Some TikTokers who bought Taylor Swift tickets say they have 'survivor's guilt.' A psychologist says 'kids don't really know what these phrases mean.'

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - DECEMBER 16: Taylor Swift is seen with fans during The World Premiere of Cats, presented by Universal Pictures on December 16, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images  for Universal Pictures)
In this New York City photo from 2019, Taylor Swift poses with fans — many of whom have some strong feelings about getting tickets to her tour this week while so many others did not. (Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Universal Pictures)

As parents and kids across the nation are still processing this week's Taylor Swift Ticketmaster calamity — which saw potential buyers locked out of presale, general sale canceled, resellers asking for up to $28,000 a ticket, politicians jumping into the fray and Swift herself issuing an upset statement — some are having a more difficult time than others.

And that, surprisingly, includes Swifties who were able to successfully purchase tickets.

"Survived the great war but not without survivors guilt," was the text on just one of a flood of TikToks posted by people with tickets who say their happiness is dampened by "survivor's guilt" because their friends and other fans came away empty-handed.

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"Survivors guilt is real," notes one caption.

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"Having survivor's guilt over getting good seats to the eras tour," notes another.

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Others just say, simply, "Survivors guilt."

What’s going on here?

This is a mix of confusion, big feelings and, in some younger cases, the not-so-surprising results of having a teenage brain, says adolescent-focused psychologist Barbara Greenberg.

"It's a misuse of the term," she tells Yahoo Life of "survivor's guilt," noting that it's not the first example of its kind, with "trauma" also being frequently misused on social media.

"Of course, it's the teen brain in action," she continues, "because something that should just be a low-level emotion — my friend didn't get a ticket — in the teen brain, where they don't have the kind of emotional control they will hopefully have when they're older, it is registering very intensely."

Further, "I think the kids don't really know what these phrases mean … and this is the problem when kids don't have the right labels, because then they will latch on to any label that seems to fit," she says. "And what it really speaks to is the need to educate children and teens about the right use of language." For example, she notes, "They use, 'I want to kill myself way too frequently,' it's in the vocabulary, so I say, 'Do you want to die? Or are you very upset about the situation?' They're trying hard to explain their feelings, which probably are intense."

So what is survivor's guilt?

What it actually means, Greenberg explains, is "when you have witnessed other people experience trauma and somehow you were able to escape it, and they were not." And trauma means something life-or-death serious. "We're talking about somebody in a car accident, and your friend or mother doesn't survive, but you do. Or it could be your freshman year in college and you leave a party but your friend stays and gets sexually assaulted … Or you survive a mass shooting."

According to the current version of the psychiatric diagnostic manual, the DSM-5, survivor's guilt was once a diagnosis in its own right, but is seen now as a possible symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and typically includes having distorted feelings of guilt and negative thoughts about oneself.

"When experiencing survivor's guilt after a trauma," notes the What’s Your Grief resource, "it is common to feel that one was not worthy of survival. Additionally, as someone feels relief and appreciation for their survival, they often simultaneously feel guilt and shame for having those feelings when others did not survive."

Medical News Today explains, "Survivors may question why they escaped death while others lost their lives. They may also wonder whether there was something that they could have done to prevent the traumatic event or preserve life."

On TikTok, the Taylor Swift posts have prompted reaction posts, calling them out for the misuse of "survivor's guilt."

"I don't think that's OK," said viral TikTok sensation Chris Olsen. "You cannot be comparing people who didn't get tickets to people who have died."

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Another TikToker said, "There is no way that you guys are comparing getting Taylor Swift tickets to survivor's guilt. Like, am I reading correctly?"

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What's very possible, of course, is that folks in this situation are feeling "normal guilt," says Greenberg — something noted by WNYC radio and podcast host Brian Lehrer, who fielded calls on his show Friday from frustrated parents, one who said her daughter did not want to even talk about how lucky she was to get tickets when so many did not. "You had a normal ticket buying experience," Lehrer said, "but your daughter doesn't want to talk about it, because it seems like gloating."

So why does the right term matter, anyway? For a couple of important reasons, Greenberg explains.

"If you use [survivor's guilt] improperly, you're minimizing other people's experiences," she says. "But it also could lead to emotional dysregulation — meaning, feelings can get out of control and out of hand if you put a bigger label on something that you actually should. Then your feelings could follow suit, and it could be an emotional meltdown."

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