What is guilt?
Do you blame yourself for things that happened in the past, whether or not you were somehow at fault or even involved? Maybe you feel as if there was something more you could have or should have done to prevent a tragic event. Perhaps you’ve done things you’re not proud of, and you can’t seem to get those things off your mind.
Guilt is a feeling of responsibility for bad events, whether that feeling of responsibility is realistic or not. Some Veterans feel guilt or remorse because of something that happened in their military experience, such as an injury to a buddy in their unit, friendly fire, or civilian deaths. Other Veterans may feel guilt because of events that happened outside of the military.
Veterans may also experience survivor guilt. Survivor guilt can include feeling guilty for surviving when others did not, wishing that you had died instead of others, or thinking you didn’t deserve to survive.
“It took me a long time to accept that I wasn't responsible, but I still see his brand new boots and his shiny dog tags.”
Feelings of guilt can interfere with your everyday activities, and it makes it hard for some people to get through the day. Guilt may be related to stress and anxiety or depression. Some people may try dealing with guilt temporarily by turning to alcohol or drugs in order to forget or feel better for a little while. Others may become withdrawn or irritable or feel like their life has lost meaning. These behaviors can strain your personal relationships and may make it hard to keep a job or to go to school.
If I’m experiencing guilt, what can I do about it right away?
If you find yourself living with guilt or remorse about a past action or inaction, try to set aside time to think about your feelings. The following steps might help you cope with the guilt you feel:
- Write a list of what you think you should and shouldn't have done during the event.
- Remind yourself that everyone has things they would do differently if given the chance — but that no one can change the past or predict the future. Many things that look clear now would have been impossible to predict at the time.
- Identify productive ways to act on any regrets, such as finding a way to pay tribute to the fallen.
- Consider how you might work toward forgiving yourself for regrets you're unable to act on now. You might talk to a chaplain about how to move forward with forgiveness.
- Think about what you'd say to a buddy with similar feelings. You probably wouldn't tell a friend to keep feeling guilty and remorseful about the past, so try to have the same compassion for yourself.
- Discuss what actually happened with others who were there. Sometimes guilt can change the way you remember things and make you feel more responsible than you actually are.
- Remind yourself that you did the best you could, given your circumstances at the time.
If you are having trouble forgiving yourself, talking to your family and friends may be a good first step. Many people find that sharing regrets or guilty feelings with another person helps them overcome them. Sometimes the experience is worse if you keep your feelings to yourself. These people also may have perspectives on the situation you have overlooked. Your family and friends may be able to provide you with support and help you find services that are right for you.
Take the next step to connect with care.
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- If you’re not using VA medical services, contact your nearest VA medical center or Vet Center to talk about your needs.
What about other options at VA? VA offers a variety of tools and resources.
- The Veteran Training online self-help portal for overcoming everyday challenges includes modules on managing anger, developing parenting and problem-solving skills, and more.
- Mental health apps for Veterans cover a variety of topics, ranging from PTSD to anger management to quitting smoking.
- VA TeleMental Health connects you with a VA mental health provider through a computer or mobile device in your home or at your nearest VA health facility. You can learn more about this option from your local VA medical center.
- Community-based Vet Centers provide confidential counseling, community engagement and referral services to eligible individuals and their families. You don’t need to be enrolled in VA healthcare or have a service connection to receive services. Find a Vet Center near you or call 1-877-927-8387, 24/7 to talk with a fellow Veteran about your experiences.
What about support beyond VA?
There’s a whole community of support ready to help with whatever you’re going through. Use this tool to find resources near you.
Explore these resources for more information about Veterans experiencing guilt.
Learn more about what you can do if you are experiencing specific concerns related to guilt, such as stress and anxiety, depression, spirituality, posttraumatic stress, and alcohol or drug problems.