a woman sitting in a chair looking out a window thinking about a traumatic experience

3 Reasons Why Survivor's Guilt Is A Difficult And Painful Emotion

Psychological research reveals the underpinnings of survivor's guilt, and how to overcome its dreadful effects.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | January 7, 2024

Survivor’s guilt is a complex and often misunderstood emotional struggle that arises in the aftermath of a traumatic event where others did not fare as well. It casts a shadow on the minds of those who survive, leaving them grappling with an unfathomable sense of guilt and an overwhelming question: “Why not me?” This unique form of guilt is not only emotionally taxing but also impacts one’s mental well-being in the long run.

In real life, survivor’s guilt can manifest in various ways, from persistent feelings of unworthiness and self-blame to a sense of disconnection from others who shared the experience. The mental health battle that ensues is complex, demanding a nuanced understanding of the psychological principles at play. 

Here are three key principles that govern survivor’s guilt and strategies to grapple with its effects.

1. Social Comparison Theory: The Struggle With Unfair Comparisons

Survivor’s guilt is often rooted in social comparison theory—a theoretical framework elucidating why individuals assess their opinions, values, achievements and abilities by juxtaposing them with those of others. In other words, this psychological principle suggests that individuals determine their own social and personal worth based on how they stack up against others.

In the context of survivor’s guilt, this principle manifests as survivors comparing their experiences, actions or outcomes to those of their peers who may not have been as fortunate. The continuous questioning of why they survived when others did not creates a breeding ground for guilt and self-blame.

Understanding this principle allows individuals to recognize the natural tendency to compare and, more importantly, to challenge these comparisons. Accepting that each person’s journey is unique and influenced by a myriad of factors beyond control can be a crucial step in alleviating survivor’s guilt.

2. Cognitive Dissonance: Balancing Contradictory Thoughts And Emotions

Survivor’s guilt often gives rise to cognitive dissonance—a state of mental discomfort wherein individuals hold conflicting beliefs or attitudes. In the case of survivor’s guilt, the conflict lies in reconciling the gratitude for one’s survival with the guilt of outliving others. This internal struggle can lead to a constant battle between opposing thoughts and emotions.

To manage its impact, the initial step is acknowledging the complexity and contradictions within the emotional landscape, fostering a more balanced and compassionate perspective on one’s own survival.

Secondly, recognizing cognitive dissonance as a natural response to survivor’s guilt allows us to embrace the coexistence of conflicting feelings and thoughts without judgment and can pave the way for emotional healing. 

Additionally, research suggests that dissonance reduction strategies such as changing one’s attitude, trivializing the significance of the conflict or absolving oneself of the responsibility for the conflicting thoughts, also serve as mechanisms for managing and modulating the emotional impact of cognitive dissonance.

3. Attribution Theory And Self-Blame: Understanding The Need For Causality

Survivor’s guilt often intersects with attribution theory, a psychological principle exploring how individuals assign causes to events. Attribution theory reveals an inherent human drive to understand reasons behind events, even if those events are beyond one’s control. In the aftermath of trauma, this drive can manifest as a relentless quest for personal responsibility, with survivors grappling to make sense of the randomness of life-altering events. Survivors may find themselves dissecting every decision, action or circumstance that contributed to their survival, seeking a rational explanation for why they lived while others did not.

In survivor’s guilt, the need to assign causality can lead to overwhelming self-blame. A study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that, even when individuals consider the various reasons or causes behind a traumatic event (causal attributions), the key factor influencing their self-blame is their personal belief in their ability to have prevented the accident. That is to say, individuals who feel they could have somehow avoided the traumatic incident tend to experience higher levels of self-blame.

Acknowledging this involves recognizing the innate human tendency to attribute meaning, even when attributions may be irrational. Helping survivors grasp that not every outcome neatly ties to individual actions is a potent tool in dismantling the web of self-blame. It opens the door to self-compassion and the realization that some events are inherently unpredictable.


Survivor’s guilt presents a significant challenge, yet comprehending it is vital for healing. Despite guilt’s negative connotation, research suggests that when viewed as a moral emotion, it motivates individuals to cultivate gratitude, effectively alleviating symptoms of PTSD. Moreover, survivor guilt serves as a possible predictor of post-traumatic growth, facilitated by the expression of gratitude. Encouraging survivors to channel their guilt into meaningful actions, such as volunteer work or advocacy, holds the potential to transform negativity into a catalyst for positive change. Recognizing the prospect for growth empowers individuals to reshape their narrative, ultimately discovering meaning in their survival.

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