Conscience, emotions, and how they inter-relate
Jeff S said in a recent comment in another post:
I believe that that the root of my poor decisions was trusting the church. And that leaves me in a tough place — I have to be more intelligent about what I trust my church FOR now, and that is a scary thing. It was much easier to say “tell me what to believe and how to behave and I’ll do it”, squashing down any misgivings I had. Now I DO listen to my conscience, and that feels wrong. Like I’m being a wishy-washy Christian blown by the wind. (emphasis added)
I think this points to a whole swag of difficulties that victim-survivors often face. Please take this post as my tentative attempt to put my somewhat cloudy thoughts into solid form. In all that follows, I’m not including abusers, sociopaths, psychopaths, those who conscience is so seared that it is pretty much non-existent. I’m talking about the common and garden decent folk who by and large submit to the requirements and obligations of living in a civilized society.
Our conscience is by no means identical to our feelings, but conscience and feelings do overlap to some degree and they are inter-related. When my conscience pricks me I feel bad. This feeling of badness may have a mixed palette of emotions including feelings of concern, guilt, shame, worry, fear, sadness, grief, despondency, etc.
For a person to have an active conscience they must, I think, be in touch to a reasonable degree with their emotions. I’m talking here about not just the emotion of anger, but the whole palette of emotions. (Anger can sometimes be a reactive cover up, a way of denying all the other much more vulnerable emotions that are part of the consciously identified emotions in an emotionally healthy person.)
Here’s what I think:
(1) The more a person blocks, stifles or sidelines their emotions from their conscious mind, the less they will be able to have a healthy, well-functioning individual conscience, and the more primed they will be to adopt the formulaic rules for conscience set by their church, their social sub-group, or the broader culture.
(2) When subjected to the coercive control of an abuser, made worse by the shoddy Christian teaching about how to handle a troubled marriage, victims doubt the wisdom and guidance (~ red flags) of their emotions. Their emotions are ignored, denied, invalidated and criticized by the abuser (and the church). And this has a correlative effect upon the conscience of the victim, because if you disable a person’s emotions you tend to disable their conscience as well.
The meaning and significance of the victim’s emotions are inverted by the abuser. The abuser strives to make his target believe that her emotions are crazy and sinful — unreliable as touchstones to guide her on the path of health and godly common sense. He commandeers her emotions and uses them as just more one more weapon in his arsenal of abusive tactics. The correlation of this is that the victim doubts her own emotions and her conscience. Victims can end up profoundly doubting what their conscience may be telling them. When their conscience feels bad, they wonder, “Have I made a wrong judgement? Have I taken something too personally? Have I over-reacted? Have I got this wrong? I don’t know what is right or wrong any more. Or what is normal or abnormal. I can’t trust myself. I got into this dreadful relationship and stayed in it; and I don’t really know how that happened, so how can I trust myself to make ANY wise decisions! My conscience is kaput. My feelings are untrustworthy. I’m a walking basket case.”
A reader of this blog wrote to me in an email recently (used with her permission):
I question myself about whether the abuse was “severe” enough to warrant my leaving. Then I think back over everything and definitely know that it was “severe” enough, but I think that somehow I still associate abuse as merely tremendous physical abuse and that him making us crazy, living in constant fear of him and then throwing my very soul away was not THAT bad. Do you know what I mean?
I think that paragraph illustrates some of what I’m trying to convey.
And I’ll leave this post here, handing it over to your thoughts, musings and clarification.