Bystander Guilt-feel don't deserve love because of passivity

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    I’m in a torture chamber of emotions right now not because of what I did do but because of what I didn’t do. I have bystander guilt for two accounts and I’m having a rough time getting past it and moving on with my life.
    Last year I studied abroad in Spain. My friend and I went to what we thought was a night club but turned out to be a rave. The place was in the sketchiest area. Cops outside with dogs. Guys high and drunk outside walking towards us and whistling. I don’t know why we decided to go in but we did. Everyone was wearing punk clothes and there were more guys than girls. A lot of people were high. My friend and I stood out because we weren’t dressed like them and we were sober. Long story short the place was creepy. An hour after trying to make the most of it my friend was tired of this so we left. As we were leaving down one of the platforms we were walking on there was a girl about our age (early twenties) lying on the ground. I nudged her and asked if she was ok. She murmured words I couldn’t understand and there was foam from her mouth. It was really scary. I knew she was really really high. And I just thought “she’s conscious. Cool. But really really high. This place is creepy. Let’s go.” Something deep down felt something was up. My friend said c’mon let’s go and so we left. In fact, ironically the high girl on the ground was the turning point for me to leave immediately. I would retell the story and describe this girl and say how scary and high she was. Only about six months later I realized she was overdosing and looking back I can’t believe I didn’t help her and simply followed my friend. I have no idea what happened to her. She could be dead because of that.
    Second account. I was a waitress at my job. A week before a former sex traffick and prostitue gave a presentation in a college class. She informed us what to look out for and the common misconceptions that society has towards prostitution (i.e. it’s his or her choice, he/she loves their job). Fast forward and this creepy man with an Asian woman who doesn’t know that much English orders food. I know something isn’t right. I hear a co worker saying “look. He totally bought her”. Meanwhile, I’m thinking no she’s a mail order bride and that it’s her choice to sign up for a website. The woman who gave the presentation’s face kept on popping up in my mind and I start remembering the presentation but I keep thinking she’s a mail order bride. Hours after my shift I realize she probably wasn’t. While my co workers thought prostitues make money at their jobs and it’s their choice I knew from the presentation they don’t. This woman could be repeatedly getting raped.

    Pretty much, I feel ashamed and guilty for my inactions. Because I didn’t intervene a girl could be dead and a woman could be continually being raped and imprisoned. I plugged the human trafficking hotline and poison control hotline in my contacts. I plan on learning cpr and emergency first aid and take an overdose class and carry those overdose syringes with me but I feel like I don’t deserve to live a happy and fulfilling life because of these two incidences. My family has said I didn’t know but in the famous Kitty Genovese case (Genovese was stabbed multiple times crying for help while a bunch of people watched) the bystanders had multiple accounts, a lot of them saying they thought it was an argument with a lover. I guess you could say they didn’t know either. In reality they froze. I froze too. And because I froze horrible things probably happened. I hate myself right now and feel guilty when I feel positive. I always thought I would be the woman who jumps in. It’s just depressing to know how passively I actted. How do I get past this and move on with my life? How do I take responsibility for my actions (or rather inactions) but not let those two incidences define me?



    Please don’t dwell on this, you are clearly an extremely empathetic and kind person. In the case of the first girl, you noticed her predicament and checked she was conscious. At the time you lacked the knowledge that she had quite possibly overdosed and, at that point, you were overcome by your fear of the situation. If you were not at all familiar with raves or open/extreme drug-taking, that would be a very uncomfortable situation to find yourself in and your instincts told you to get out of there; in that situation, it is understandable that you wanted to just run away. It is only later, when you know you are completely out of danger, that you think what you could have done.

    You don’t deserve the emotional torture and guilt. It is really good that you are aware of the bystander apathy phenomenon and that you are educating yourself about things such as sex trafficking and what to do in other life-and-death emergencies. It is clear that if you encounter this kind of situation in the future, you will know what to do. Having said this, don’t anticipate everything as being a potential case of exploitation. You’ll be in a constant state of anxiety if you are fixated on making amends and are therefore stressing yourself in being highly attentive to every single man or woman you see. However, if you truly feel something is very wrong, then don’t hesitate to take the necessary measures.

    Whatever was the outcome of the stories (I am thinking mainly of the first story you told), unfortunately you cannot turn back time. You can only learn lessons and apply them in the present when the chance presents itself. In the meanwhile, you are clearly kind, empathetic and conscious of your actions. The same can’t be said of plenty of people. Good luck, please forgive yourself and find peace with this because you deserve it.


    Dear Elizabeth Mack:
    I read part of your post yesterday and all of Sweetglow’s reply today. I very much like the reply. I am responding to the following part of your post: to my understanding you were outside a night club and you were very much AFRAID when you passed by the overdosing or possibly overdosing young woman. Looking back you wished you got her some help and possibly saved her life that was possibly then in danger. My response has to do with something I read this very morning: “When the right brain is hyper-activated in flashback, the left-brain is also fully engaged.” This means that when the “emotional brain”- the emotional neurological circuitry in the brainn is activated, that is when you are AFRAID, your “thinking brain” is deactivated, that is, “OFF”. so you are biologically not in a thinking mode. Like Sweetglow wrote if you will be in a similar situation in the future you will know what to do, that is you will not be that afraid because the situation will no longer be so new, you will have some sense of mastery (knowing what to do)- so your fear will be more manageable and your “thinking brain” will not be as deactivated. Is this any help to you?
    Take Care:


    Nobody “watched” Kitty Genovese get repeatedly stabbed. The original report overstated the case wildly. There were witnesses, but no one realised what was really going on. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_Kitty_Genovese#Attack

    The bystander effect clearly doesn’t just effect you, though. It’s a known, unfortunate feature of humans the world over. Why should you carry particular guilt for acting in accordance with human nature – especially if you clearly didn’t mean to?

    • This reply was modified 8 years, 11 months ago by Will.

    @Will I guess I always saw myself as the exception to the rule. I’ve been able to make ammends with what happened at the rave/club in Barcelona, Spain. It’s just it’s harder for me to let go of the second story. Now looking back I understand why I thought this woman might be a mail order bride. The man and the woman were around the same age (she looked a little bit younger), they were holidng hands, and both were dressed in casual formal attire. She seemed docile but not emotionally distressed, and he wasn’t domineering, but cold. I worked at an Asian restaurant so it seemed like going there was more for her. The thing is though he could have been a pimp. He could have been a “john”. Or he could have just been some guy. I will never know. The thing that I wrestle with was when my co-worker said “he totally bought her” and I immediately thought no he didn’t and I rationalized she could be a mail order bride. My gut though told me something was up. I felt creepiness and anger towards this man; however it was confusing because my senses indicated nothing unsual was going on. Visually the woman was not screaming. She wasn’t 15. I just thought there was no way this could be a case of human sex trafficking yet the woman who gave the presentation’s face kept popping up. I ignored my gut instinct. They left. Later on that night after my shift I realized she could have been and felt horrible for not listening to my instinct and giving a tip. At the end of the day maybe she was and maybe she wasn’t. I honestly think she probably was. Months later I realized I could still file a tip and I did file a potential trafficking case, but I still feel bad. I don’t know this guy’s name or hers and I forget the exact date. That information could have helped her. I think a part of me during that incident rationalized it via observation, but another part of me was probably in denial. Irrationally, I feel like this is a dirty, dark secret that once anyone knows won’t love me and will find me despicable. Honestly though I’ve told my parents and my then boyfriend and all were understanding and didn’t judge me. In fact, my then boyfriend told me some of the best advice: that everyone freezes. No one starts out not freezing. That it’s through freezing we recognize the behavior and then can change it so that we learn to not do it. He was one of the most non judgemental people. We broke up a month ago and it has forced me to face my own demons on my own (which is for the best but pretty painful). I think it’s a matter of me not loving and not forgiving myself. I think in a weird way also is that by not letting go of this incident I’m also not letting go of him. I had already processed this information 5 months ago and inputted the human trafficking hotline in my phone. Other incidences have happened where I haven’t been a bystander and I know this incident has helped with that. I filed a report. I’ve done everything I can and yet I don’t want to let this go because his face keeps coming up and giving me that advice.


    Dear Elizabeth Mack:
    I find the human psyche, mind, brain fascinating. I enjoy guessing what is going on in another’s psyche (as i work hard on revealing my own to myself… and making my psyche more “user friendly”) Because I enjoy guessing and I think it MAY be helpful to you… (I have very low expectations of being helpful becasue even if I understand something about another correctly- IF I do- often the other person does not want to see what is there- neither did I, neither do I…)

    So, please let me know if my following guess work piece has any meaning to you whatsoever, if there is any truth to it:

    My guessing is that you are somewhat, somehow a bystander in your own life. There is something that is wrong- about your past, carried into the present. Something wrong that you need to look into- some hurt, some betrayal that others did not see and therefore you figured too that it didn’t happen. Or it wasn’t that important: something you denied or minimized.

    Was there a trauma, an injury that you suffered that others stood by, doing nothing about?


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