Dealing with an overactive conscience

One of our readers, Hislovejoy, sent us this request:

I really appreciate Dr. George Simon’s work (and wish the friends my ex has turned against me would read and understand it all). I love his distinction between “neurotics” and a character-disordered controller. I have come to see that I have a VERY overactive conscience which is exactly what my ex used to control me. And it interferes with my ability to feel accepted by God. I was wondering if Dr Simon or anyone here has suggestions for dealing with the overactive conscience, and if others who have walked this path to a “normal” conscience could chime in.

It seems pretty obvious that abusers have a seared conscience and their victims have over-active ones.  When teaching is geared to the seared conscience it seems to fall on deaf ears . . .  but many of us with overactive consciences feels condemned since we so easily take the blame. I am learning that God is the judge of all things — including whether I am guilty or not — I must let HIM tell me and convict me, rather than my own thoughts. But gaining that discernment is hard!

I have not yet read Dr George Simon’s latest book The Judas Syndrome [Affiliate link], but from this review which I found on Amazon, it sounds like it addresses the issue of an overactive conscience which can be fear-driven rather than faith-driven.

I believe that part of the problem I personally have experienced in having an overactive conscience is that my conscience was misinformed about right and wrong. The most glaring example for me was that I believed for years that the Bible did not allow divorce for abuse. So I stayed married (though separated) from my abuser for four years, and was a sitting duck for an unwise reconciliation — which ended in the abuse re-occurring and the marriage ending for the final time.

After that, I researched the divorce scriptures and wrote Not Under Bondage to offer a corrective to this misunderstanding of right and wrong, so that other survivors could be set from from false guilt and un-biblical entrapment, and be free to make their own choices about separation and divorce without fear of displeasing God.

The conscience can be correctly informed — guided by a proper understanding of God’s precepts in the Bible — or it can be misinformed — e.g. shaped by Pharisaic legalistic ‘C’hristian teaching; or by licentious, ‘anything goes’ libertarianism; or by a religious text like the Koran which teaches that it is okay to lie and even murder other people, so long as you are doing it in the cause of Jihad.

We are all born with a conscience — it is part of God’s common grace to all people.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. . .

For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. (Romans 1:18-19; 2:14-16)

The innate conscience we are born with knows right and wrong in a rudimentary sense. We can see anthropological evidence of that in all cultures: for example, all cultures have had some kind of standard of faithfulness in marriage, and some kind of standard for how people are to treat family and friends and fellow members of their society. Each society may cut the ‘right and wrong’ cake slightly differently, but no culture has ever existed without any standards of right and wrong at all. They all have some definition and standard of what they consider right and wrong.

But our conscience which has been shaped by our culture needs to be educated and shaped by Biblical precepts in order for us to  become mature Christians (an ongoing process). A person who has an overactive conscience may benefit from asking these questions:

  1. To what extent are the pangs of my conscience due to me having a misunderstanding of right and wrong? Have I been operating from an ill-informed or mis-taught conscience? If so, where can I find Biblical teaching that will correct my ill-informed conscience? And how can I absorb that correction into my heart and my being, so that it is not just brain knowledge but heart-known surety and conviction that will give me a closer walk with Christ? Of course, absorbing it into our being is not something we effect solely by our own efforts: it is the activity of the Holy Spirit renewing our minds in Christ that really makes the difference, but being willing it pretty helpful!
  2. To what extent is my overactive conscience due to fear and lack of faith? If I am coming from fear and lack of faith, then the remedy is surely to have faith in Christ, to trust that He will carry me through this trial, this difficulty, this stressful time.

I feel like I could tease this out a lot more, but that it would be better to hand it over to our readers now, for discussion. And please don’t forget the original request that gave rise to this post:

Does anyone have suggestions for dealing with the overactive conscience, and how have others have walked this path to a “normal” conscience?

15 thoughts on “Dealing with an overactive conscience”

  1. I think for me, the key is remembering Romans 8:1 – there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. I needed to understand that even if I did wrong, God was not about to condemn me, to torture me with anger and guilt, to punish me severely…having a God-centered conscience means trusting that God will let me know when I stray from the path, and His desire will always be to reconcile with me, to draw me lovingly to Him so that together, He and I can find freedom for me, and work thru the consequences of what I have done. When I feel high levels of fear, or shame that is out of control, or feelings that make me want to hide from God or avoid Him, I know that the guilt is not from God. If I mess up in an area, and I don’t know it or didn’t mean to, there is abundant grace for that. Sin is only sin when we know it is wrong and willfully disobey. God is a gracious, kind, loving parent, and His correction draws us to Him. It doesn’t make us want to hide in shame. And God never uses crippling fear as a motivation to keep us from sin. He calls us to a pure life out of love, and He wants us to follow Him and obey Him out of love for Him and for others. When I feel overwhelmingly fearful, I know that it isn’t from God.

    In any case, God wants to be the loving parent that we run to when we have done wrong or may have done wrong and aren’t sure, or have just made a human error with the best of intentions. He wants to be our refuge and help in times of trouble. Anything that distracts from that, or makes me want to hide in shame from God needs to be re-evaluated. God is faithful in His loving kindness to us.

  2. Although I had not thought to term it as an “overactive conscience,” I know exactly what you’re talking about. For years, I felt an incredible burden of responsibility for positive outcomes which were largely beyond my control. My understanding was that God expected me to have a healthy marriage relationship, to raise godly children, and to live in peace and harmony with all people. On the surface, that sounds pretty straightforward and reasonable. However, it focuses on outcome rather than behavior…and it fails to recognize that in any relationship, we can only be responsible for our own actions, not the choices and behavior of the other party.

    I also came to realize that my unhealthy burden of responsibility for relational outcomes spilled over into an unhealthy need to be in control. After all, if I am responsible for positive outcomes, then I must also be responsible for controlling outcomes.

    I have learned (and am learning) that much in this life is beyond both our understanding and our control. We are responsible for our own actions, for seeking God’s desire in how we treat others, for seeking God’s heart in how we live our lives. However, the outcomes and responses of others are truly beyond our control, and must be left in His hands.

  3. Okay. I think I have an over active conscience, because I am always trying to fix everything and it is all just so wrong, that I don’t know how to go about even knowing where to start. I also believe that living with an extreme psychological abuser, among many, many other abuses, makes us develop an over active conscience. I mean, living with abusers makes us constantly wonder what we are doing wrong. They are not pleased with anything and they blame us. So, we are always wondering, “what am I doing wrong?” I mean, it must be something and I can’t find it, so we go into over active conscience mode. Is it the food? Is it the bills? Am I too fat? Did I not say it right? Is it my hair? Is it my voice? What is it? Crying out to God to just tell me what I am doing wrong. Where is my sin? For me, the way to break it, was to get out of it and start just literally eating the Scriptures up. Studying, reading, praying and asking God to get into those nooks and crannies and heal all those fears and wounds and the pain from all the years of abuse. Memorizing Scripture and writing it down to look at when I need it has been vital as well. I cannot say that my conscience is not still overactive, to a much lesser degree, but I am coming out of it and realizing that God sent the Holy Spirit to live in me to convict me when I am in sin and to bring me to repentance, so I do not have anything to fear. God has always been able to do His job, without me helping…although I do like to help Him. 😉 I think also, that living in abuse tends to cloud us and we put up our guards. We know the abuse is wrong, but we cannot stop it and so perhaps we just begin to think everything is wrong and you know what, maybe it really is. Abuse in marriage is so heinous, that it may just make everything else about it wrong too, and deep inside we know it.

  4. It seems like there is a strong correlation between an overactive conscience, false guilt, and shame. I don’t know if one causes the others or if they simple co-exist together, but where you find one you usually will find the others. Barbara mentioned in this post, an overactive conscience can be fear-driven. And I would add it’s a shame-based fear. Maybe fear is the ribbon that ties an overactive conscience, false guilt, and shame together into one destructive package.

    Yet it’s not surprising that victims of abuse struggle with these issues. Many of our abusers have should-ed us, shamed us, guilted us, and instilled fear into us for years. It’s no wonder we now struggle with the effects of these poisonous darts.

    I am only just starting to realize how deeply this destructive package is effecting me personally, and in my relationships with others and with God. So I know it is important that I address these issues. How am I doing that? I am 1) educating myself on these issues so I can name them, and 2) learning to identify their effects so that I can recognize them in myself. I believe that for change to occur one has to first be able to identify it and recognize its effects. There are several resources that address these issues. For example, in addition to Dr. Simon’s book that Barbara mentioned, Steven Tracy addresses shame and guilt in his book, Mending the Soul. Also, there are several posts on this blog that address the issue of shame. One can look on the top-menu tag list under shame or use the search option on the sidebar.

  5. Let us not forget for one moment that our enemy Satan is a liar, the father of lies, and the father of all those who seek to have us believe lies–about God, about others, about ourselves. In that sense, Satan is the father of all abusers. We must all learn to be on our guard against his sneak attacks and his flaming arrows that try to burn into our hearts and minds, scorching and wounding. Thanks to Anon. for reminding us that some of these darts carry poison, and that even though the dart is pulled out, we may still have to receive treatment for the poison left behind. When you see an abuser, see Satan. Resist his lies with the Truth and (eventually) he will run away from you rather than be seared and cut by that flaming sword.

  6. Barbara,

    “I believe that part of the problem I personally have experienced in having an overactive conscience is that my conscience was misinformed about right and wrong. The most glaring example for me was that I believed for years that the Bible did not allow divorce for abuse”

    I have not read your book yet, but as I am learning things through this blog and other studies I see how important it is for people to understand that adultery is not the only grounds for divorce. As I learned even in my own relationship, if we believe that adultery is the only act grevious enough for divorce then naturally it will be the only act that we use clear boundaries against. ie. I feel completely justified telling my husband that it is not OK for him to flirt with other women or call them on the phone and he understands because the results of his violating the command to keep the marriage bed pure has clear consequences.
    An abuser clearly violates many commands, not least of which is to love their spouse. However, if the spouse does not see this as grounds for divorce then how can she make a clear stand against it? And how can the church community support her in this? (Hosea 4:6 “My people perish from a lack of knowledge”) Surely it is vital for Christians to understand that infidelity is not the only justification for divorce.
    If it were the only justification, then why do we make the promises to “Love, honor & cherish..” when we enter into the covenant relationship of marriage? Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to just say, “I won’t sleep around” as wedding vows, and seriously how many of us would enter into THAT covenant?

    1. Spot on, Kings Daughter.

      And the same (ill)-logic applies to those who say there is no divorce on any ground (the ‘permanence’ view, held by people such as Voddie Baucham). They should make their marriage vows say “I promise not to stay committed in marriage to you until one of us dies, no matter what you do to me, no matter how you treat me, no matter how badly you may trash me or our marriage.”

    2. If it were the only justification, then why do we make the promises to “Love, honor & cherish..” when we enter into the covenant relationship of marriage? Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to just say, “I won’t sleep around” as wedding vows, and seriously how many of us would enter into THAT covenant?

      Loud applause!!!!

  7. That is a great question and I believe you gave a good answer. Just to expand on it, I believe it is helpful to ask God to reveal to your spirit what is truly right and wrong.

    1. Psa 139:23 Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts!
      Psa 139:24 And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!

  8. (Airbrushing….)

    I feel like my conscience is becoming more overactive with each passing day. And I don’t believe the result originates from simply becoming aware of previously unconsidered thought patterns.

    I question whether or not I have a hidden agenda, whether or not I am attempting to manipulate someone else – even God. Yes, I understand part of this thinking was instilled by past abusers. And there have been times in the past when the Holy Spirit has convicted me for one of these behaviours, whether before or after the fact.

    Now, I add knowledge of abusers and abusive patterns to the mix, and my conscience goes into overdrive. I have started discerning the difference between abusers and someone who has unwittingly acted abusively.

    (I am thinking of a relative who, shortly after my ant-x unexpectedly bailed, “demanded” keeping a consistent pattern of communication. Omitting details for my protection.)

    I think of something. Consider it. Realize it could be appear manipulative and start to question my intent. Repeat the cycle.

    The Holy Spirit does teach me the nuances, but the questions remain unabated. Sometimes the answer brings no peace. Maybe the idea is valid, but the timing is wrong, and the Holy Spirit knows that better than I….

    I cannot know anyone else’s mind, yet I retain – almost more-so – the pattern of questioning a response / lack of response. Again, I understand where much of this originates.

    I know the ACFJ blog has some posts on this topic of “Am I The Abuser”. (Or manipulator.)

    The more I learn, the more I question. Many times, unhealthily so. It’s like I am trying to protect people….from me. I have become hyper-vigilant, attempting to prevent myself from harming or triggering victims / survivors. I second guess (and third, fourth, etc.) everything. I do the equivalent of “freeze”.

    I don’t know if what I am experiencing is “normal” in healing from such sustained abuse and trauma….I don’t know if it is similar to some things that get worse before they get better.

    In the meantime, who am I unwittingly hurting in the process?

    1. I’m pretty sure I can say that I know what you are talking about in your posting as it is and has been my battle, too. The way I see it is abusers falsely accuse, deliberately mis-characterize, and hyper-focus on convincing the target of their badness, wrongness, deviousness, manipulative nature, etc.

      Nothing in your posts (and I’ve read them for a while now) have indicated that you’re dangerous or bad. Traumatized? Absolutely.

      Actually, I’m really glad you posted this as I see myself in what you wrote. My abuser was relentless in accusing me of being this vile, manipulative, horrible, evil person, and it was the opposite. He was describing himself. But what was the point? To instill self-doubt. To put me on the defense. To intensify the self-analysis, self-criticism, make me self-conscious, wipe out my confidence, identity, etc.

      One example I have is people who want to exploit you, steal from you, get you to divulge things, etc. will attack your wariness and guardedness, and get you to forgo your caution and suspicions by deliberately calling you ‘paranoid’. They know they are lying, but they act like such is the truth, that you’re the crazy, paranoid one in the interaction. The minute you let down your guard to prove you’re not “paranoid” or abnormally distrusting / suspicious, they’ve won. They’ll lance you with ‘paranoid’ as many times as it takes until they’ve got you in the position they want, so they can rob you, exploit you, dupe you, smear you, etc.

      Anyhow, I don’t know that it ever gets better. Depends on how many abusers you have in your life, had in your life, and how many abusive encounters you continue to have. It all kind of stirs the pot.

    2. I have never had the sense that you are unwittingly hurting anyone on this blog, Finding Answers. Never once.

      Sometimes I edit other people’s comments a little before publishing them, because I have the sense that a phrase or word they used might unwittingly hurt some other commenters. But I have never had to do that with your comments. The only editing I have done on your comments is fix the (very occasional) typo.

      1. Anon57 – You gave me an idea to mull over….I’m just not sure which abuser was the source. Thanks.

        Barb – I admit to chuckling when I read the last sentence of your comment.

        When I was first introduced to the topic of abuse, I remember reading / hearing the victim / survivor might display some difficulties in various forms of communication. I am so glad that was brought to my attention – until my walls crumbled, I was the “go to” person for spelling / editing / proofreading. 🙂 Now, not so much so….especially having been raised in two different systems of spelling / education.

        (Catching typos and whatnot in other documentation has been less affected.)

        Thank you for your words of support. I am relieved to know I am learning how to communicate in a previously unknown world.

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