“These testimonies of a good conscience are pleasant, and such a natural pleasure is very beneficial to us; it is the only payment that can never fail.” – Montaigne
If you’re experiencing a guilty conscience, you may think there’s no way out of it. We all know how self-destructive guilt feels. On the other hand, what does it mean to have a good conscience? Is this something that anyone can experience or is it only for people that some consider saints? Indeed, most of us have encountered someone that always seems above reproach, seemingly faultless. We may feel our own shortcomings in comparison and harbor a guilty conscience or, at the very least, some amount of anxiety.
The truth is that many people have misconceptions about a good conscience and likely shortchange themselves in the process. For example, if you’ve done wrong, does that mean you’re automatically excluded from the ability to do good, to feel like your conscience is clear? No, it does not, although many people probably think it does.
Acknowledgement of the wrongdoing is key. You must begin by admitting the wrongdoing if you have any hope of moving past this huge hurdle. If you allow the sting of that bad deed (words included) to remain, it will only fester. Not only will you continue to think of yourself as a bad person, you’ll also be stymied in making substantive progress toward any healthy goals. Indeed, you may just decide that since you already did something that hurt others (or yourself), why not continue along that path? You’re already guilty, right?
This is exactly the wrong way to think. If no one could be forgiven – or forgive themselves – for the things they’ve done, mankind would have never progressed very far. There’d be no kindness or love or sharing, only crime and hatred and treating others poorly. To forgive, you first must acknowledge that which needs forgiving.
Four Steps to Achieving a Good Conscience
Getting back to having a good conscience, where does acknowledging the wrongdoing and forgiving fit? They are first steps in achieving a good conscience. After you acknowledge the wrongdoing and forgive yourself for it (and others, if applicable), start small. Take little steps to add to your reservoir of good will. Here are some examples:
- Resolve to say something kind to people you meet. This could be a hearty and cheerful hello or some other pleasantry. It doesn’t have to be an involved conversation. This way, you’re putting a positive intent out there to be received by others. This will likely be returned by the recipient, thus benefitting both parties.
- If you’ve left something undone that needs doing, attend to it right away. This is making good on your promise and shows (you and others) that you can be relied upon and live up to your word. This is very important in rebuilding self-trust and helping you achieve a good conscience. After all, if you are being true to yourself, that’s a sign that you have no regrets and are doing the best you can each day.
- Always find the lesson. Every action you take holds an important lesson. You only need to search to find it. When you learn from what you do, even those actions that turn out less successful initially than you’d hoped, you’re adding to your knowledge bank, honing your decision-making skills, and learning to see the connections between what you do and the results you achieve.
- Build upon what you feel. Emotions are very powerful and carry a great deal of weight in the goal of having a good conscience. When you exert every effort, and do the very best you can in everything you do, you have no reason to feel bad about whatever outcome follows. Take comfort in knowing that you are learning, even from mistakes, and feel good about yourself. Remember that to feel good, do good. This simple prescription can lead to the realization that you do, after all, have a good conscience.
By becoming proactive and maintaining a positive attitude, coupled with a strong intention to do good and following through on the commitment, you can overcome a guilty conscience. You will, over time, begin to feel good by doing good.