parents in educating children as to emotions–that they’re valid, they have names, they’re normal and they can be appropriately managed without making kids feel bad about themselves.
To this day, bringing up anything emotional–and after all the self-work I’ve done, I’ve gotten bolder and more forthcoming about my feelings–is like shouting at a wall. “There’s no there there.”
My parents have zero words for emotions. No response capability. This stuff does not exist. And at last, I am seeing how it has made me feel: nowadays, pretty darn frustrated! (In childhood, just plain awful.) Learning about CEN and working on it is like finally emerging from the edge of the dark woods and seeing the sun at last, and realizing my entire family is deep in the woods, still. Do I step out, without them? that’s the choice I feel, and it’s painful either way.”
This reader describes what many people feel. And it illustrates, in some very important ways, what an unfair situation survivor’s guilt is. When you have the courage to face your pain and the fortitude to take steps to save yourself, you truly have nothing to feel guilty about.
Is it hard to leave people suffering as you gain perspective, make better choices, and feel stronger? Yes. Should you try to pull your people forward with you? You can try. Will it work? In some cases, it may. But here’s the key question.
Is it your responsibility to pull your people forward with you? Unless they are your dependent children, the answer is NO. It is not.
This will be a very short section because the answer is very simple. It is a straightforward truth that can nevertheless take a lifetime to learn. It is this:
You cannot save another person. You can give them a boost, but ultimately, they must save themselves.
In reality, the best way to bring another person along is to give them the information they may need to have in order to take the steps themselves. Then, save yourself. In doing so, you provide them a role model, and an example of what courage, strength, and healing look like. You show them what they can do if they so choose. You make yourself available for support if they decide to follow.
There. Your job is done. Keep taking steps. Keep making yourself happier, healthier, and stronger. Fight back that survivor’s guilt.
I am having to (and had to) let several relationships go including family (not so easy) and friends (not so easy when you still have other friends (who are worth keeping) in common. Like Shakespeare said, “To thine own self be true.” I would rather not have family or friends if they are toxic and not good for me. What is wonderful is being able to tell the difference and developing the feeling of indifference over past relationships (or even ongoing) that are not worthy of me. At any rate, all worth it.
As I became more determined to heal from childhood emotional neglect, I learned that telling the truth was essential. To my surprise and grief, telling the truth has cost me virtually all my friendships. It finally struck me that all of my friendships had grown out of my dysfunction. As I gained a clearer picture of myself, CEN, and dysfunctional coping strategies, I realized all of my “friends” were severely disturbed individuals (“misery loves company”). I was the only one facing the challenge of finding healthy ways of relating. Sick people run from healthy behaviors. When we turn and face the truth, and begin to choose different behaviors, our relationships begin to look very different too. I see this as evolution but it’s hard to let go of old ways and old relationships that keep you from functioning. I now have several solid friendships that feel very, very different from the old ones. I’m trying to get used to it!
To find many more resources about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see the author’s Bio below this article.
This article was originally published in psychcentral.com. It has been updated and republished here with the
permission of the author and psychcentral.
All therapists know that people can change. We know this because we have been party to so many remarkable transformations made by so many people.
We see people change their habits, their ways of thinking, work through feelings, and make durable adjustments in themselves and their relationships.
I have seen countless people alter their lives from the inside by overcoming the effects of their Childhood Emotional Neglect. I have seen people heal their depression, learn to manage and defeat their anxiety, and improve their marriages and parenting skills.
But let’s face it, change is not usually easy. It takes courage, motivation, and perseverance. But so do most things of value in this life.
Watch for a future article about the specific challenges that are built into the process of healing Childhood Emotional Neglect. But there are certain challenges that derail many people as they try to change many different parts of their lives. I have seen countless good people derailed from their heartfelt efforts to grow and change by three very predictable experiences that they encounter along the way.
1. False Beliefs Set You Up For Disappointment
2. Avoidance Beckons
Change is difficult in four specific ways.
A natural reaction to all four of these challenges is avoidance. Isn’t it pretty tough to take on all of those? Wouldn’t it be more comfortable to simply put it out of your mind and not worry about taking on those battles? Of course, it would! But avoidance is the enemy of progress. Avoidance may beckon like an oasis in the desert, but it will leave you parched.
The only way to deal with a natural pull toward avoidance is to face it head-on. Take notice of those moments when your avoidance kicks in, then turn around and challenge it.
Remind yourself that avoidance will take you down a one-way street to nowhere. Remind yourself that all things worth having require effort. Then pull yourself back on track.
3. Discomfort Takes You Down
Change can be a very frightening thing. When you start to feel different from your old self, or when people start to react to you differently because of the changes you’ve made, it can feel like you’re living in an alien world.
It can become hard to know how to behave and how you should react. Suddenly, things don’t feel as safe as they once did.
In my experience, most people are unaware of their discomfort. But they feel it. And then they naturally want to retreat from their new selves and go back to where they were before.
This desire to retreat is a completely natural feeling and a very normal response. But it’s just as dangerous as any of the factors above. It definitely has the power to send you right back toward square one.
For example, many dieters, after they’ve lost their first few pounds, suddenly feel different. Even if it feels better, it also feels strange, and that’s uncomfortable. So they lose momentum and their efforts fade. Be aware of the strong possibility that this will happen to you. Watch for it. Recognize that the feelings of discomfort are normal but destructive. Don’t let them take you down. Just keep going, and eventually what feels so uncomfortable at first will become your new normal.
If you are in the process of growth, I hope you will pause for a moment and give yourself credit. Many, many, if not most, people give in to the avoidance that feels so much easier than fighting for improvement.
Giving yourself credit for your efforts will keep you energized and motivated to keep advancing. Watching for small changes instead of demanding dramatic steps from yourself will prevent you from being disappointed. Be prepared for the uncomfortable aspects of change.
Whether you are recovering from Childhood Emotional Neglect or changing some other aspect of yourself and your life, be ready. Keep at it. Don’t give up.
That is the way to make sure you won’t get stuck.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible and unmemorable so it can be hard to know if you grew up with it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty.
The better we grieve, the better we live.
I do believe that the quote above is absolutely true. It’s almost impossible to make it through your adulthood without experiencing a loss of some kind.
Being able to grieve in a healthy way requires a series of personality traits and skills that not everyone possesses. I have seen many people go to great lengths to avoid feeling their grief or get stuck in it, unable to look forward from it.
Many of these folks grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect.
Joanne, who lost her husband four years ago is so bogged down in sadness that she enjoys very little in her life, and has problems getting out of bed every day.
Alex, whose sister died of breast cancer two years ago, lives a full and busy life, but feels dull and sad inside every time he stops running around and tries to relax.
In 1969, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote her now-famous book called On Death and Dying. In it she described the 5 stages that she frequently saw people going through after receiving a dire medical diagnosis. Since that day the 5 Stages of Grief have been applied more broadly to all kinds of losses, like break-ups or accepting the loss of a loved one. It’s also important to note that these stages are not set in stone; everyone grieves differently, and may experience different feelings in different order at different times.
The Five Stages of Grief
In my experience, having helped many clients through many losses, one of the greatest prolongers of each of the 5 Stages is having grown up without enough emotional attention, validation and response from one’s parents: Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN.
When your parents do not respond enough to your emotions as a child, you learn very early and well that your emotions and emotional needs are irrelevant (or even bad) and should be avoided. To adapt, you wall off your feelings and needs so that they will not burden your parents. Not surprisingly, when you are living with your feelings blocked off, it throws major obstacles into your path through the 5 Stages.
How Childhood Emotional Neglect Blocks the 5 Stages of Grief
The whole point of the 5 Stages is to move through them. Experiencing one phase, allowing yourself to be in it and face it prepares you to move to the next phase. Moving through the phases allows your brain to process the reality, preparing you for acceptance. Acceptance must happen before you can turn your attention forward to rebuilding yourself and your life.
If this is you, it’s important to re-direct and focus yourself.
4 Ways to Manage Your CEN Through Grief
When you are grieving something, it’s crucial to acknowledge that you only feel grief when you had something great to begin with. So a part of your grief must be appreciation and gratefulness for what you had.
And remember the words of one of the greatest authors of all time:
Only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them.
― Leo Tolstoy
It was a scorching day in Costa Rica. My husband and I decided to take our 8-year-old son for a hike to get as close as possible to the Arenal Volcano. We walked several hours through beautiful, lush forest.
As the sun got higher and the day got hotter, we reached an endpoint marked by signs reading, DANGER, KEEP OUT. We walked around the safe side of the area for a while enjoying the beautiful birds and monkeys in the trees, and then decided to head back.
As I turned to go back in the direction we had come from, my husband said, “No, let’s not go that way. We can get there by going this way.” Puzzled, I slowly turned around and followed. As we traipsed back through the forest, I had a trembly feeling in my belly that, in hindsight I realized was fear. This did not feel right.
It had taken several hours to reach the volcano, and I knew that if we went the wrong way it could be dangerous. We had consumed all of the water we had carried, and it was getting hotter by the minute.
My gut was telling me to speak up, but my brain said, “You know you’re terrible with directions. You’re almost never right about these things. Just keep quiet and follow.”
Perhaps you’ve seen the many amazing studies over the past few years that have proven that there is a direct connection between your brain and your gut.
These new studies explain many things that used to baffle us: why we get butterflies in our stomachs when we’re nervous, and why Irritable Bowel Syndrome and ulcers are both so closely connected to and influenced by the amount of stress we are under.
Here’s the most amazing thing about the new research. We now know that the brain-gut connection travels in both directions. Not only does your emotional state (and emotional health) affect your stomach; the reverse is also true. Believe it or not, recent studies have shown that the health of your gut can also affect your psychological health and your emotions.
Clearly our human brains are wired to our guts for a reason: to connect our brain with our body in a useful way.
So choosing to ignore this vital source of information is choosing to ignore a remarkable feedback system that we are meant to have, and meant to use to our benefit.
4 Ways Your Gut Can Help You
Did some of the “gut feelings” described above seem hard for you to grasp? That is a sign that you are not closely enough connected to your gut. Which means you’re missing out an incredibly useful tool in your life.
It is certainly true that some folks are not as good at tuning in to their gut. If you’re out of touch with yours, there is probably an explanation for it. Your brain / gut pathway became disconnected for a reason. There are many possible ways for this to happen.
Potential Reasons You’re Missing Signals From Your Gut
Hopefully as you’ve been reading this you’ve been tuning in to your gut. Perhaps you’ve attempted to feel some of the gut feelings I described. Perhaps you’ve imagined the connection between your brain and gut, or even tried to visualize it.
If you have, congratulations! You have begun the process of joining your brain with your gut.
How to Start Taking Advantage of Your Brain/Gut Feedback System
And now to finish the Costa Rica story. As you may have guessed, we were indeed headed the wrong way. We were moving further from our destination, not closer. Eventually, thirsty, sweaty and covered with dust from walking down a dirt road for several hours, a kind local picked us up, gave us water, and drove us back to our hotel.
For me, this was an important lesson in trusting my gut.
And I have never forgotten it.
To learn more about the newest research findings on the gut/brain connection, see:
That Gut Feeling on The American Psychological Association website.
The Gut-Brain Connection on the Harvard Health Publications Website.
“After reading Running on Empty I told my therapist that I’m pretty sure I was emotionally neglected as a child. He understood what I meant but he never mentioned it again”.
“I’ve been seeing my therapist for a year and she has never mentioned Emotional Neglect to me.”
“I live in San Francisco. I can’t find a therapist who is an expert in Childhood Emotional Neglect!”
Since I first started speaking and writing about Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) in 2012 I’ve heard the above comments many times, from people all over the world.
Yes. In a way, it is puzzling. CEN is so widespread and causes so much pain. Why don’t therapists talk about it more directly and more often? Why aren’t there Emotional Neglect specialists? Emotional Neglect articles and workshops?Continue reading