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.
“Scott, I feel uncomfortable at parties sometimes when you tell a story real loud. I know you’re not doing it on purpose, but it embarrasses me. Can you try not to talk so loud?” Andrea said to her husband.
Immediately, Scott’s face turned red. He felt a combination of shock, rage and hurt. “I-I-I-,” he stuttered. Then he ran down the steps to the basement, slamming the door behind him. Downstairs, he turned his music up as loudly as he could and started lifting weights furiously.
“So now that I’ve explained all the great strengths you bring to the job, Rebecca, there is one thing I’d like you to try to improve over the next year,” her supervisor said as they discussed Rebecca’s 6-month job evaluation. “I want you to work on giving your direct reports more clear feedback about their performance.”
As her supervisor explained that she wasn’t challenging her employees enough, Rebecca’s field of vision literally went blank. Her thoughts were swirling so quickly in her head that she barely heard anything else her boss said. “How can she say that?! I just gave someone feedback yesterday. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. I’m going to start looking for a new job.”
Do you identify with Scott or Rebecca? Is it especially difficult for you to hear negative comments about yourself, your actions or your performance, even from people who you know deep down have your best interests in mind?
These four character traits are all hallmarks of one common childhood experience. In fact, they are essentially the footprint of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN.
Growing up in a family that does not address the feelings of its members (the definition of CEN) leaves the children to move into, and through, adulthood lacking some vital skills.
How can you learn who you are when the deepest expression of that, your feelings, are ignored by your parents as they raise you?
How can you have empathy for yourself when your parents were unable to show you compassion and empathy while they raised you?
How can you learn how to manage your emotions when your emotions were ignored in your childhood home?
How can you know how to speak your truth when, as a child, your truth was not accepted by your parents?
Before you start to think it is too late for you, I want to assure you that it is absolutely not.
You can begin to work on thinking of criticism in a new way: like someone’s opinion, which may or may not be true, and may or may not be useful to you. You can realize that criticism is often a useful and valuable way to become a stronger and better person.
You can start to pay more attention to the best source of strength, purpose, connection, validation and direction available to you, your feelings.
To learn much more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens, and the struggles it leaves you with throughout your adulthood, see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, available in bookstores and online everywhere.
Most people who grew up with CEN have no idea that it happened. To find out if you grew up with CEN, visit EmotionalNeglect.com and take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.