A few years back I came across this term—survivor’s guilt—it’s the “mental condition of a person who believes he/she has done something wrong by surviving a traumatic event when others did not”. Probably at a very different scale and form, but I think I have been carrying a very similar feeling for a while now—that of being undeserving. I later learned that it’s probably linked to having privileges and another term: Impostor’s Syndrome.
Not sure when or how it started. Perhaps it was when I was almost the only person in among my SD friends (who came from economically vulnerable families) to make it to Bogor’s best SMP, and it snowballed to where I am, with a dream degree and job. At almost every turn, I feel like I barely worked hard enough compared to my peers, but I always got in while they didn’t. It came with a weird survivor’s guilt too—how do I survive (sometimes thrive) when others struggle, why is the universe kind to me for no reason?
Come to think of it, I almost always had it easy. With no intentions to brag (why would an impostor brag), I listed down some evidence:
- On the day I competed in the first round of a national mathematics olympiad for junior high, I came unprepared, having done a sleepover at a friend’s the night before. Yet somehow I made it to the final round, and eventually won a gold medal which led me to a three-year scholarship at an international, English-speaking senior high.
- At senior high, I happened to be good in Turkish, went to an international language olympiad, practiced but really was just having a lot of fun, won another gold medal. That, together with another silver and bronze I got from international science project olympiads, apparently can be exchanged with an invitation to go to one of the country’s best universities. I remember feeling deeply guilty, seeing some of my friends at the dormitory studying their asses off and barely made it or did not make it at all. Why me?
- During undergrad time, I had so, so many windows of opportunities opened for me—organizationally, competition-wise, while maintaining a 3.8 GPA. Sure, it was stressful, but it also really wasn’t. I looked around and see some friends struggled here and there. How was I fine, barely affected with all the pressure—if anything, thrive? Still unclear.
- I stumbled upon my first job, which turns out to be a dream role where I could combine research with impact, and it also happens to pay really well. It was the first time they decided to hire an Indonesian-based intern, and I happened to come across the opportunity and got it, ended up being hired full time, learned a lot for almost two years, before…
- I got into Harvard the first time I applied. Did not even take a real course for my GRE. Got almost perfect score on my TOEFL. Sure, the preparation took a lot of time, but also it was fine. I did my best but I also did not want it so badly. There, I got the internship I wanted, approved the capstone project I wanted to do, won things, and overall did quite well.
- When I got back, I knew I wanted to explore the World Bank. Apparently someone forwarded my resume from a previous round of application, went through two interviews, and voila. Most people had to wait for a while before they get upgraded from a consultant to a full time position—I got that within a little over a year, for a position/title someone would normally have a lot more years of experience for.
Why does the universe love me so much and why does it bother me???
I have experienced so much joy, I have seen so much of the world, and the only feeling that now left me with is how much I wish I could have my family with me the whole time. I wish my parents were with me when I got to explore the United States. I wish Eyang could’ve visited the Louvre Museum with me. I wish my brothers could’ve seen Hogsmeade with me. After everything they’ve done for me—every single sacrifice—how am I the only one in the family who gets to enjoy all of that???
Sometimes, when a close friend of mine goes through a hard time, I deeply share their pain, but they also come with more guilt. How am I happy and well? Why can’t everyone in the world be? Shouldn’t celebration of anything be banned as long as there’s someone else sad in the corner? Can’t we do something about poverty and inequality once and for all? (Is it possible that I’m simply in denial with my own problems and struggles?)
I’m still learning to make peace with this guilt. One thing that it does is I constantly try to give back—with my time, energy, and resources. But it never feels close to being enough, while I keep feeling burnout in the process. Somebody told me it’s a Messiah complex/first daughter thing?
Anyone going through a similar thing? What’s your trick?