How to Put 2020 Financial Survivor’s Guilt to Good Use

Donating time or money can help people who have had economic setbacks in the pandemic — and also those who haven't.
Liz Weston, CFP®
By Liz Weston, CFP® 
Edited by Kathy Hinson

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Financial therapist Lindsay Bryan-Podvin of Ann Arbor, Michigan, specializes in helping people deal with their anxieties about money. But since the pandemic started, Bryan-Podvin has been hearing more about guilt than fear.

Several people who still have jobs and financial security felt guilty about having been spared while others suffered, says Bryan-Podvin, author of “The Financial Anxiety Solution.”

“I would start to hear things like, ‘I shouldn't be complaining — my partner has it so much worse,’ or ‘I can't even believe I'm telling you this because so-and-so in my neighborhood lost their job,’” she says.

The feelings clients expressed and the language they used were almost identical to what Bryan-Podvin hears from people with post-traumatic stress disorder, a mental health disorder that can be triggered by experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event.

“What I started to see was survivor guilt,” Bryan-Podvin says. “They feel like they somehow didn't deserve what they have.”

Guilt can turn inward

Survivor’s guilt is a symptom of PTSD, often felt by people who wonder why they lived while others died. While financial survivor’s guilt isn’t an official psychological diagnosis, Bryan-Podvin says that recognizing the similarities has helped her treat clients who are struggling.

People experiencing this kind of guilt may feel sad or even hopeless, she says. They may have obsessive thoughts, wondering why they were spared or what they might have done differently to protect others. They may feel paralyzed, numb or burned out.

“Survivor guilt is like any other type of stress,” she says. “It can impact your sleep, it can impact your parasympathetic nervous system, it can impact your ability to fully rest in the present.”

Recognizing what you’re experiencing can help you cope, says certified financial planner Edward Coambs, a marriage and family therapist in Charlotte, North Carolina. One reason people feel survivor’s guilt is because we're hard-wired to want justice and fairness, he says.

“That's really what's getting activated,” Coambs says. “Like, how is it fair that I still have my job but this segment of the market no longer has their job?”

Not everyone feels bad about inequities, of course. But those who do can experience financial self-shaming, where they feel that it isn’t OK to have money, jobs or opportunities that are denied to others, Coambs says. At the extreme, they may give away too much, volunteer to be furloughed or otherwise put themselves at financial risk because they feel guilty.

“It's not your fault what’s happened to this other person,” he says. “Sometimes survivor guilt can be about taking on more responsibility than is appropriate.”

Cope in ways that help others

A more productive approach is to look for sensible ways to help others, therapists say. That may be working at a food bank, donating to a cause, helping someone update their resume or making introductions that could help them find a job.

“Some level of service, some level of giving back tends to help us feel better,” Bryan-Podvin says. “It’s about knowing that you're taking steps and you're taking action to help.”

But be careful about going overboard. Some people may rush in with referrals and networking suggestions when a jobless friend is still in shock, for example. Maybe your friend just needs an empathetic listener right now.

When your goal is to alleviate your guilt, it’s easy to miss what the other person actually needs, Coambs says.

Also, resist the urge to share the setbacks you’ve experienced, Bryan-Podvin says.“It's better to say, ‘I'm so sorry that happened. That must be really hard,’” she says.

Make room for gratitude

Another way to cope with financial survivor’s guilt is to start noticing and appreciating the positives in your life.

“Turn the ‘g’ in guilt to gratitude,” says financial therapist and CFP Preston D. Cherry of Lubbock, Texas. Research shows that writing gratitude lists, keeping a gratitude journal or just contemplating what you’re grateful for can lower stress, improve sleep and make relationships better.

Feeling bummed out about layoffs and economic turmoil is normal, but experiencing sadness and guilt for weeks at a time is not, Bryan-Podvin says. If you can’t sleep, you’re too distracted to work or you keep forgetting important things, like what time your kids need to be in online classes, consider getting professional help. The Financial Therapy Association is one place to look for referrals. (Cherry and Coambs are board members.)

“If your ability to function is so impacted, whether it's financial survival guilt or just the trauma of being alive right now, therapy is not a bad idea,” she says.

This article was written by NerdWallet and was originally published by the Associated Press.