Survivor’s Guilt?

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(Illustration by David Leonard)

Brittany Miller seems to have it all: a well-paying job as a finance specialist with a leading communications company (complete with a promotion and two raises this year), a brand new condo in Washington, D.C., and enough time and money with which to jaunt around the country. (Her favorite trip of 2009? Celebrating her cousin’s birthday in Las Vegas.) While the 24-year-old go-getter enjoys both her career and her free time, Miller admits she can’t help carrying a bit of guilt along for the ride.

After seeing some hundred people laid off from her department, seven of her close friends search for work, and her own sister pink-slipped last year, Miller is feeling more than a little bad about her success. “I feel guilty for not being able to share what they’re going through,” she admits. “It’s disheartening to tell my big sister, ‘If you want to come home for the holidays, I can put the money in your account.’ And I feel bad doing things when I can’t invite certain friends because I know they can’t afford to go.”

Success can even breed resentment in others. For example, Miller’s first raise of the year nearly ended some of her relationships. “I sent an announcement to my e-mail group when I got a raise, and one girl asked me not to share when some members didn’t have jobs. She said I was being ‘too boastful.’” Hurt and confused, Miller retreated from the group altogether and kept further successes to herself.

Surprisingly, Miller isn’t the only one feeling a twinge of guilt. A recent study from Leadership IQ, a research company in Atlanta, polled more than 4,000 people who have kept their jobs after corporate cutbacks and found that 62% of them feel guilty, anxious, and angry following company layoffs. “When you are affluent while so many are not, you might feel guilty that you’re not suffering the way everyone else is,” says Alduan Tartt, a psychologist in Decatur, Georgia. “But you worked hard for your success; you should feel blessed that you’re in a position to help.”

Though your first instinct may be to pull away, Tartt says that the best way to allay your guilt is to reach out to your loved ones. “Guilt is caused by a lack of a sense of power. But you do have power,” he says. “You have the power to help [others] by reviewing résumés, introducing them to people in your network, inviting them with you to networking events, and brainstorming with them.”

Tartt also says it’s important to comfort those who have lost their jobs. “When friends are let go, contact them immediately, set up lunch dates, and help them think about what their next move is going to be. Remember: Friends don’t want your guilt, they want your support.”

That’s advice Miller is now following, even as she balances reprioritizing her finances with enjoying the fruits of her labor. She’s reconnecting with her friends and even returned to the e-mail group, where she critiques résumés and posts job listings. She also says things are improving around her––three of her friends have new jobs and her sister is exploring her entrepreneurial side. In the end, Miller offers her own advice: “It’s OK to feel good about yourself and at the same time feel bad for others. Just don’t allow guilt to take over your happiness.”

Who me? Yes, you.

Feel a twinge of envy about someone else’s success? Quash the green-eyed monster by focusing inward. “Work on improving your own situation,” suggests Tartt. “Be grateful for being forced to do something different. The money hasn’t disappeared; it’s just moved somewhere else. The challeneg is to find it.”

This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue of Black Enterprise magazine.