Conscience is that inner sense which helps us discern right from wrong. Some people appear to operate entirely without a conscience, but most of us have one to guide our thoughts and behaviors. The question is . . . how healthy is it?
For most of my adult life I suffered from an overactive conscience. Since I didn’t know any better I assumed this was normal. After all, it was the only conscience I had. Without anything to compare it to, I figured it was just doing its job.
It wasn’t until it ravaged my mind and body for two decades, condemning me for every imperfection, that I finally saw it as toxic. Although I am still on the road to recovery, I have learned much along the way. Now, when my conscience speaks up, I filter it through three indicators to determine whether the voice is healthy or harmful.
A healthy conscience acts as a compass not a club
Compasses are small instruments that can guide huge ships, protecting them from the harm of getting off course. However, that is all they do. It is virtually impossible to use a compass as a weapon. A healthy conscience cautions you when you are tempted to violate your true moral principles, but doesn’t beat you over the head for simply being an imperfect human being.
A healthy conscience is outward focused not inward
Your conscience is what enables you to live in community with other people. It is what stops you from harming those around you. Since its focus is outward, it doesn’t cause you to obsess about yourself. Instead, it asks you to focus on the impact you have on the world around you. Although self-reflection may be involved, a healthy conscience is more concerned with how your behavior may affect other people than with how others might view you.
A healthy conscience brings peace not torment
The purpose of a conscience is to impel us toward doing the right thing. That is not always easy, but in the end it always brings peace. When you get off track, a healthy conscience is felt as a gentle course correction, not as unrelenting condemnation. If it bullies you into wanting to crawl under the nearest rock and stay there until you die, that is not your true conscience.
On the other end of the spectrum are people with an underactive conscience. Among them are the narcissists and sociopaths who refuse to take responsibility for how their behavior harms others. Since their own conscience is lacking, those in relationship with them are forced to try and knock some sense into them. Sadly, most refuse to see and are incapable of seeing.
Given the choice, I am convinced an overactive conscience is better than an underactive one. However, both are harmful. Both can rob us of peace and both can stop us from achieving our full potential. It is only when our conscience is a healthy guide and a true friend that we can hope to be unstoppable!
“A good conscience is to the soul what health is to the body; it preserves constant ease and serenity within us; and more than countervails all the calamities and afflictions which can befall us from without.” ~ Joseph Addison, English Essayist, 1672 – 1719