Col17_GuiltThe other day a girlfriend of mine texted me in a panic. Though her initial message merely read, “Hey what’s up?”, I knew immediately (call it a hunch, must’ve been a consequence of our recent discussion on gut feelings) her interest in contacting me went far beyond a casual check-in.

It didn’t take long after my prompt reply for her to proceed in sending me an uncensored description of all of the wrongdoings she had committed recently, followed by profuse apologies and a request for forgiveness (out of fear she’d lose me as a friend) as though I were some divine entity.

I explained to her while I did not in any way, shape or form condone her actions, I was in no position to judge another person as we all (including me!) make mistakes. Moreover despite her unfortunate choices as of late, I relayed to her, as ironic as it may sound, that the horrible feelings she was currently battling with were actually a good thing. After all, if she could commit atrocious acts on a regular basis without inspiring extreme feelings of remorse shortly thereafter, she’d fit one of the psychological profile characteristics of a serial killer (ie: lack of a conscience) and accordingly, I’m not so certain I’d feel safe enough to be her pal!

That of course is the irony of guilt: it makes you feel absolutely wretched, but you know what? That wretchedness is valuable as it acts as an instigator for growth, learning and yep, you guessed it, psychological maturity.

According to Martin Hoffman, Professor of Clinical Psychology at New York University, “the guilt response” is composed of both an emotional and cognitive element and is activated upon the acknowledgement that one has participated in an action that clashes with his/her self-concept in a detrimental capacity. Important in this definition is the understanding of how one’s emotions (ie: feelings and sensations) interact with one’s cognition (ie: logical thought processes).

As cognitive psychologist Piaget theorized, the ability to think about one’s actions abstractly and hypothetically is a capacity that does not typically develop until late childhood. As a consequence, the internalization of a sense of personal “morality” (ie: the capacity for forming judgments about what is morally right or wrong, good or bad, in terms of how said actions will affect others) cannot begin to form until around the same time period, at the very earliest.

The teaching of morality and responsibility then (at least in the initial stages) relies upon the behaviourist’s “primitive” model of reward/punishment. Essentially, if we are rewarded for “good” deeds even if we do not have the psychological capacity to understand that they are “morally” good, we will continue to commit them purely for the reward. On the other side of the equation, if we are punished for negative outbursts, equally it is presumed we will no longer be compelled to act in said fashion. Alas, if only it were that easy when we become grown-ups!

As we age, it seems the grey area between the black side of “wrong” and the white side of “good” expands, often leaving us in situations fraught with moral ambiguity. Throw the media’s influence, legislative and religious hypocrisy along with various cultural factors into the mix, and you’re left with more confusion that clarity. This however is NOT a piece about morality – that’s something you’ll need to figure out on your own (ie: what’s right for you) as you encounter various decisions and dilemmas throughout your life. Often times, situations, particularly of the heart, are powerful enough to act as the catalyst for an entirely new moral compass.

What I do hope you take away from this piece however is as follows: MATURITY IS the ability to admit you’ve made mistakes, the willingness to accept responsibility for any consequences that may result from your actions AND the desire to make amends NOT hold juvenile grudges.

In life, sometimes there are lessons that necessitate multiple “courses” before we fully digest the message. Often times, people continue to “reoffend” despite being cognisant of the Pandora’s box they know they’re going to open. As is the case with many, this apparent lack of foresight is typically accounted to one of two things: a) “tunnel vision” (ie: focussing too much on one’s immediate often superficial self-serving desire for thrills as opposed to long-term meaningful gratification) OR as was the case with my girlfriend b) a lack of a concrete and positive self-concept; something we’ll delve into more next week!