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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 Others may become withdrawn or irritable or feel like their life has lost meaning.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: Make the connection.

Every day, Veterans connect with useful resources and effective treatments for dealing with guilt. If guilt is affecting your health and well-being or getting in the way of your relationships, work, or daily activities, you may want to reach out for support. Consider connecting with:

  • A spiritual or religious adviser, such as a chaplain.
  • A mental health professional, such as a therapist.
  • Your doctor. Ask if your doctor has experience treating Veterans or can refer you to someone who does.
  • Your local VA Medical Center or Vet Center. VA specializes in the care and treatment of Veterans.

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.

National Center for PTSD
This website provides information, resources, and practical advice for Veterans, their family and friends, and the public when dealing with trauma.
www.ptsd.va.gov/public/index.asp

AfterDeployment
This website has wellness resources for Veterans and Service members, including information and self-help tools for posttraumatic stress and other issues they commonly experience.
www.afterdeployment.dcoe.mil

Moving Forward: Overcoming Life’s Challenges
Moving Forward is a free online educational and life-coaching program that teaches problem-solving skills to help you better handle life’s challenges. While it’s designed to be especially helpful for Veterans, Service members, and their families, Moving Forward teaches skills that can be useful to anyone with stressful problems.
www.veterantraining.va.gov/movingforward

Vet Center
If you are a combat Veteran, you can bring your DD214 to your local Vet Center and speak with a counselor or therapist — many of whom are Veterans themselves — for free, without an appointment, and regardless of your enrollment status with VA. In addition, any Veteran who was sexually traumatized while serving in the military is eligible to receive counseling regardless of gender or era of service.
www2.va.gov/directory/guide/vetcenter_flsh.asp

VA Medical Center Facility Locator
Problems dealing with guilt may be related to other health conditions that need attention. VA provides world-class health care to eligible Veterans. Most Veterans qualify for cost-free health care services, although some Veterans must pay modest copays for health care or prescriptions. Explore your eligibility for health care using VA's Health Benefits Explorer tool and find out more about the treatment options available to you.
www2.va.gov/directory/guide/home.asp?isflash=1