Healing and Growing Beyond Survivor’s Guilt

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.

How Therapists Define Survivor’s Guilt

 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.

A Comment Shared By a Reader of My Blog, Unedited 

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.

Why It’s Not Your Responsibility to Save Your Friends or Family

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.

And thrive.

Comments From Brave People Who Saved Themselves, Unedited

Both From: 3 Different Things That Cause Anxiety and Their 3 Different Solutions

Comment #1

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.

Comment #2

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.

Learn about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens in the life of a child, and how to heal it in the books Running On Empty and Running On Empty No More.

This article was originally published in psychcentral.com. It has been updated and republished here with the
permission of the author and psychcentral.

Jonice

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
Felice - October 2, 2021 Reply

Dear dr Webb, I came across your website almost 2 years ago and I had never felt so validated in my life.

For years I had been struggling with a self-esteem that couldn’t get any lower, depression and anxiety but I couldn’t bring myself to honestly see how it was related to my childhood. Several of my family members have autism and my mother had a victim mentality and clung on to me because I was so empathic. The concept of personal boundaries didn’t exist in our home and as the confidant in the family I felt like I was carrying everyone emotionally. In my early twenties, everytime I tried to be honest with myself I got so overwhelmed by guilt that I forced myself back in my altered version of the truth (You have too much to be grateful for, your parents gave what they could and that should be enough, etc.).

When I was 22 my mother had a serious accident and landed in a coma in IC. I felt my father and brothers as a burden. They couldn’t carry me in this extremely stressful time (couldn’t make me feel safe, supported or comforted) but they (especially my father) were still counting on me to carry them. I just wanted them to go away. The waves of guilt that followed were horrible and I ofcourse went out of my way to support everyone, regardless of my own emotional state.

5 years later (after 2 burn-outs and a relationship with a narcissist) I came across your website and I started seeing a therapist. It’s been 1,5 year and I have made enormous leaps forward. I can finally embrace the truth, take myself seriously and let go of the conviction that I am responsible for my family’s well-being (the hardest thing I have ever done). Keeping a healthy emotional distance from my parents is still a challenge and sometimes very painful with my mom. But I will keep doing it because I know that even though I feel responsible for them I AM NOT. Thank you thank you for showing me the truth in the way you did, it convinced me in a way that I could never have convinced myself <3

    Jonice - October 7, 2021 Reply

    Dear Felice, thank you for sharing your story. It warms my heart to know that I have been helpful to you in your healing. Take care!

Cindy - September 27, 2021 Reply

Many truths about my relationships, friends and family, have come to light in the wake of COVID. Very enlightening yet uncomfortable, painful, sad, and scary. I have realized that love need not be conditional – “Do what I want you to do and I will love you, otherwise, not………..” People who truly love you need to accept you as you are even if they disagree w/ you, respectfully and non judgementally. I am working on doing this but others who I am in relationship w/ are not, so I forsee these relationships may need to be changed or ended. Very sad and difficult to accept, but self preservation is the priority. I am tired of not getting what I need from relationships – they are just not worth having any more. So, I will sit in the discomfort and move forward slowly. Thanks to everyone who shared their stories – I don’t feel so alone w/ these dilemmas!!

Kayla - September 27, 2021 Reply

Thanks for this article. I have had trauma after trauma after trauma since I was born. Mom was on birth control when she conceived me, so I received the messaged of “happy accident” and all I heard was I wasn’t supposed to be here.

I wasn’t physically growing from about 0-4 years and was in and out of the hospital and doctor’s offices being poked and prodded repeatedly without it really being explained to me. My emotional needs were never met.

I didn’t know how to name was I was feeling until a year and a half in trauma therapy.

Had a major fall from a tree when I was 8 that erased most of my memories from there and back. I don’t know which memories are real or reconstructed ones.

Was sexually abused by my older brother who repeatedly broke into my room at night, and I knew my parents wouldn’t meet my needs, so I never fully told them.

Still struggling with whether or not to tell them.

Watched my older brothers fight violently and them and my parents screaming at each other most of my life.

Got married young, was infertile for 5 years. Had a tough physical time with my first pregnancy (blackouts, nauseated all the time, and just extremely hormonal and exhausted). Threw up a ton in labor and had birth trauma because I tore and felt all of it.

Unexpectedly miscarried when my daughter was 10 months old. Didn’t know I was pregnant again…

Had past sexual traumas triggered at the hospital while being in complete shock over the miscarriage. Never felt my emotions after the initial shock. I was numb.

7 months later, I conceived again and thought my son would die, too. Just super anxious, but I couldn’t name what I was feeling at the time, so kept trudging through life trying to raise my kids.

Birthed my son and sexual abuse and miscarriage traumas were all triggered. Labor stalled off and on for three days because I was scared to birth my son and didn’t realize it at the time. (Didn’t want him to die, didn’t want to be violated by a boy down there, miscarried through the birth canal, too). So I had an overload of emotions and now way to unravel them all.

Went about life because I was used to internal chaos. Tried to raise my kids, but I began snapping at them and becoming distant and disconnected from them and my husband.

My relationship with my daughter had changed after the miscarriage… And I was struggling to connect with my son, too.

I began having more and more emotional flashbacks (I discovered I have CPTSD) to the point that I was a danger to myself and others, and I could feel it coming, but couldn’t express the gravity to my family.

After an internal implosion and then external explosion with my husband and his family, I was removed from the house and later discovered I not only have CPTSD, but also CEN.

I had dissociated so much of my childhood that I only realized my sexual abuse traumas were the issue and they were the only issues that had been affecting me… but it ran so much deeper than I could ever see or know until I married into a family the polar opposite of mine (which was scary, btw, when I started to see and recognize the differences).

So, from someone learning to heal from many deep trauma wounds, thank you. Because despite all I went through as a child, the guilt I feel for my siblings and I having gone through what we did, and the guilt I feel for now setting boundaries with them and coming across as cold and heartless (to them) is weighty.

Self love and self care has slowly helped me to heal and start standing up for myself and what I need/want.

Jacqueline - September 27, 2021 Reply

I have just purchased the book running on empty and at the age of 71 (hope it’s not too late!) I’m trying to find peace in the last years of my life . Having lost a mother when 13 unexpectedly and in late life married to a highly complex man narcissistic who I divorced and was a set I g police officer front line bullied frequently in the job which was more stressful than dealing with the Crime To then deal with child abuse investigations and become a whistleblower only added to my guilt as not right g a good enough mother etc etc I have been diagnosed with PTSD but I have never dealt with root causes within my childhood which also has no doubt had an effect with my children who I feel no doubt have had to deal we it’s my issues unwittingly on my side but it’s has had it consequences on them too.I am hoping to gain the knowledge to change important aspects of my life I hope to be in touch again. Jackie

    Jonice - September 28, 2021 Reply

    Dear Jacqueline, thank you for sharing your story. Now is your time to treat yourself as you’ve always deserved.

Richard - September 26, 2021 Reply

I had someone who I thought of as a friend who bossed me around (even telling me where to put pictures of people in my own house) jeered at me when I said I wanted to meet women who were younger than me (as well as older than me) and told me later I was behaving like a ten year old because I confided I was upset because I had met someone I was deeply in love with waiting for her long term partner to come and pick her up (though I knew about the relationship at that time) I told my friend that I was planning to stay very busy to keep my mind off this woman and I knew the feelings were not forever but none the less I could not flick off my feelings like a light switch. At that point she ordered me out of her house. Later the person I was in love with got engaged with her long term partner and the tone of my friend was still harsh and judgemental and sarcastic – she even said “what we want for you is a female nerd – not some glamour puss” – calling the person I was in love with a glamour puss was deeply insulting to her as, although she is good looking, she also has a fantastic and sharply intelligent personality. At this point I knew I had to make a decision. Play the victim and keep the relationship going and experience the shame and guilt that in various ways had been going on since childhood – long before I met this “friend” – or in a non abusive but assertive way terminate the relationship. Fortunately I did the latter. The woman I was in love with I don’t see socially any more which was my decision – a painful but necessary one. What I would say to people is that people often see me as a good and nice person. But sometimes it is not enough or indeed appropriate to be nice. You need to love yourself and say enough is enough and when guilt and embarassment come after you stop seeing certain people just ignore that feeling as an unwelcome guest in your house. Eventually it will fade. Any mission to please all the people all the time is not appropriate to loving oneself and is anyway doomed to failure. I feel much better this “friend” is no longer in my life. Everyone else says I handled the feelings of being in love extremely well and I feel no hostility towards the woman or her husband – just a calm respect as they get on with their lives and me with mine. CEN will make you feel guilty and suck you into relationships with shamers and guiltmongers. You do not have to stay with these people and just because you feel an emotion does not mean it is the truth. Thank you so so much Dr Jonice for all your hard work helping me and others. You should feel the very opposite of guilt all the time. Richard.

    Jonice - September 27, 2021 Reply

    Thank you for sharing that, Richard. Lots of helpful advice in there for others.

Chana - September 26, 2021 Reply

presently living with covert narcissist, (its not a marriage), before learning about covert narcissist did everything them for, did so much work here free, when learned what was going on , stopped giving them energy,
have been praying Great Spirit show high vibration place where can go and high vibration out of matrix friends,
have followed every idea have had, non verbal, and this person is also payee, since learned about covert narcissism and self love deficit, have been working on loving self, and have kept shielded and not participating or reacting narcissists negative and not allowing her suck energy . she has now taken all money out of account that use and so have no money for food or wants or needs, no way to order anything. being with someone who intends hurting and also who to others who dont know about covert narcissim, they believe their fake nice and caring pretending and their smear lies also. so its makes it more scary and not knowing where really safe for even asking help. Not want any connection with government organizations or groups that refer or work with government agencies. non verbal, dont drive and need to live out of city in nature area. have much giving for, need find high vibration out of matrix friends, One other thing, theres a belief that people say that whatever happens in a persons life they caused it, by their thinking or something, and that they have created every negative situation etc.. this doesnt seem correct. what think this about?

Belinda - September 26, 2021 Reply

Even though I did not speak to my mother for the last 30 years before she died, I have absolutely no survivors guilt. I did a lot of family of origin work. I reached out to her multiple times to create a breakthrough in our relationship. It never worked. I had to terminate our relationship to protect my own mental health. I told myself that when my mother eventually died, I knew that I had done everything in my power to change things between us. Fast forward 30 years. The week before she died, I did some difficult chair work with my therapist at the time. In that session, I gave my mother’s shame back to her. I felt that I had done all the work I could and that was to be our last therapy session. I had always worried that when my mother died I would be consumed by guilt and shame. Amazingly, few days later my mother actually died unexpectedly from a stroke. I saw my therapist one more time just to check in. I shed no tears. I didn’t feel the dreaded guilt and shame There was nothing there anymore. I had taken care of myself as best I could and had tried to bring her along but it was not possible. She left some of her ashes to me, I guess as a sign that she forgave me for my 30 year silence. I told my sister she could have them. In the 10 years since she passed, the only emotion I have experienced towards her is regret for what could have been. When I see mothers and daughters who are close, it still causes a twinge. But I know that I worked really hard to recover and reparent myself. Learning about CEN was the final missing piece of the puzzle. It was not my fault I could not bring her along with me. I put forth my best efforts and she was not willing. The Serenity prayer hung in our kitchen while I was growing up. I came to understand the wisdom part.

    Jonice - September 27, 2021 Reply

    Dear Belinda, what a lot of strength you have shown. Thank you for sharing your story, it will undoubtedly help others who read it.

Dave - September 26, 2021 Reply

The discovery of your work has been very meaningful and helpful to me in my journey for self. That being said, this article really hit home for me.

Approximately 30 years ago it was suggested to me that I needed to let go of the toxic people in my life. This unfortunately included my family who most of the people I’ve known for lifetime viewed as saints. In recent years, this advice finally made sense to me. Letting go has brought much needed peace and contentment to my life. The most difficult thing that I encounter is when the worshippers of my family throw them in my face. I’ve realized that those people must go. It has been easier than I thought.

    Jonice - September 27, 2021 Reply

    Dear Dave, when letting go brings you peace and contentment, it’s certainly a message that you did the right thing for yourself.

Susan - September 26, 2021 Reply

I too have no close friends left. Never had any close family, and have stopped wanting any. I hear others say this, but they always seem to end with “I now have several true friends I can count on…..” . I do not. And, after 6 decades of dysfunctional everything, am aware that I just don’t know how to relate to others. I’ll be going it alone. No one talks about how to do this, yet many of us have to.

    Petra - September 27, 2021 Reply

    Dear Susan, your post resonated with me. It took me thirty years to say enough, and I lost everyone in my birth family. I also had to lose many friends because my friendships were rooted in my dysfunctional coping mechanisms. Although I have a few friends and lovely newfound relatives, I still feel totally isolated and alone because it’s difficult to explain to most people how the emotional neglect and dysfunction has caused me so much heartache, and I don’t think it will ever quite go away. Unless people have walked in our shoes, it is very hard for them to comprehend, adding further to the feelings of isolation. I found group therapy very helpful, not to make friends, but to hear other’s stories and to learn there are others like me and that I am not alone. I have had to learn not to confide in those who simply cannot understand for the sake of my own emotional safety. Not because they are nasty, but because they haven’t had my experience and therefore cannot give me the empathy I need. My first great therapist always reminded me “not to go to the hardware store for milk”. I wish you all the good things you hold dear.

Paula - September 26, 2021 Reply

As a result of my CEN discovery and time during the pandemic, I’ve learned a lot about myself and I’m definitely more at peace. I just returned after a seven day visit with my brother and sister-in-law. He is no different, unsure why I thought he might be, almost an emotional bully. I am needing to leave him behind. Sad but so key for me to continue to heal and grow.

    Jonice - September 27, 2021 Reply

    That is difficult for sure, Paula. It’s important to do what you need to do to protect yourself and keep moving forward in your life.

Jane W - July 16, 2020 Reply

It is only now in my forties that I am starting to understand the links between my bad mental health, failures in life, and being raised by extremely selfish and dysfunctional parents. Childhood was very short, life felt like one trauma after another because my mother was willing to be a battered wife for 25 years, by my drunken father. A few times a week, and he would smash the house to smithereens, wake us children up and shake us in our beds saying I love you you little bast*** you little c***. He would even beat our beloved pets, twice the family dog lost its life. I was always the sensitive sibling the most empathetic too, by a mile, I can see why I was my mother’s confidant growing up. I was 10 years old she was telling me she would set fire to my dad or stab him in his sleep. She really played me off against him, but when he was violent and smashed everything she would clean up after him and make a big fuss over him he was on a pedestal. Don’t remember owning a toothbrush, bath time, no one teaching self-care or nurturing us 5 children in any way, shape or form. Never took us anywhere or showed that life can be beautiful. Very punitive, authoritarian attitude towards us, exploding if you dare express yourself. I realise now they never bonded with me was all about them, very much conditional love (my mum threw me away like garbage 4 years ago when I was suicidally depressed didn’t want me visiting her home even though I supported her for decades!) and explains this huge massive void inside me where self-hate resides permanently and has ruined my life. Carried survivor guilt around with me for so long,.. my poor poor poor mother how can I do much better in life and love myself unconditionally when she never had that…who am I to be letting my light shine bright. The pain of CEN is unbearable, it has affected my abilities that most people take for granted, making friends,
romantic relationships, any self-care, self-love (I detest myself) trust, belonging, even focusing on the things that give me joy I feel somehow guilty. I can’t win with the inner-critic. Just like my parents nothing was good enough if trying to make them happy. Had almost 4 years of psychotherapy in the past, with hindsight can see that we didn’t really deal with the level of damage done to me though she said was one of the worst cases of emotional neglect she had heard. I also had to fight off my older brothers sexual advances towards me between 8 and 18 years old. No contact with family in 4 years, cold and hyper critical even my siblings like they want me to feel bad about myself. Changed phone number too. Planting beautiful flowers where weeds have only been nurtured to grow is very very hard. Every day is a new day. Some better than others mood wise, I just wish I could care for myself my diet, hygiene, stuck in my prison at home knowing fresh air will do me the world of good but feel so empty when I venture out, the self-neglect is so bad that have thousands in the bank but can’t even treat myself to some nice food or buy a new washing machine so not even any clean clothes. Just want the emotional agony and guilt to stop, has caused me to regress like am not in charge of own life & destiny, when I am!!!! Would be even more lost without your work Jonice so thank you truly from my heart x

    Jonice - July 17, 2020 Reply

    Dear Jane, the abuse and trauma you have suffered are incredible. My heart goes out to you. The fact that you have endured and survived is amazing! I want to give you this message above all else: YOU HAVE NOTHING TO FEEL GUILTY ABOUT! Your guilt will hold you back from using your great strengths to free yourself, share your burden with a therapist, and move forward in a new way. You deserve so much better. Do not give up until you get it!

    Karen - July 17, 2020 Reply

    Dear Jane, my heart goes out to you. Your story resonated so much with mine, even down to the killed childhood pet. You are a survivor and you will survive. Just keep going. What you have done to survive so far shows you have what it takes to come through this. Never give up. No matter how hopeless it gets. Find a good therapist. They can’t fix you but they will will show you the way. Keep reading Dr Webb’s blogs. Read her books. You will learn to accept yourself. Right now you may not see it but you are amazing! Much love, Karen

Mira - July 15, 2020 Reply

question to you-I don’t feel guilty for leaving people behind in my journey per-se but rather I suffer from guilt in a sense where I feel guilty for being happy when there is so much suffering in the world. I carry around the belief that life is meant to be suffered through and although I logically know that not to be true, Its still a big blockage in my journey to recovery. any thoughts?

    Jonice - July 15, 2020 Reply

    Dear Mira, your type of guilt just proves you are a caring and empathetic person. I recommend you choose one thing you can do (or perhaps something you are doing now), to help others. Notice your guilt feelings and manage them by reminding yourself you are doing something to help others. Guilt feelings like yours can and must be managed!

Susana - July 14, 2020 Reply

I am typing from Portugal, where I live (I am originally from Brazil). Just wanted to leave a note to say how much I appreciate the content about CEN I have been reading in this channel. Thank you for that, it has been deeply helpful to me!

    Jonice - July 15, 2020 Reply

    I’m so glad, Susana. Thanks for letting us know!

Karen - July 13, 2020 Reply

Thank you Dr Webb. All your articles are so apt and helpful. Your empathy and deep insight are boundless. Yes, I think survivor guilt has been the hardest part of my journey of discovery, in some cases almost enough to stop searching. But there’s something inside that won’t let me go backwards. I’m at the point where just about everyone and everything (including my career) in my old life has been left behind. Just today I was reflecting that I don’t have my tribe anymore. Once upon a time that would have caused me to reach out and cling desperately to those people, almost in a panic about being left alone. Now I would rather be alone and truly myself than clinging to a dysfunctional relationship. I’m not sure where this will lead. But I know for sure it is on my terms and look on it as an adventure.

    Jonice - July 13, 2020 Reply

    Dear Karen, time to find your new “tribe.” People who will know and value and care for the real you.

SUE - July 13, 2020 Reply

Thank you so much for this article Dr Jonice. I often wondered when I went no contact with various family members if I were indeed suffering “survivor guilt”. I carried it around with me for months wondering if I had done the right thing by looking after me. It was the last resort to go no contact. It was a sad and painful time and the guilt nearly made go back to the old comfort zone. Fast forward a couple of years later and things are improving for the better. Unfortunately I still get the odd “guilt trip” by my elderly parents who would like me to forgive and forget to keep the family together which would only result in me stepping back into the dysfunction which I am not prepared to do.

    Jonice - July 13, 2020 Reply

    Dear Sue, good job not giving in to your survivor’s guilt! Just keep on moving forward.

Megan - July 12, 2020 Reply

I have been working on my healing for years and have made much progress so my life now is very changed from how it was during my first marriage. I have been very happily married again for 15 years and we have just recently moved into a beautiful home in a lovely seaside location.
I had not heard of CEN until about 3 years ago when I found it when I was researching why my adult 40+yo daughter had turned against me in a very nasty way. CEN made so much sense to me. Recognising myself as having it has been a great help in furthering my healing. However, I am now realising that this healthier sense of myself has meant I have changed the ways I relate to my adult children (daughter 40+ and son 30+) and the behaviour I no longer am prepared to accept from them – I am no longer allowing them to ‘use’ me and mistreat me. They don’t like it and have been behaving very badly and cruelly towards me as a result. Neither of them contacted me on Mothers Day and I was bereft. Although I have now decided to stop fighting and let things be as they are and give us all space to adjust, and so have found some peace for now, I am finding that as we settle into our new beautiful home and life up here in the sunshine I do struggle with recognising that this is probably how it will be now – that the price of my healing and growth and new life is this – my children estranged and my daughter keeping my granddaughters from me. Kind of survivors guilt I guess. I have tried to help my children but they have always been dismissive of my efforts to do so.

    Jonice - July 13, 2020 Reply

    Dear Megan, I know this must be so painful and hard for you. I encourage you to validate your children’s feelings as much as you can and try to share your new understanding of emotions with them as much as possible. For info on exactly how to do this, see the book Running On Empty No More. All my best wishes to you!

Robyn - July 12, 2020 Reply

Hi there, I find it incredibly hard as a mother when survivor’s guilt relates to my now adult kids (in their 20’s). They have been raised with a mother with big mental health problems (though I didn’t know it at the time). Although I tried to be loving, I was also scary, shaming and unpredictable, and I couldn’t get the help I needed until they were teenagers and things were out of control. I tried very hard to change my parenting to be empathic and to heal my own trauma, but it was hard going and life is still so hard for them now. I am watching them struggling with their own mental health and lives. I can only try to be there for them when needed (and that’s hard as we are still working on healing our relationship), but I long to make their lives easier. I find it very heart breaking. Btw, the neglect from my own father who I lived with for 8 years as a little girl (seeing my narcissistic mother on weekends), wasn’t just a bit but was hugely traumatic. He was a very angry, silent, weird man who didn’t speak to his kids at all, except for “come to tea”. It was a silent, traumatic household and it was extremely severe neglect. So yes, it left huge scars which I’m still trying to heal, along with the relationship with my kids and husband. But the grief now for my own kids is huge, and it’s hard to know how to get on with my own life whilst I watch them struggle.

Thanks for all your articles Dr Webb which I have always found very helpful.

    Jonice - July 12, 2020 Reply

    Dear Robyn, none of this is your fault! I hope you will just continue to heal yourself and that will be the best example for your kids. The stronger you get, the stronger they will get as long as you continue to reach out to them and care about them. And I can tell that you will.

Leah - July 12, 2020 Reply

2 years into my healing journey, I feel like I’m leaving everyone behind. When I got married 11 years ago into a family so different to my own, I was thrilled. My own childhood home was ‘soul-less’ emotionless, a place where my true self would not dare to emerge, I was too afraid of being judged and rejected , so I didn’t really know who I was- just a sad little girl with a wicked self critic.

My husband’s family were upbeat, fun and happy… I tried desperately to be accepted, twisting myself to fit in and ‘be like them’- I had no identity anyway… It kind of worked and I am a liked and respected- a firm part of the large family.

But discovering who I really am- deeply comforting, terrifying but so sweet… leaves me hanging again. My own family so stuck in emotional absence, my new family- nice, but so different to me. Do I continue to behave the way I used to? our relationship was built on that… and in some ways I fit in better with my husband’s than my own family. But my very sensitive, deep nature is so foreign to them… do i continue covering it up and play my old self? Even in my marriage, its so scary for me to act myself… our marriage is OK, its just me so terrified of the slightest rejection. so desperate to be loved , accepted as I never was as a child.

It seems simpler in writing yet I’m struggling with being true to my newly discovered self vs. being accepted and not ‘rocking the boat’… habits are hard to break especially when I worked for years to change them! only to discover that wasn’t the real me…

    Jonice - July 12, 2020 Reply

    Dear Leah, please consider talking with your spouse about all of this. Worry less about the family you married into than the person you married. Can your spouse accept the real you? Can you? Those are the key questions.

Jenny - July 12, 2020 Reply

The hardest part for me (about leaving my toxic family of origin after having tried for decades to work on the issues, to no avail) is that my sister is profoundly disabled and cannot help herself. She is in an abusive, neglectful situation and I had to leave her behind too, in order to save myself. It’s a hard, bitter pill to swallow.

    Jonice - July 12, 2020 Reply

    I’m so sorry, Jenny. That is very hard indeed. I encourage you to see a therapist for help and support with this. It is vital that you save yourself first!

Dorothy Ellen - July 12, 2020 Reply

In my family I was the lone one who saved herself. The others had no knowledge or ways to do the same for themselves.

    Jonice - July 12, 2020 Reply

    Dear Dorothy, please take comfort in the fact that you were able to save yourself. It’s so hard to be there for others while also truly knowing that you cannot save them.

Mary Beth - July 12, 2020 Reply

I guess I’m lucky.
I am going through my mother’s things. After she lived with us for a couple of years, progressively losing the capacity to care for herself, a place opened up in a nursing home with a good reputation.
So I’m going through her things, getting rid of a life-time’s accumulation. She hoarded and overbought certain groups of things: pain relievers, cleaning products, pet-care products (especially those focused on removing smells), hygiene products… Also office supplies and books.
I feel guilty with every thing I get rid of. After all, she’s not GONE. But she’s also not going to be using any of those things again. The nursing home is in charge of her health and hygiene.
Every thing gives me a pang — guilt, but also pity and disappointment.
I cannot fathom when my mother stopped living in a world with other people in it. In some ways it seems like she was sentimental — she didn’t get rid of photos or letters or gifts. But in other ways her capacity to actually relate to others was never great. Now it’s just an absence. I wonder who she is. I wonder who she might have been. I keep wondering what I missed, whether I’m being heartless to see her mostly as an absence.
I wonder when my mother died.

    Jonice - July 12, 2020 Reply

    Dear Mary Beth, what matters most is what your mother was not able to give you. In many ways, it does not matter why she could not give it; it just matters that you didn’t get it. I encourage you to focus on yourself.

Sharon M. - July 12, 2020 Reply

What about a different type of survivor’s guilt that is somewhat related? I have a sister, about my age, who has multiple disabilities, profound deafness is the major one, and grew up with parents, who not only did not express or acknowledge emotions, in general, but who also weren’t able to communicate with my sister (they never really learned sign language). When my sister was born about 1 1/2 years after me, I felt like I only existed for the purpose of helping my mom take care of my sister and to help them communicate with her. I was the only one in my family to learn how to communicate in sign language.

Now, as an adult, I understand what happened and why, but am still struggling to deal with, not only survivor’s guilt (I was born “normal” and she wasn’t, and I didn’t have to suffer like she has) ,but also some very deep-seated (I rarely speak about this) resentment about how this affected my life. Then of course, I feel more guilt…”How could I feel resentful and angry towards someone who is totally innocent and has had such a difficult life.

Nothing much changes over time. Today, I am currently the only member of my family who takes an active role in my sister’s care.

I just thought I’d share another perspective on survivor’s guilt. Thank you for letting me share.

    Jonice - July 12, 2020 Reply

    Dear Sharon, you did not choose to have your sister be disabled! None and I mean NONE if this is on you to shoulder or fix. If you can make your sister’s life better, that’s wonderful. But you must put your own health and happiness first, and that will provide you with the best possibilities to help your sister.

Beth - July 12, 2020 Reply

I could have written the “Comment Shared By a Reader of My Blog, Unedited” — word for word. Which is kinda spooky. But also validating — and I’m sure validating for others as well. FYI, I’ve decided to take a “time-out” from my family for awhile. And try to keep reminding myself that I am the lucky one for having emotions and empathy — and that it’s sad that they do not.

My emotions — and traumatic experiences — have always been met with “What’s wrong with you? You’re too sensitive. Stop being moody.” And as a kid, “Go to your room until you can be happy.” Thanks to your CEN work, I no longer see myself as fundamentally defective for having feelings.

    Jonice - July 12, 2020 Reply

    That is everything to me, Beth. You are a human being with human emotions and you are lucky and the opposite of defective to realize this.

GWOR - July 12, 2020 Reply

Survivor’s Guilt : And Taking The Back Roads Less Travelled
Sometimes as a final out the survivor must cut all ties with family and relatives (especially relatives) ) unless there is a powerful valid reason ( will, inheritance business) to stay within that awful physical and degrading mental now unknown disordered geography all roads already nearly closed to an out to find a way to go away to escape for the self first.
.
Then there is no reason to stay being nothing more than a Merry Go Round actor in a failed script going around both ways at once over and over again to those you know around in their control of you , your switch permanently left in the on position.
Here’s why .

A survivor is always guilty in someone’s book, relatives being the worst and those who never particularly liked the survivor anyway . See above it happens

And because when a senior non-family member in those dark days who saw the realties of war , sees the writing on the wall for another younger says , run and run hard and come back ON!Y when you are ready mentally and physically . He fought bullets all I had to do is go away and work to my freedom financially.

I did and glad of both to leave and return on my own volition my way as a whole person not a survivor.concerned about other’s tripping their filthy feet in my mouth..

Once far away and getting a new life established maybe just maybe one eventually after success years and years later puts their foot in the home water for fear a shark in winter is still lurking to bite it off clean at the dock.

Somebody always recognizes one’s return, could be legal, funeral or just testing the waters ebb and flow of my return . Being brought up around water I spent time at one of biggest beaches late afternoons after all the tourists went home . The lesson here the water can change like people from back and forth to viral in a nanosecond And if the winds or weather squalls out of no where and like people who sense one’s new successes they find the unhealed wounds to open them up fast to demean.and openly humiliate you never went anywhere . I saw a good person return passed away
and bringing in grocery carts broke .

Unfortunately mine was from an undertaker who had just bought the funeral homes and new nothing about the area, the people and it’s history . Years later he handled a close friends funeral . At first I turned to stone at the grave side but being familiar with the names on the headstones around these family plots from my childhood my power returned I was there for a friend lost sadly not the undertaker’s job description to bury and tidy down the urn.

Survivors are not understood because they seemingly are suppose to fail.
Not true !.

Many go away and when they go back for whatever reason mostly out of necessity then they carry now within a few mental life jackets and exit preservers if someone who drove me away plays the opening wounds of “great to see you , oh it is oh so long “
Wish them a good day , be respectful , look him/ her in the eye and head for the beach to watch the waves ebb to and flow and give thanks while returning to a better home away from the violent house driven from years and years ago. I do not remember on that fall a Sunday anyone wishing me well . Gee that is a brain teaser !

There is always one to pull the emotional hurting triggers but I am free to go and as a survivor what a feeling to rise above it all and then returning to the office being asked how did your day go yesterday under the circumstances. Great because I said two types of goodbyes one to my dearest friend and another to balance out the day .The teeter totter knows which end is up and I am up for the day to get back to work glad I attended to say goodbye knowing and thinking back the veteran knew he faced the bullets of war while I all I faced are the bullets of life moving forward day by day .
And that beats the other by a country mile ……..just go if you can and find new
roads .

    Jonice - July 12, 2020 Reply

    Dear Gwor thanks for sharing your experience with survivor guilt. You have certainly had to figure out a way to navigate through.

Olivia - July 12, 2020 Reply

I’ve realised recently that I have to leave my old school friends behind. I had this romantic idea that I could reconnect with my school friends, I had a nice group of 7 plus me and we had a lovely time at school and in our 20s. But 30 years later, I’ve realised when I tried to reconnect, they weren’t happy to see that my life has turned out fairly happily. I’m not the screw up I was when they knew me, the one who had no boyfriend, was always struggling, whereas the friends could feel superior to me as they got on with their lives.
I’ve given up that romantic idea now and I’m moving on. I don’t need friends who put me down.

    Jonice - July 12, 2020 Reply

    Very true, Olivia. Friends should be supportive and caring, not trying to drag you down! Move forward, for sure.

Sabrina - July 12, 2020 Reply

What if the person you are leaving behind is your spouse? And you have the forecast of living in a marriage devoid of deep emotional intimacy for the rest of your life? I am seeking my own healing in every way and seeking friendships with people who have emotional awareness and connection. But do I just grieve the loss of what I thought marriage would be and live without it the rest of my life if he never takes the courage to seek healing?

    Jonice - July 12, 2020 Reply

    Dear Sabrina, I have a lot to say about this question. You can find a lot of guidance in my second book, Running On Empty No More. It’s a painful situation to be in, for sure.

    Kathleen - July 12, 2020 Reply

    Sabrina, I know how you feel. My marriage has lacked deep emotional intimacy since day 1, but I didn’t realize it until later. I always faulted myself for not being good enough, or just enough for my husband. Or that I wasn’t doing something good or right. I learned to cope with the behavior by having friendships and love through my children. I began my healing journey 17 years ago when I had a conversion to Jesus and my Catholic faith, but didn’t realize CEN until much, much later. I gave him the book, and maybe it triggered him and he sat on it for awhile, I don’t know. Not until recently, after 30 years of marriage, did I discover why he’s this way; that he chose to share this information now really hurt me because I feel like our marriage has been a lie. I’ve had to leave my family behind as well, as they do not understand why “I am being like this.” There was too much toxicity. I love my parents and try to see them occasionally, but it’s not the loving relationship that I dream of or desire. I will be praying for you, Sabrina.

      Jonice - July 12, 2020 Reply

      Dear Kathleen, please consider trying to understand what your husband has revealed to you, even though it’s late. People do what they can when they are ready. There may be more possibility here than you realize! I encourage you to see a CEN therapist to help you sort through all this.

Paula - July 12, 2020 Reply

Survivors guilt….sigh…. I have been taking the steps in a number of ways to bring healing to my very sad soul but mostly I have felt like an outsider looking in at my family no longer comfortable with them and yet profoundly lonely . I see the deflection the minimizing the discounting when I try to be my real self and it no longer pierces my heart but I haven’t yet arrived on the shores of full self empowerment . I continue to learn and move forward but it’s slow going when you hold a different truth than your family of origin. Keep up the fantastic work Dr. Webb and thank you.

    Jonice - July 12, 2020 Reply

    Dear Paula, you describe so very well how it feels to be leaving your family behind. I encourage you to keep taking steps forward and putting your energy into being yourself and finding your people instead of seeking the approval of your family. Step by step you will do this!

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