Each of us has values and standards governing our performance in every aspect of life, from non-essentials like how we organize our drawers to vital matters like integrity and morality. When we live up to our value standards, we like ourselves and we enjoy high self-esteem. But when our behavior falls short, we don’t like ourselves, we have low self-esteem, and we may experience guilt stress.
Graf Stress Management has discovered three interesting facts about our value standards:
1) Value standards can be raised, but not lowered. As we acquire new insights, our standards may be raised. That is, once we recognize a higher standard than the one we’ve previously held, we unconsciously make it our new baseline and we cannot revert to the lower standard again as our baseline. We may choose to live beneath our standards, but we will experience the shortfall as guilt stress. Whether we like it or not, we appear to be hard-wired in an upward direction.
2) Certain key value standards are inborn, not learned. The standards that appear to be most important to us, such as honesty, morality, forgiveness and so forth, are in place at birth. I have not worked with a single person whom we did not find to have been born with high moral value standards. Teachings in the home and elsewhere may reinforce or undermine the choice to live up to these standards, but the values themselves appear to be in place at birth, from what we learn during the Stress Evaluation.
3) Failure to live up to key standards can be devastating to our health and well-being. Many of the problems that bring people in for help turn out to be subconscious self-punishments for violating these standards, or attempts to escape from situations in which they feel at risk of violating their standards.
I recall a client who withdrew from college and entered a psychiatric hospital following a psychotic breakdown. Several years later, as he prepared to return to the university, he suffered another psychotic episode. A psychiatrist had worked for years to ‘stabilize’ him on anti-psychotic drugs, never addressing the cause of the episodes, perhaps assuming it was ‘genetic’ and triggered by the pressure of college.
During the Stress Evaluation we found that at the time of the initial breakdown, the young man had felt devastated after violating a value standard that was very important to him, one he’d made an outright pledge to uphold. He was fearful that the college environment posed a high-risk situation for him to repeat the offense and he no longer trusted himself to withstand the temptation. Plus, he felt he didn’t deserve the privilege of college after what he’d done. The breakdown had given him an escape from the risk of temptation while also punishing him for his behavior.
The finding that we’re born with high value standards is at odds with today’s moral relativism, which treats values as cultural by-products or personal choices. Popular culture promotes ever-lower standards, particularly for sexual morality, in the drive to be ‘progressive’ and ‘non-judgmental.’ It treats the guilt we feel (or suppress) from wrongdoing as an oppressive inhibition getting in the way of real happiness.
But according to the intelligence, just the opposite is true. Our high moral standards are innate and we are not capable lowering them. We feel peace and satisfaction when we live up to them, and we experience stress, not happiness, when we live beneath them. And rather than being a nuisance, guilt feelings in their proper context are useful signals that we have ‘missed the mark’ and need to correct our behavior. It is important, however, to deal with guilt swiftly and positively through corrective action. Torturing ourselves with guilt feelings after the fact is not only painful and unproductive, it is itself beneath our value standards.