What Is Survivor's Guilt? Definition and Examples

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Survivor’s guilt, also called survivor guilt or survivor syndrome, is the condition of feeling guilty after surviving a situation in which others died or were harmed. Importantly, survivor’s guilt often affects individuals who were themselves traumatized by the situation, and who did nothing wrong. The term was first introduced in 1961 as a way of describing the experiences of Holocaust survivors, but it has since been extended to many other situations, including survivors of the AIDS epidemic and survivors of workplace layoffs.

Key Takeaways: Survivor's Guilt

  • Survivor’s guilt is the experience of feeling guilty for surviving a situation or experience that caused death or injury to others.
  • Survivor’s guilt is not currently recognized as an official diagnosis, but is associated with post-traumatic stress disorder
  • The term was first applied in the 1960s to describe Holocaust survivors. It has since been extended to a number of other situations, including survivors of the AIDS epidemic.
  • Survivor's guilt may be related to equity theory: the idea that when workers believe they receive more or less pay than a coworker with identical duties, they will attempt to adjust their workload in order to account for the difference in pay.

Survivor’s guilt is characterized by a number of psychological symptoms, including depression, anxiety, vivid flashbacks to the traumatic event, lack of motivation, difficulty sleeping, and perceiving one’s identity differently. Many sufferers also experience physical symptoms, like headaches.

Although survivor’s guilt is not considered an official psychiatric disorder, it is associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.

History and Origins

“Survivor syndrome” was described in 1961 by William Niederland, a psychoanalyst who diagnosed and treated survivors of the Holocaust. Through a series of papers, Niederland described the psychological and physical ramifications of the concentration camps, noting that many survivors developed survivor syndrome because of “the magnitude, severity, and duration” of these traumatic experiences.

According to Hutson et al., it was Sigmund Freud who first noted that people feel guilty for their own survival when others die. Niederland’s paper, however, introduced this type of guilt as a syndrome. He also extended the concept to include the fact that survivor's guilt includes a sense of impending punishment.

The same paper notes that the psychiatrist Arnold Modell expanded how survivor guilt was understood in the context of a family, focusing on specific relations between family members. For example, an individual may unconsciously feel guilty that they are luckier than another family member and may consequently sabotage their own future success.

Examples of Survivor’s Guilt

Though survivor’s guilt was first coined to describe Holocaust survivors, it has since been applied to many other situations. Some examples are listed below.

Survivors of the AIDS epidemic. This group includes anyone who lived during the AIDS epidemic and is still alive. However, because AIDS affected gay male communities with particular severity, survivor's guilt is often studied in relation to AIDS and gay men. Sufferers of survivor's guilt may be HIV positive or HIV negative, and they may or may not know anyone who died during the epidemic. that gay men who had had more sexual partners were more likely to experience survivor’s guilt, and that they may feel as if they have been “spared at random.”

Workplace survivors. This term describes employees of a company who feel guilty when other employees suffer job loss or layoffs. Workplace survivors often attribute their retention in the company to luck rather than merit or any other positive traits.

Survivors of illnesses. Illness can cause survivor's guilt in a number of ways. For example, an individual may feel guilty for testing negative for a genetic condition if other members of their family tested positive. Survivors of chronic illness may also experience survivor's guilt when other patients with the same condition die.

Key Theories of Survivor's Guilt

In the workplace, equity theory predicts that workers who think that they are in an unequal situation–for example, that they receive more pay than a coworker who does equal work–will try to make the situation fairer. For example, they may attempt to work harder so that their higher salary is commensurate to their workload.

A 1985 study where an individual (the subject of the study) witnessed a fellow coworker being laid off. The study found that witnessing a layoff significantly impacted the productivity of workplace survivors, who may have increased their productivity to offset the guilt they felt about surviving company layoffs.

The study emphasized that further work should be done to explore other factors, such how other emotions—like anxiety over one’s own job security—impact productivity, as well as the extent to which a laboratory experiment could be applied to real-life situations.

Equity theory extends beyond the workplace. Survivor’s guilt can occur in many types of social relationships based on how an individual perceives his or her situation compared to others. For example, in the 1985 workplace study, lab participants barely knew their fictional “coworkers,” but still tended to feel guilty when observing the layoff. However, the strengths of social relationships are important for predicting the magnitude and frequency of survivor’s guilt.

In Popular Culture

Survivor’s guilt frequently comes up in pop culture. For example, in some iterations of the Superman comic, Superman is the sole survivor of the planet Krypton, and consequently suffers from immense survivor's guilt.

The iconic singer Elvis Presley was haunted by survivor’s guilt all his life, brought on by his twin brother’s death during childbirth. One on Presley suggests that this event also motivated Presley to set himself apart through his musical career.

Sources

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