Follow Your Moral Compass

Patricia (not her real name) was a bright and industrious young woman who had worked her way up to a management position in a large retail store chain. Unfortunately, she was also experiencing a level of anxiety that was making her life increasingly miserable. As she talked about her duties the cause of her anxiety was revealed.

It was Patricia’s task to prepare new stores for opening by directing the placement of displays, and hiring and training new employees. However, in selling potential workers on the opportunities for promotion and better pay that they would enjoy, she knew she was lying. In fact, it was essentially corporate policy to exaggerate the truth (basically, lie) in order to acquire higher caliber workers at minimum wage pay. Because what she was doing transgressed her inner conscience and moral values—and despite her efforts to embrace the corporate rationalizations she was instructed in—she succumbed to anxiety symptoms which she could neither control or think away.

Along similar lines, Carl Jung tells the story of a highly intelligent young man who came to see him for help with a neurosis (e.g., depression or an anxiety disorder). Jung relates that this patient had worked out a very detailed explanation of his neurosis through careful study of the available medical literature. Jung was impressed by his thorough analysis and granted that “if it were only a question of insight into the causal connections of a neurosis, he should in all truth be cured” (Modern Man in Search of a Soul, p. 193). And yet, he wasn’t cured. Jung surmised that the young man’s attitude to life was somehow fundamentally wrong. He explains:

In reading his account of his life I noticed that he often spent winters at St. Moritz or Nice. I therefore asked him who paid for these holidays, and it thereupon came out that a poor school-teacher who loved him had cruelly deprived herself to indulge the young man in these visits to pleasure-resorts. His want of conscience was the cause of his neurosis, and it is not hard to see why scientific understanding failed to help him. His fundamental error lay in his moral attitude. He found my way of looking at the question shockingly unscientific, for morals have nothing to do with science. He supposed that, by invoking scientific thought he could spirit away the immorality which he himself could not stomach. He would not even admit that a conflict existed, because his mistress [benefactor] gave him the money of her free will. (p. 193)

Nowadays there is a tendency to view psychological problems in materialistic terms, for example, as due to an imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain, poor “coping skills” or the ubiquitous catch-all, “stress.” Consequently, we go out in search of medications that will correct our brain chemistry issues, or we go to a therapist looking for “tools” to help with our anxiety, depression, etc. Our guiding assumption seems to be that the psyche is a machine and the psychiatrist or therapist is a mechanic. (Unfortunately, the latter assumptions are sometime true.)

We don’t like to consider that perhaps our psychological issues, our addictions and relationship problems may have their root in a flawed moral stance or attitude. We may believe that our conscience owes its life solely and strictly to the standards and rules drilled into us by parents and other authority figures during our formative years. The philosophical concept of moral relativism reassures us that values and moral codes are ultimately arbitrary, a function of the particular culture, family or social group we choose to affiliate with. None is any more valid than another. This seems to be the current “politically correct” way of looking at things.

The young man’s neurosis (above) is therefore perplexing, for at a conscious level he seems quite content with his behavior. He feels justified by the logic of his position. And yet, his larger personality is not persuaded. It is not fooled; it is not buying it. He is confronted–as most of us are when we stray too far from our own nature and deeper values–with the reality of a moral instinct that transcends his conscious viewpoint and stands in opposition to it.

Although what is considered moral by society may vary from culture to culture, or even from situation to situation for different individuals, your psyche has a specific code of action and attitudes that it expects of you. Clever rationalizations or the typical pleas of “but everyone else does it” or “everyone else sees it this way” mean nothing to the law and vision of your own soul.


Jung, C. G. Modern Man in Search of a Soul. Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc. NY, 1933.

Copyright © Andy Drymalski, Ed.D.
Excerpts may be used provided full and clear credit is given author with link to original article.

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