You’re a good person, right? I bet you’re mostly kind to others, hold doors open for strangers and help your friends when they’re having a tough time. But have you ever done something so against your moral values that you struggled to forgive yourself? If so, you may have experienced moral injury.
And even though it’s self inflicted it’s still a hard blow to take.
What exactly is moral injury?
Moral injury was defined in 2009 by Brett Litz et al as, “Perpetrating, failing to prevent, or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.” They went on to state that this experience could be emotionally, psychologically, behaviourally, spiritually, and socially harmful.
Originally moral injury was associated with soldiers. Many of whom were unable to reconcile their actions during war with the kind, caring people they were at home. They felt they had broken their own moral codes. And a positive correlation was found between the incidence of moral injury and suicide among veterans returning from war.
Feeling shame on a smaller level
But moral injury can happen in smaller ways too. An affair with a married man, the memory of bullying another student, or losing your temper and assaulting a loved one. All of these can be causes of moral injury. Particularly, if they go against our beliefs about who we are and what we stand for. They can leave us with feelings of shame, guilt, self loathing and disconnection.
3 tips to help manage moral injury
- self compassion is key
I’ve written about the benefits of self compassion in a previous blog. But this can be an especially useful technique for dealing with moral injury. A good place to start is to check your inner dialogue and talk to yourself in the same way you’d talk to a close friend. It’s also worth separating yourself from your actions. This means accepting that although your behaviour wasn’t good, you’re not a bad person. Where you would try to forgive and understand a friend’s behaviour, try and do the same for yourself. Occasionally everyone gets stressed, scared or lonely, and acts in ways they wouldn’t normally. You are no less deserving of understanding and compassion because of this.
2. Make amends in a meaningful way
If it’s possible to apologise, and you feel brave enough to do so, then go ahead. Offering an apology can put an end to many years of sleepless nights and stomach clenching anxiety. The only thing you need to consider is how you will feel, and how you will cope if your apology is not graciously accepted.
3. Volunteer in a related area
Lastly, offering your services in an area that’s related to your moral injury can be a big stride towards making peace with yourself. For example, if you feel guilty about bullying behaviour in high school then fundraising or supporting a bullying awareness charity, can be an effective attempt to right a wrong.
Get further help for how you’re feeling
Living with moral injury can be an isolating experience. It’s a fairly new psychological term and all the research around it is also relatively recent. Due to the feelings of shame and guilt that accompany moral injury, it becomes hard to talk about with friends or family. This can lead to disconnection, and ultimately depression. However, there are resources around. If you’re in to books then Moral Injury: Restoring wounded Souls and The Moral Injury Workbook are both very good. The first has a religious angle to it, and the second uses the techniques of Acceptance Commitment Therapy.
Lastly, counselling can work very well and be really effective with moral injury. This is because it provides a safe and non judgemental environment, so you can talk completely candidly about your experience and your feelings. Expressing the thoughts and details that you wouldn’t usually be able to share with anyone else.
I’d love to hear your experience of moral injury, so if you’re happy to explain then please leave a comment below.