Here at Counselling Connections this week we have been trying to identify some of the influences that form part of any decision making process. The dilemma presents itself when someone comes to us saying that they cannot come to a decision about some problem that is facing them. At times this can cause such a build up of frustration that even a decision that is ordinarily quite straightforward becomes difficult. We can lose confidence in our ability to make good choices and this can make day to day living more of a challenge than it needs to be. There are many ways of looking at this issue and this week we want to address it by posing the question: ‘where is your moral compass?’
Straight away we are getting into the murky waters of what exactly is understood by moral. There are understandings of morality from psychology and from religion. What we want to consider is the influence that these forces exert on the individual and what weight we put on them in our decision making process. A conflict between aspects of our personal moral code may leave us in the indecisive position which we are trying to help clear up. In therapy this involves reflecting on the origins of our sense of right and wrong and how these were taught to us.
The first kind of moral influence we want to discuss is what we are calling a vertical moral influence. By this we mean simply that it appears to come from above. Our first authority figures are our parents. It may happen that a sense of what is good or bad is expressed slightly differently by either parent. In fact it might be possible to identify rules that are generally enforced by mother which differ from those of the father. Here we might find the first source of conflict as we try to bring together these separate influences. If each parent is giving a similar message and trying to create the same kind of parameter then there is less space for confusion.
If childhood rules are too strictly enforced; if there is no room for interpretation or manoeuvre we might find that this creates rigidity of thought throughout life. An individual may find this vertical kind of moral code very difficult to challenge in their adult life. A vertical moral code is informed by the rules of the society we live in; by the law of the land and by religion. Generally speaking these are widely held beliefs about a good or ethical way to conduct ourselves for the sake of the common good. But they may not take into account the experience of the individual.
There are other influences that we will call the horizontal moral code which can exert just as much pressure on the individual. These kinds of things we learn from peers and have to do with the cultural norms of whatever group we belong to. It is extremely difficult for a single person to stand alone in opposition to their group and take a stand against what is considered normal. Indeed to consider taking such a position is to face the possibility of losing the support and even membership of whatever group we happen to belong to at a given time. These are informed by a phase of life that we pass through as we navigate our teens and our early twenties. How we relate to a work or new family arrangement will be informed by how we responded to these horizontal conventions.
Both the kinds of things we have described might be described as external influences. Although they are intended to be for the common good they may create a pressure which the individual experiences as oppressive. Indeed it could be argued that some of these social mores do not necessarily pay as much attention to ethical considerations as they do to what is simply the way things have always been done. And these kinds of things are ever changing. Without losing sight of the individual’s place within a family, work or social group some of the answers to moral dilemmas might best be found by tuning in to an internal moral compass.
It is usually possible, after considering the ways in which our moral code was taught to us, to develop an improved sense of our own aspirations, separate from given norms. The hope is that this would facilitate the growth of our own way of being in the world. This does not mean that we only take our own needs into account. We always have to consider our relationships with others when making big decisions. In order to feel that we are living an authentic life and in order to feel assertive and sure of our decion making we may benefit from this examination of where our moral compass is located and how it got there. We are then freed up to make choices which help maintain a sense of balance between our real self and our external world.
Counselling Connections, Dundalk.