An Interview with John Bogardus LCSW: Survivor Guilt

I had another interview published in Yahoo’s site Associated Content.


Tips for Overcoming Survivor Guilt

Interview with Psychotherapist John Bogardus, LCSW

Jaleh

JalehYahoo! Contributor Network
Apr 4, 2011 “Share your voice on Yahoo! websites. Start Here.”
It can be difficult to lose someone while in a war, natural disaster or some other situation where you have to watch the person die. Many people that have watched the death of someone within a traumatic situation often experience survivor guilt. To help understand what stems from survivor guilt and tips for overcoming survivor guilt, I have interviewed psychotherapist John Bogardus, LCSW.Tell me a little bit about yourself.
“My psychotherapy offices are located in San Francisco and Sonoma, California. I work with adults and couples. I have a blog offering movie reviews and other observations from a psychological point of view.”What often stems from survivor guilt?
“Survivor guilt refers to the irrational guilt people feel when they survive a war, natural disaster, accident, or other traumatic event, while others do not. In these instances survivors may feel merely being alive is a betrayal of the dead. Survivors may also blame themselves for causing others to die when unbiased observers see no such connection. Or they may feel they have no right to live if others did not.

A poignant depiction of survivor guilt is in the 1980 movie Ordinary People. Timothy Hutton’s character Conrad is racked with guilt when he survives a boating mishap in which his older brother drowns. His psychiatrist, played by Judd Hirsch, helps Conrad face the excruciating event. Rather than cause his brother’s death and feel inconsolable, the psychiatrist suggests that Conrad made it through because he was stronger. This important interpretation regarding the tragic accident allows Conrad to recover because it helps him see that his feelings of responsibility are erroneous. His brother’s death was beyond his control. Feeling tremendous sadness and regret over a tragedy is something anyone can understand, but to add unwarranted self-blame creates suffering that cries out for help.

Psychologists first used the term ‘survivor guilt’ in the 1960’s. They recognized that survivors of the Holocaust in World War II had terrible difficulty regaining their zest for living. Many patients came into treatment in an extremely shut down state. They felt so identified with their deceased relatives that they acted like the living dead themselves. Over time the Holocaust survivors’ trauma extended to their own families.

Art Spiegelman’s book Maus tells his father’s story of surviving World War II as a Jew in Europe. In the opening scene Spiegelman depicts an episode from his childhood. One day after being taunted by friends at a playground, he appeals to his father for some comforting words. Spiegelman’s father berates his son for even categorizing his playmates as ‘friends.’ Friends are those who will save your life. Young Spiegelman likely intuits he should bury his needs so as to not burden his father. In addition if he shuts down emotionally, he will protect himself from his father’s lack of empathy.”

What type of impact can survivor guilt have on someone’s overall life?
“Survivor guilt is related to several interconnected concepts such as fear of success, self-sabotage, and self-destructive behavior. Even symptoms such as depression and anxiety are ways people lower their mood in response to the presence of survivor guilt. In a way survivor guilt operates like carbon monoxide. We can’t see or feel it. We become aware of its existence by the flattened overall quality that life takes on.

Fear of success as an expression of survivor guilt might seem an odd notion at first glance. Doesn’t everyone want success? Aren’t we raised and schooled in infinite ways to achieve it? Doesn’t the ‘pursuit of happiness’ have much to do with accumulating success?

And yet everyday people seem to louse up a good thing. Instead of studying, a college student spends the night playing video games and performs poorly on his exam. Or a sales manager having problems in her marriage takes out her frustrations on her employees and hurts company morale. If people can’t relate to a ‘fear’ of success, then perhaps, as Freud suggested, they can relate to a need to be punished. Why is that?

A key ingredient in the formation of survivor guilt and its related syndromes is the perception that we are hurting someone by being successful.

For example psychiatrist Joe Weiss MD discusses a client and his parents who were not able to form a close relationship. If the client were having a pleasant conversation with his mother, she would show discomfort by either changing the subject or leaving the room. His father would not take him seriously and would tease him by pretending to not understand him. In therapy it became obvious that the client showed discomfort when women were respectful and loving toward him. Sometimes he would tease them as a way to create distance. He was experiencing survivor guilt and not realizing it. He believed he could not trust women to listen to him and he doubted he was worthy of their respect. In therapy he successfully worked on the belief that he was being hurtful to his parents when he challenging their opinion of him by developing and sustaining loving relationships to women.

Today the meaning and application of survivor guilt has broadened. It is now used to describe situations where people react to inhibit or marginalize their success when they feel it has come at the expense of another. Intuitively we understand survivor guilt is operating when a lottery winner donates his winnings or spends his money foolishly. Without fully realizing it, he is trying to regain his emotional equilibrium by ridding himself of his good fortune so there is nothing to feel guilty about.

Or an immigrant to this country may feel torn regarding relatives who stayed home. Is it really OK to enjoy oneself when relatives might be living in poverty or in a war torn land? Children of first generation immigrants might feel survivor guilt about going to college. Or they might be conflicted over how much acculturation they may partake in. Their parents may get angry if they become too ‘Americanized’ too quickly. At the same they might risk scorn and derision from their contemporaries if they appear too different. Their survivor guilt may be bi-directional. They might feel damned if they do and damned if they don’t regarding how to navigate the values of their family and new country.”

How can someone overcome survivor guilt?
“Survivor guilt can be tricky to notice. Often it is unconscious. People coming to therapy often have difficulty seeing how they are holding themselves back. If they do have an idea, they scarcely suspect that it relates to exaggerating their ability to hurt a family member by being successful.

I have never had anyone come into my office asking for help with survivor guilt. People usually will say that some aspect of their life is not working or that they have dissatisfaction with how things are going. When we look into what interferes with them achieving their goals, we often find the presence of survivor guilt.

For many people understanding the role of survivor guilt in their lives is a revelation. Often people come to realize they have suffered from false beliefs about being bad or fundamentally selfish. They see that they exaggerate their ability to hurt others. They begin to recognize when they are accused unfairly of causing hurt feelings or jealousy in other family members. When they see themselves more accurately, they begin feeling better.

Psychotherapy is a useful tool, but not the only way, to overcome the effects of survivor guilt. Fortunately people can have experiences in daily life, which effectively counter the influence of survivor guilt. I once heard a well-known writer on the radio. She told the story of a friend whose father doubted her friends’ capacity to learn math. To which the writer replied, ‘And you believed him?’ This response became a catalyst for her friend to return to school and become proficient at math.”

What type of professional help is available for someone who is having trouble overcoming a fear of success?
“Not all therapists have a good grip on the importance of survivor guilt. Yet even therapists who might not be aware of the concept, might work well intuitively with a particular client’s survivor guilt. One psychological theory, known as Control Mastery Theory, is particularly adept at understanding the role of survivor guilt in issues such as fear of success or self-sabotage. Therapists equipped with this theory help clients pursue life goals by understanding and mastering their self-defeating attitudes and self-destructive behavior.”

Thanks John for doing the interview on tips for overcoming survivor guilt. For more information on John Bogardus or his work you can check out his blog on www.psychologyofeverything.com or his website on www.johnbogardus.com


For more information about my psychotherapy practice go to www.johnbogardus.com

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