Is Thriver’s Guilt a Thing?

As I write this, I’m sitting in my office. It’s after-hours. And I’m taking advantage of the peace and quiet that comes with being the single occupant in an office everyone else has vacated. I’m taking an opportunity to write simply because I can.

On my bulletin board is a calendar, some inspirational quotes I have collected, and a few certificates I’ve amassed (you know…for my ego’s benefit).

A clock is quietly ticking. It’s one of those clocks with a cliche sissy-la-la message “live, love, laugh” and a flower decorating its face. Yep. I’m THAT kind of health coach.

When I go home, this evening, I’ll be greeted with an enthusiastic bark from my dog, a soft purr from my cat, and a peaceful space. I’ll make myself a meal, because I love to cook. I will, perhaps, watch an episode of some cotton candy sitcom I can stream (because commercials are obnoxious and I am spoiled enough to not have to deal with them). Or maybe I’ll just sit quietly in my backyard with my pup…throwing a ball for her benefit.

One of my most favorite people on the planet is coming to stay. He’s another California expat, hoping to build a home-base in a bedroom within my house. So now, not only will I have the benefit of a peaceful space, but for the first time in a very long time, I’ll have the benefit of human connection right under my own roof.

Nothing about what I am writing is exciting. No one is going to write a novel based on my life. It’s…well the kindest way I can put it is ….that it is dull.

Which makes it…absolutely miraculous.

Because, outside of the bubble that is my life, if the news is to be believed, the world is falling apart.

Covid-19 is a legitimate threat to our collective safety. I might get it. I might not. If I get it, I might get the sniffles and a raging fever (given my age and health status…that seems the most likely scenario) OR, I may possibly get the wind knocked out of me enough such that I need medical care. Much more importantly, if I get it, I may pass it along to someone else who is more vulnerable and may potentially even die because of some careless trip I took to the grocery store.

At the same time, people all over the country…thousands upon thousands…are losing their jobs. They are seeking unemployment. They are worried about losing their homes. They are uncertain about next steps. I am, as of right now, still gainfully employed.

Oh…but we are not done. Coping with each of these challenges has left all of us feeling…on edge. Joe Rogan, on a recent podcast, said that road rage is partially due to the fact that we are driving at high speeds. That speed ramps up our nervous systems. When someone cuts us off in the midst of that, our response is more acute and violent because our capacity is lower. This pandemic (and the economic uncertainty that has followed in its wake) is doing something similar. It’s leaving all of us a little less centered. We are all ramped up…waiting. Ready to pounce on a perceived threat.

Is it any wonder, then, that in the midst of all that, crimes have gone up? Is it any wonder that racial tension (a challenge this country has struggled with since its inception) has increased? Or perhaps it hasn’t increased…that almost seems naive. Perhaps it would be closer to say that it has become more transparent. We are looking more closely at it. And we are thoroughly pissed off.

And in the midst of ALL that, we have what can only be described as a complete leadership vacuum. I don’t think anyone reading my blog would be surprised to hear that I’m not a fan of President Trump…but I want to be clear. It’s not entirely his fault. True – he hasn’t stepped up to the plate and made any real attempt to unify this country the way we all desperately need. But to be fair…neither has anyone else. Everyone, so far as I can tell, in a position of authority is so busy pointing fingers and assigning blame for our circumstances, that no one is willing to pick up the baton and say “Move over, children. I got this.”

Despite ALL of these challenges our world is facing, my life is decidedly lovely.

Ironically…If I’m being totally honest…while I am extremely grateful…a part of me feels like shit about it.

I am no therapist, but as a life coach, I spend a fair amount of time reading studies and keeping up on the literature in psychology. I know enough to know that “survivor’s guilt” is a thing. Most of those who experience it are those who are part of a group who survived when others in similar circumstances did not. The Holocaust is the most obvious example. But those who work in law enforcement, veterans, transplant recipients…these are examples of people who might fall into this camp, too. They are in a state of perpetual tug-of-war. Grateful to be alive. Deeply sorry to be alive. Delighted to have a second chance. Crestfallen that others did not. It makes sense. That complex stew of emotions. It makes all the sense in the world.

But what I am feeling isn’t exactly survivor’s guilt. It’s true, thousands of people have died of Covid-19, when I have yet to fall. But in my case, it’s much more subtle. I am healthy, and my workspace doesn’t admit many people. I don’t have much exposure to those who could potentially pass Covid (or any other infection) my way. I am, therefore, not in a position to be as afraid as those who are suffering from chronic ailments or those who had the audacity to be a survivor in this world and make it to their latter years in life. I am white, and am thus less targeted by those who might otherwise seek me out to harass me. I am a woman…which in Trump’s America is a little unnerving. I certainly don’t think Trump has any interest in personally coming to harass me. But his easy disregard for women has left me with the impression that he certainly can’t be the only one who feels that way. And if I were harmed…I am left with the impression that my government wouldn’t much care. (To be clear…I’m not suggesting that is ACTUALLY the case. I am merely suggesting that’s how I feel. Emotions are not rational. They just ARE). Finally, I am employed, and am therefore not yet in the position of trying to figure out how to pay all my bills and wondering (yet) if I will need to sell my home.

And yet…

I feel a constant and throbbing sort of nag under my skin. An itch. Part of it is probably a natural response to a new world of seriously uncomfortable uncertainty. Life was always uncertain…but these last few months have taken away our ability to at least pretend otherwise for a few stollen moments.

There is a heaviness that lingers. It follows me on my runs. It whispers at me when I’m cooking in the kitchen. It’s with me, now, as I sit, quietly (and safely) behind a desk writing this blog.

I am absurdly lucky. And I am also deeply sorrowful.

I am aching because I didn’t earn my current stability. I do work at what I do. I do take care of those I care about. But so does EVERYONE ELSE. At least…so far as I can tell. I have the privilege of working in a field I am passionate about, and with people I admire and want to emulate. How many people in this world can SAY that?

It feels marvelous. It feels awful. I feel immensely grateful. I feel extraordinarily guilty.

In a conversation I recently had with a friend, she mirrored my experience. By happenstance, she and her husband have built a company that just so happens to be positioned well to go virtual. It just so happens that they were already doing a fair amount of schooling for their son at home, so the transition back to home schooling wasn’t a terribly challenging one. They are all introverts (like myself) and thus haven’t suffered (as much) from the strain of being separated from the rest of society. When I brought up how grateful…and yet how sorrowful I felt, it was she who brought up the concept of survivor’s guilt. She wasn’t saying that our experience was anything close to the soul wrenching one of surviving something as severe as a Holocaust. She merely hinted at the possibility that by thriving while others around us are struggling, we, too, might be susceptible to feeling a measure of guilt. Because, again…some of how we came to be in this position might have been due to hard work. But a good chunk of it was dumb luck.

The question, then, becomes…what do we do?

I went looking for articles on the subject of survivor’s guilt hoping it might lend some insight into how those of us who have this more subtle version of it (shall we call it survivor-guilt light?) might do to better navigate this experience. Because…after all…no one benefits from our so-called “guilt.” We don’t get extra credit points for being miserable. If anything, all it warrants is a kind of eye roll from those who are ACTUALLY suffering.

In an article by Diana Raab, PhD, she provided some tips that I thought were surprisingly relevant to the experience I am describing. I placed them below (along with some of my notes on how they apply more specifically to our scenario.)

  • Give yourself time to grieve: While it’s true that you and I may not literally be grieving a specific person’s death (although we may), we are all grieving the loss of a way of life. We are grieving the loss of our country as we are used to seeing it. We are grieving the loss of our resources…whether it’s social gatherings, trips abroad, or something as simple as feeling comfortable giving a loved one a hug.
  • Consider thinking about who was really responsible, if anyone. While it is true that I did not “earn” my comfort, it is also true that I was not responsible for the pain and suffering of others. My guilt serves no one. We need to remember that none of us was responsible for Covid or the economic woes that followed. As for racial inequality, that, too, is entirely my responsibility. I am not to be held responsible for our problems. I am much better served saving that bandwidth for thinking about productive solutions.
  • Remember to take care of yourself physically and psychologically. If everyone is on edge, the best thing I (and by extension…everyone else) can do is take care of myself. When I take care of myself, I have more capacity. When I have more capacity, I am able to serve others better and with more discernment. If I do NOT take care of myself, I risk remaining on edge…and risk becoming part of the problem.
  • Think about what those who are close to you are feeling about the situation. I mentioned my friend, who mirrored my angst. I have also remained connected to friends and family who are NOT in such advantaged positions. My stability has allowed me to remain a shoulder for them. I have the ability to provide resources for them. I am positioned to hold the space for them without judgement.
  • Remind yourself that you were given the gift of survival and feel good about it. Guilt is not helpful. Gratitude, however, IS helpful. If we are all being honest, none of us “earns” out place in this world completely. Almost all of it can be traced back to some stroke of luck. We did not choose our family. We did not choose our genes. We did not choose where we were born. We all have something to be grateful for. Something that could be taken away. Something we did not “earn” all ourselves.
  • Try to be of service to someone or something. In holding guilt and shame in check, we open ourselves up to see the world around us. I may not have earned my place, but given that I am in this position, I am uniquely capable of serving others without fear of draining all of my own internal and external resources. That means I can spend more time writing about tools that help others develop resilience and courage. I can lead classes on stress management. I can volunteer to help organizations in my community when they are in need.
  • Remind yourself that you’re not alone. As I mentioned…I am not the only one who feels the way I do even in my own circle. I suspect, if you are reading this, you are feeling this way as well. We are both served in knowing we are not alone.
  • Be patient. Covid, our economic woes, the current administration…it will all end. Humans have a remarkable ability to land on their feet. The world we are left with may not be one we recognize from before…but it can still be one we can be proud of so long as we stay awake and mindful about how to navigate this challenge with grace.
  • Share your feelings with those you trust. In speaking with my friend about my challenge in this area, it provided immediate relief to know I wasn’t alone. Simply TALKING to someone helped all its own.
  • Try to stick to a daily routine. I, for example, find tremendous value in practicing yoga, deep breathing, meditation, and getting copious amounts of exercise. Without these things, I would be useless. Seriously.
  • Consider journaling your feelings. Or perhaps consider writing a blog? ; )
  • Get professional help, as needed. I, of course, would be happy to help. If you are interested in getting coaching, don’t hesitate to reach out. If you are in need of speaking to a counselor or therapist, and want to know about those who are especially trained to work with HSP’s, let me know and I will forward that along as well.

In looking at all of this…does any of it ring true for you? Are you finding that you are, surprisingly, well positioned to move through this time? Are you feeling the pangs of guilt around it because those you love are not in that same space? How are you coping with that? What works for you?

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