The 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
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!
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.
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