Lots of people reading this know what “survivor’s guilt” is all about: having feelings about having survived or made it out of a painful or dangerous situation…while others may not have made it out. 

We see survivor’s guilt talked about a lot in the context of military trauma— the emotional dilemma of soldiers who came back from conflict, but whose fellow soldiers did not. 

Survivor’s guilt can be awful. It can lead us to question our very worth. 

Many survivors have a voice in their head telling them, “it should have been me.” Many survivors are left questioning what value they contribute to the world, having survived what they went through out of “dumb luck.” 

There’s a particular kind of survivor’s guilt that is specific to victims of violence, especially sexual assault: the knowledge and/or worry that the person who perpetrated their assault is still out there. 

It is an enormously unfortunate reality that many perpetrators of assault, especially sexual assault, aren’t apprehended; or even if they are, they’re often not convicted. 

This results in a situation where a survivors is left trying to recover— but they are saddled with the reality that their perpetrator is out there. 

It’s often observed that it’s really hard to recover from trauma if someone isn’t in a fundamentally save environment now. Recovery can be almost impossible if a trauma is still happening. 

For survivors whose perpetrators got away, who might be still out there, the safety of “at least it’s over now” may not be wholly achievable. 

After all, we don’t know what we don’t know. And we often DON’T know where our perpetrator is, what they’re doing— or what their intentions are. 

A related fear among survivors is whether their perpetrator is out there victimizing other people, like they victimized us…and feeling utterly helpless to do anything about it. 

There isn’t any easy fix for this anxiety. 

I often write about the fact that telling a survivor “you’re safe now,” as so many trauma treatment resources recommend, may not always be the best thing— because the truth is, the world out there IS unpredictable and uncontrollable in many ways. 

I’m actually NOT a fan of deactivating all of our danger-sensing instincts and habits. 

It may be true that, right here, right now, you’re not vulnerable in the same way you were vulnerable back there, back then— but the reality is, all of us need a certain amount of vigilance in order to be realistically as safe as possible. 

Yes. We need to be as realistically conscious and careful as is practical, when we know there is a perpetrator out there who has hurt us before. That’s reality. 

By that same token— our lives can’t be held hostage to either the possibility that our perpetrator will hurt us again, or to the reality that our perpetrator might target someone else for victimization. 

I absolutely hate it, but that falls into the “things we cannot control” category. 

This whole thing is one of the reasons why so many victims of trauma and violence, as part of their recovery, get involved in anti-violence advocacy and peer support: because they are aware of some dark realities. 

All we can do is what we can do. 

We can speak up and speak out about the fact that bad things DO happen, and bad people ARE out there. 

We can design our lives in such a way that we’re living as safely as practical— while acknowledging that no adjustment we make to our lifestyle will EVER guarantee 100% safety. 

We can use our trauma recovery tools, skills, and philosophies to stay grounded, realistic, and stable as we rebuild our life. 

In the end, survivor’s guilt must be met with acceptance and compassion— radical acceptance and radical compassion. 

And yes, you deserve both. Because you’re here. You’re alive. You’re reading these words. 

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