If our key formative relationships featured manipulation, because it was an easy way to control us, we may have developed what can be termed a prohibitive conscience – a conscience based in fear, operating out of guilt. Likewise, if we have encountered people who are controlling, and we haven't been brought up in such a way, such manipulation can be jarring.
From early childhood we are trained in the way we will go (Proverbs 22:6). If, as parents, we attend to our children's training toward the goal of helping them build their moral warehouse, and we provide a fair and loving environment for them to grow, our children inevitably develop what Growing Kids God's Way calls a positive or healthy conscience. On the other hand, if we grew up in a constant state of fear, usually in a relationship with one (or more) particular care-giver(s), we probably wrestle with a prohibitive or unhealthy conscience. It is not an inherently bad thing, it is just a consequence of development when a strong sense of true right and wrong was not instilled in us – when ‘right' and ‘wrong' wasn't reliable and bred fear in us in not knowing how to behave. It isn't our fault, but there is something we can do about it.
Truth be known, we can develop this kind of prohibitive conscience through traumatic situations we encounter even as adults. Indeed, a prohibitive conscience can be situational; it can be triggered.
Is a prohibitive conscience a guilty conscience? A prohibitive conscience is not a guilty conscience, but it is a conscience that works out of the platform of guilt and fear. A guilty conscience is situational, based out of doing what we should not do or not doing what we should do and knowing about it.
What creates a prohibitive conscience? Conditional love and conditional acceptance. When people intentionally make us feel guilty. And when punishment for behaviour is detached from moral reasoning, such that the consequences are uncoupled from a reliable sense of what to do or not do. In any relationship, these states leave us feeling very unsafe and emotionally compromised.
What can we do to ease the prohibitive conscience?
This is the most penetrating question of all. Like most things when it comes to therapy, similar rules apply.
- Awareness is the crucial impetus to action. Coming to an awareness, and then to an acceptance, we all find it empowering to get to work on self-improvement. Having come to an acceptance, part of the initial task is to truly understand why there is a bent toward a prohibitive conscience. This inevitably involves on packing our relationships with our parents and those who have been key role models throughout our formation. If we know why, we're well positioned to do something proactive.
- Focus then on the Son of God. Truly understanding what Jesus did for each of us on the cross and understanding the life he brings us through forgiveness and resurrection, we begin to rebuild our identity, brick by brick, thought by thought, positive reflection by positive reflection. When we do what is right because we know it is right and loving, we reinforce this understanding as right and appropriate. What a wonderful thing it is when we can commend ourselves when we do what is right, whilst holding ourselves accountable for when we could have done something better, but without beating ourselves up about it.
- Take control of our behaviour. The third thing the Ezzo's recommend, as part of the process for easing the prohibitive conscience, is to take control of the behaviour that the prohibitive conscience controls. This is the opportunity to learn how to respond out of the higher mind, which does not react out of emotion, in this case, guilt. The higher mind has learned to pause, to reflect, and acts out of wisdom. In committing to manage our behaviour better, we apply the replacement principle of Philippians 4:8. Whatever is excellent and loving, we do these things. We add love and don't simply take away fear. We don't do our right things out of fear, we do them because we can, out of love. It's such a subtle shift in our thinking. But, crucially important. We also learn not to second-guess our decisions. We do an action out of love and think nothing more of it. And lastly, the book of Proverbs is a good place to reside for a while. I can remember in 2007 spending 18 months in Proverbs, one chapter every day, and I was able to cover the whole book each month. We partake of that virtuous wisdom, imbibing it slowly, and it does its work in rebuilding our moral warehouse. And we accept those relationships we have where our best isn't always the best.
Acknowledgement to Gary & Anne Marie Ezzo, Let the Children Come… Along the Virtuous Way: Growing Kids God's Way (Happy Valley, South Australia: Growing Families Australia, 2002), pp. 95-98.