Anxiety and Depression

Overcoming Survivor’s Guilt

Three suicides. One week. All connected to the tragic aftermath of mass shootings. I was asked to speak about survivor’s guilt today, when the loss is unthinkable, when the trauma, unimaginable.  We all want to understand how we humans respond to such overwhelming pain and grief. How can we care for ourselves, Heaven forbid, to find meaning and embrace life again. How we can care for those around us?

Survivor’s guilt, a form of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), shows up much the same way that traditional PTSD does. That is, nightmares, flashbacks, sleep problems, irritability, numbness, meaninglessness and helplessness. Many develop suicidal ideation and impulses.  Those who fair the most poorly and ones with a history of depression, childhood trauma, low self esteem and little social support.  The trauma becomes a compounding experience and often a wake up call to deal with the root issues still wreaking havoc in one’s psyche and nervous system.  

It might sound oversimplified for anyone who has experienced devastation and tragic loss, but below are some suggestions.  

  1. Counseling and mental health care are key.  Every living thing has the energy of healing within, but we often need another human to hold the space to help us awaken that healing energy. Not just at the beginning, but long term, it’s imperative to have mental health check ups and regular support for un-peeling the layers of grief.   We lost our nephew in 2006 and it wasn’t until 2016 that his mother realized all the layers of grief she had buried, escaping into old and outmoded coping mechanisms.  Watching her embrace her recovery process 10 years later is a true testament to the resiliency we possess at the core and to the power of spiritual and personal growth.

  2. Connected to counseling is the importance of processing, rather than suppressing emotions; and identifying and transforming the cognitive patterns and belief systems that might be feeding the guilt, depression, helplessness and despair. 

  3. Don’t be surprised if your unresolved issues show up on the table. Consider this an opportunity, not an easy one, but a true chance  to excavate that which has likely weighed you down for years. 

  4. Allow yourself time to grieve.  Be patient and self loving. Everyone’s process is unique and not to be judged or compared.

  5. Self care is essential and top of the list.  This could mean spending plenty of time with those you love, being in nature, caring for your body, taking your spiritual life to the next level, and all of the above to tend to the deep emotional wounds.

  6. Lean into your routine.  This can help prevent you from falling lower than you can manage and also keeps you connected to other people and the world of life around you. 

  7. Be of service as best you can. Do your best to seek meaning and purpose.  Invest yourself in something you believe in, something that will add value. When we come from a place of sharing and kindness, we benefit far more than those on the “receiving” end.   When empty, you might not be able to give the same as when you feel full. Yet it’s important to push yourself and go against the justifications as to why you can’t or shouldn’t share. 

  8. Deepen into your spiritual path.


When speaking about survivor’s guilt, of course, we must address the guilt aspect.  Why did I survive and not them?  Maybe I could have done something more? I missed opportunities while they were alive to do more, show more, give more. These feelings are common and normal responses to grief overall, but especially strong when the loss was sudden and tragic, much less violent.  A powerful remedy for survival’s guilt is to understand that much of what you’re feeling is a coping mechanism to try and cover up the true vulnerability that is inherent in being a living human being, especially when it comes to deep loss. While I believe we can actually taking charge of our lives far more than most of us grasp, we must also embrace the humility that comes with that which is bigger than us.  The trick is to keep our hearts open while at the same time facing our vulnerability.

Guilt is different than responsibility. Guilt weighs us down, makes us want to do less, speaks lowly messages inside our heads and demotivates us. The energy of guilt comes from a negative force and places a boulder on our back which becomes the foundation for a tower of sadness, shame, anger, and blame. Even when we do good things, but from a place of guilt, we won’t feel inspired or connected to life.  Responsibility, on the other hand, while it might come with feeling the pain of our own missteps, missed opportunities or loss— the energy shifts from passive to active.  From beating oneself up, to “I can do something positive now.”  It’s an energy force on the side of empowerment drawn from the essence of our unlimited soul. When we give from wanting to take responsibility, we come from fullness which opens the gates to the creative mind and blessings flow. So check your thought patterns when you notice feeling guilt, and ask yourself: How can I turn this into something practical, proactive? How can I take responsibility for some aspect of my life, because I believe in myself?”

When it comes to supporting others, don’t be afraid to be vigilant about asking personal questions related to how they are doing.  How are you sleeping?  Do you have nightmares? What kinds of thoughts trouble you the most?  Do you feel like yourself? If you feel concerned about them, be willing to set up an appointment and go with them to a counselor or psychiatrist. Sometimes we need a hand in ours to take brave steps. Be patient, knowing that grief and trauma can feel relentless.  Do your best, then let go of the rest. 

May we all be there for one another and may our days be filled with blessings, even amidst the pain and tragedies of life.  

Protect Your Relationship From Holiday Stress: The 4C Approach To Closeness

“We almost break up every year after Christmas,” my client announced. “We go to multiple Christmas’s, and at the end, we’ll declare (if we’re not breaking up) ‘next year we’re leaving town.’” The holidays can be a loving, joyous time for couples, and yet, they can run our stress high and patience thin, trigger old family issues, highlight our different needs and approaches, and quite honestly awaken the “what about me” consciousness. All this can add up to a massive wedge in our most important relationship. 

Sometimes our greatest angst comes from the gap between our expectations— the “should be’s”— and our reality right in front of us. Difficulties and unmet expectations are not only normal, but an inherent and valuable part of our “growing upward” in life.  We become better, stronger from the challenges we face, especially when we own them! We create deep fulfillment when we dive into the darkness and bring out the Light. And anyone in a deep and lasting relationship should know the hard earned and quite miraculous process that it takes for two separate souls to un-peel their ego layers to become one.

Preparation is key for couples to navigate their relationship during the holidays, and this starts with a commitment to going into the holiday as partners. Many outside forces can invade your togetherness but the more you prepare, the more protected your bond will be. I like to suggest openly identifying the potential sources of strain or conflict that the holidays might pose.  COUPLE EXERCISE #1: Take a look at this list below and scope out any hot buttons. Then use THE 4C APPROACH to strengthen your partnership. 

List of Potential Stressors

  • Increased work load, feeling overwhelmed and not clear about how to divide and share the added tasks 

  • Socializing differences (I don’t want the party to end vs I can’t wait to go home)

  • Loyalty to your family and pulled about dividing time among each side, and step families

  • Differences in culture, religion, or spirituality

  • Emotional pain and lack often stirred up from childhood making us more vulnerable and reactive

  • Certain people we are anxious to be around, like In laws or parents or siblings

  • Financial strain and different values on how much do we spend on gifts/food  

  • Alcohol and the need to talk about consumption 

  • Additional compounding life challenges like illness, loss, financial bills or work uncertainty

The 4C Approach to Closeness During the Holidays

1. CONSCIOUSNESS: Take Control of Your Holiday, Don’t Let the Holiday Control You

I learned from the great Kabbalist, Rav Berg, that “consciousness is everything.” Meaning, the seeds we plant with our thoughts and intentions directly influence what will grow and manifest. The first limiting thought to challenge is, “I don’t have control over my relationship, my holiday, my happiness.”  Catch this one quickly and replace with, “I create my relationship, my holiday, my happiness.” Let’s take the client I spoke about earlier, who has made great strides in claiming her power. She now approaches the holidays as a spiritual growth game. Her intention has moved from how can I change my family or get them to love me to how can I see the good, be more compassionate and learn to listen. Further, how can I wake up and first thing, appreciate my partner.  I love this story of taking control of your holiday, your relationship…your life. 

2. COMPASSION: Accept Yourself, Your Partner, Your Reality With Love

Acceptance and compassion go hand in hand, and paradoxically, they provide the best platform for making personal changes and inspiring others to change. To embrace and be with your self, your beloved, and your unique reality together— with acceptance and trust that for good reason, you need to be here in this moment—this opens your heart, and you can just feel the lightness pour in. If you’re feeling heavy or emotionally reactive, a pause is a must. Sometimes that means stepping away from your partner, taking a shower, going for a walk, looking at the sky, sharing in some way—these can all shut down the limiting force of the ego and make room for the bigger picture. Set your intention to awaken compassion within, beg if you have to, and do for yourself that which brightens your soul. I’m a huge fan of self compassion.  As Louise Haye says so well,  “Loving others is easy when I love and accept myself.”

3. COLLABORATION: Go Into the Holiday as Partners  

When we choose to invest in a committed relationship, our lives become interdependent. Our togetherness becomes an entity. If one partner’s gain puts a hole in the galley, then the whole relation”SHIP” goes down. This puts us in a vulnerable position, because we must create a oneness when we often have divergent needs or desires.  But this is the beauty in the dance of love and intimacy—navigating our own individuality alongside our growing capacity to care more for the other’s happiness than for our own.  Taking it one step at a time, we can use the holidays to begin negotiating and taking turns when our own dreams and desires don’t line up.  This collaboration can center around conversations (be careful they’re not “controler-sations”) on the following kinds of topics: 

  • Effectively sharing and negotiating the additional workload common during the holidays

  • Respectfully considering the traditions and values from each partner when creating your own

  • Balancing the religious and spiritual meaning and practices associated with the holiday

  • Showing care and support when our partner’s are stressed or emotionally vulnerable. “This means being supportive, even if you think his or her perspective is unreasonable,” (Dr. John Gottman) 

  • Being sensitive to personality differences when it comes to attending parties and gatherings 

4. COMMUNICATION: Calmly Make Sure Both Are Heard

One of my favorite communication exercises to do with couples in my practice is the Dream Catcher by Dr. John Gottman.  It’s a turn taking, structured exercise that with great practice and self control can become more integrated into how we relate to our partners.  Rather than pushing our point, calling the other out in some way, the focus is on creating a safe haven of authenticity where each partner feels seen and heard.  The listener spends around 10-15 minutes asking questions like:

  • What do you feel about this issue? 

  • Is there a story behind this for you? 

  • Does this relate to your childhood or background in some way? 

  • What do you need with this issue? 

  • Tell me why this is so important to you? 

  • What do you wish for?

  • What would be your ideal dream here?

  • Is there a fear or disaster scenario in not having this dream honored? having this dream honored?

  • Is there a deeper purpose or goal in this for you?

COUPLE EXERCISE #2: Pick one of the hot buttons that stood out from the list of stressors above and take turns being the speaker and the listener. The problem might not be solved, and that’s okay.  The purpose is to care enough to catch one another’s real dream and desire. Many need a counselor to help prepare them for this level of listening. You’ll know you are ready for this exercise as a couple if after your heart is filled with love and you feel closer.

Below is the FOx2am show on this topic; and here are 2 links with communication resources. Communication and fighting fair tips, and more about the Dream Catcher.

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