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PTSD: National Center for PTSD

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Spirituality Guilt


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Guilt, Shame, and Forgiveness

Warfare requires Service members to make split-second decisions in situations where there may be ambiguity about the identity and location of the enemy. This ambiguity in a life-threatening moment can result in the deaths of non-combatants. In combat, trauma exposure comes not only through being a victim or witness to violence, but also through inflicting harm on others.

All military personnel are trained to understand that they may be called upon to risk their own lives and perhaps to injure or kill the enemy. It is harder to accept that the innocent may die as well. In addition, at times extended exposure to threats and losses can lead Service members to violate rules of engagement by acting in unnecessarily and inappropriately aggressive ways toward the enemy or civilian noncombatants. It is not surprising then that problems with hostility, hatred, and guilt can arise as Service members attempt to transition back to civilian life and come to terms with their experiences.
Guilt has been defined as is a sense of remorse caused by feeling responsible for some offense. People typically feel guilty when they believe that they should have thought, felt, or acted differently in a particular situation. Trauma survivors may experience guilt after traumatic events for many reasons. Survivors might feel guilty for surviving the traumatic events when others died (i.e., survivor guilt), or for not being able to rescue others. They may feel guilty for actions that they committed during the traumatic events (e.g., killing others, engaging in disproportionate violence) or for feeling responsible for the overall traumatic event. This guilt may be inadvertently reinforced by others.
Shame occurs when people think there is something wrong with them (i.e., they are "bad"). Some survivors experience shame because of their actions or perceived absence of actions during traumatic events. Many survivors have a hindsight bias that causes them to think that they could have done something to prevent the traumatic events or change the events' outcome in some way. Some Service members or Veterans can come to view themselves as "damaged" or "tainted" by their actions, and deserving of their PTSD symptoms and subsequent negative life experiences.
In sum, guilt is linked to a specific event or events, whereas shame becomes a global attribution about the self. Guilt is a sense that "I did something bad;" shame is a sense of "I am bad because of what I did." To offer an example:

  • Guilt: For years after his Humvee ran over the child, the driver was very distressed because he didn't swerve in time to avoid the accident.
  • Shame: For years after his Humvee ran over the child, the driver believed that he was a bad person who didn't deserve to be happy.
Guilt and shame often occur together, so when working with Service members and Veterans, it is advisable to interpret expressions of guilt as a possible sign of dormant shame32. Working with forgiveness can be an important part of recovery. Because forgiveness can mean many different things for different people, self-forgiveness should be addressed from the Service member or Veteran's perspective, and include an exploration of how forgiveness is related to their relationship with a Higher Power utilizing rituals and practices from the Service member or Veteran's spiritual perspective.

Forgiveness Models

Though research on forgiveness has increased greatly since the mid-1990s, there remains a lack of consensus about the definition. Some view forgiveness as a process whereby negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors toward an offender are replaced with positive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors33. Others think in terms of motivation, and see forgiveness as redirecting negative motives and developing conciliatory motives towards an offender34. On the other hand, there is considerable agreement across theorists and research groups about what forgiveness is not. Most would say that forgiveness is not condoning, excusing, denying, forgetting, or reconciling. Forgiveness can play a significant role in helping Service members and Veterans to take a compassionate stance toward themselves and their trauma history.

Traumatic Guilt

Guilt that arises from events where people are harmed or killed - traumatic guilt - is a risk in warfare. Decisions must be made rapidly, and consequences of those decisions can result in the death of others. It is not surprising that individuals often emerge from such experiences with feelings of traumatic guilt. Second guessing oneself and attributing blame when negative consequences of one's actions occur are natural. At times, however, individuals may end up making distorted or exaggerated attributions about their behavior. It has been suggested that four types of appraisals can increase the magnitude of an individual's feelings of guilt35:

  1. The degree of one's perceived responsibility for the event.
  2. Perceived insufficient justification for the event's occurrence.
  3. Perceived violation of one's values in the course of the event.
  4. Having beliefs that the event was either foreseeable or preventable.
Most spiritual traditions have beliefs and practices designed to assist individuals who experience guilt, including forgiveness and acceptance. Because clergy training generally provides knowledge of religious traditions and rituals specifically designed to help those suffering with guilt and shame, and these emotions are commonly linked to traumatic events, you may be in an ideal position to use your training to address these issues with Service members and Veterans, sometimes with consultation with other professionals.

PTSD Information Voice Mail: (802) 296-6300
Also see: VA Mental Health