Dealing with Financial Survivor’s Guilt

October 1, 2020. By Ashley Agnew:

Working hard to maintain secure employment in a successful position takes years of overcoming obstacles, often with delayed rewards. Professional success, especially in our culture, is something to be proud of. Despite the natural progression of being proud of rewards that are earned through hard work, many are faced with the challenge of feeling guilty about their success while so many others are experiencing difficult times financially. Financial therapists and advisors are seeing this now more than ever, and have termed the feeling financial survivor’s guilt.

Following any traumatic event, individuals experience a myriad of emotions. Some take solace in the gratitude they find as they reflect on their current position of safety. Others, however, find themselves overwhelmed by guilt as they reflect on those who did not fare as well through the trauma. While there may be no relation between one’s success and another’s demise in a situation, the feeling of guilt can be so heavy it is emotionally disabling. This can be a key component of the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) yet one does not need to be suffering fully from the disorder to experience post-traumatic shame and guilt. Shame and guilt may manifest in an individual as anger, anxiety, fear, sadness, terror, loss, bereavement, and/or humiliation (Wilson, Drozdek, Turkovic. 2006).

Unlike PTSD, financial survivor guilt is not a term you will find in textbooks or the DSM, however in the current socio-economic conditions it is one to become familiar with. The financial impacts of the pandemic continue to make headlines, and some headlines can be wildly dramatic. This is a great cause of stress as economies both domestically and internationally try to navigate the crisis. While we are all so busy trying our best to stay healthy and care for our loved ones, it can be hard to filter out the noise. It can also be difficult to balance empathy and compassion with self-care and ambition, yet each of these is an important contributor to well-being.

Financial survivor guilt can present in an individual in many of the same ways as shame (downcast eyes, slumped posture, and blushing, and broad emotional continuum ranging from feeling embarrassed to severe humiliation). You may see, or feel, these reactions in conversation when discussing successes versus disparities as they relate to the pandemic situations. They may also arise when just thinking about the circumstances, as an audience is not required to make an emotion or feeling real.

Consider the following hypothetical story:

“Judith was a teacher for twenty years, and left the traditional academic setting in 2019 to start her own business in homeschool consulting. This path is more in line with her values and allows her to bring the academic philosophy she is closest to into the homes of dedicated families. The unconventional method was slow to take off, until the circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic changed the academic landscape. Since, her business is taking off, and she is making more money than she ever has. The conditions are making others finally see the potential of her process, and the students of her clients are thriving. She can’t help but think, however, that all of this good has come at the detriment of others. After all, the shift in learning needs is due to a global virus and the sickness of others. Additionally, as she contacts her prior employees, she is learning that much of the support staff that she so enjoyed working with when in public schools has been cut to make room in budgets for technological updates. “

Clearly, Judith did not cause the loss of employment for her friends, but she still feels guilt as a result of the trend line in the correlation between her business booming and the jobless claims. We all have heard stories or experiences similar to Judith’s; you may even be able to identify with her struggle. In our culture, our careers make up much of our self-identity. We work hard to strive for professional greatness and security. When the pride associated with this portion of our identity is tainted by guilt or shame, the loss of self-respect within culturally defined roles, status, and expectations can develop just as it can with post-traumatic shame. In the case of financial survivor’s guilt, an individual can feel as if they are acting contrary to their personal values, although this may be untrue, and completely self-inflicted.

In her recent article for, Financial Therapist Lindsay Bryan-Podvin shares that “Outside of thoughts and worries, people who experience financial survivor guilt might be feeling immobilized, numb, or burnt out on economic news”. Keeping this in mind, she makes an excellent point in stating that no one wins when comparing traumas. Empathy should be extended both internally and externally, paired with a recognition that all individuals cope with stress and trauma in different ways. All feelings are real; in the current landscape, there are pressures to subdue very present emotions. Working with a Financial Therapist can help work through feelings associated with financial survivor guilt.

In light of the additional social pressures accompanying the Covid-19 pandemic in this challenging year, your financial stress may be heightened beyond a level that feels controllable. There are currently several mental health resources that are offering reduced or complimentary services to professionally address this concern. If you are feeling increased stress, anxiety, or guilt related to finance or any personal matters in a way that is impacting your focus or overall wellbeing, it may be in your best interest to speak with a mental health professional. Your healthcare insurance and providers are a great place to start for referrals. We have also provided a brief list of links that may be helpful below:

National Alliance on Mental Illness: NAMI is an organization providing advocacy, education, support and public awareness so that all individuals and families affected by mental illness

TalkSpace Online Therapy: Talkspace provides ease of access to thousands of professionals and assists in pairing you with a good fit. Through their app you have ultimate flexibility with 24/7 access, and there are several ways to communicate including video calls, phone calls, secure text messaging, video messaging, and audio messaging.

Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741 from anywhere in the United States, anytime. Crisis Text Line is here for any crisis. A live, trained Crisis Counselor receives the text and responds, all from our secure online platform. The volunteer Crisis Counselor will help you move from a hot moment to a cool moment.