Cancer survivor guilt exists, it is real, but it is conditioned and not justified. It is someone else's anger and I must stop taking it as my own, now. How?
Once I attended a training course on 'guilt'. One of the trainers said boldly 'I don't do guilt'. I was impressed. Today I go one big step further: guilt does not exist. Clearly I don't mean the legal definition of guilt. I am talking about feeling guilt and shame.
Guilt is what I call a 'masking feeling'. It is more acceptable and covers up feelings which are less acceptable, like anger and frustration. Mostly this is an automatic response. We often 'do guilt' to avoid conflict. "Ok, it's my fault ... let's not go there..." We bow in the face of someone else's view on things, their reality and their feelings.
Having a social, cultural and religious heritage that is well saturated with guilt (at least when I grew up), shame and guilt would be a constant companion and shadow that would weigh heavily on me. The essence of the intuitive and conscious belief was that 'I am bad'.
Over the years and with a lot of hard work I have eroded my guilt mechanism. Or so I thought.
The recent terminal cancer diagnosis of a relative of mine, her gradual and then very quick deterioration and death filled me with the old feeling of guilt.
Guilty for being alive and well (as far as I can tell) after my own cancer diagnosis and treatment.
Guilty for having my annual check up come back as clear, when the metastases in her liver were growing rapidly.
Guilty for my ongoing sense of uncertainty about life and death.
Guilty sitting next to her mother, who asks me whether I have faith, because she no longer does.
In the presence of the bereaved mother my mother feels guilty that her child is still alive. And I so wish she did not feel guilty, that she would lead by example and show how it is done. Alas, I have to do it for myself, and help her along the way.
So let's do the work and banish the phantom guilt:
The survivor guilt I feel is really a sense of discomfort. I am quite possibly picking up someone else's anger, frustration and despair at their own situation. It is their situation and not mine. I feel compassion for them and I know I cannot offer a solution. There is no shame in that whatsoever. We all have our own struggles and our own journey. I have acted responsibly and honestly. I have done the best I can.
I have a choice not do guilt, and also do not need anyone else to do guilt for me.
Karin Sieger is a BACP registered and accredited psychotherapist based in London. She specialises in supporting people affected by cancer. In her blog, Between Self and Doubt, she reflects and life and death and how to thrive despite cancer.
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