Moral Principles

Psychotherapy based on Freudian or Jungian ideas is not a moral exercise.  It is an attempt to understand the dynamics that shape our lives and the world we live in. 

I developed the idea that my problems were my fault.  When things went wrong in my life, in my relationships, I started to think that it must be that there was something wrong with me. The only way I could think about my problems was that they were to do with a failure in me. I didn’t realise it, but I had grown up in a home that had an overly developed moral character.  My parents were always quick to tell me that good behaviour was fundamentally important and improved life. They’d been raised by very strict moral parents themselves, and that had quite a powerful effect on them. There was a rather Victorian stiff upper lip attitude in my home. Showing your feelings was seen as weak.

Moral principles were very important, and I think that tended to confuse me and my brother and sister. When we misbehaved, or if there was a problem, or if we were unhappy, it always tended to be seen from a moral point of view.  It was like things that made us unhappy were to do with moral weaknesses, character defects in us, something of our own doing.  As though with just a bit more thought and better behaviour we would become happier people.

I took these ideas into my adult relationships.  I think my first marriage failed because of problems to do with these attitudes and moral principles.  It meant I was unable to see the unhappiness in my marriage as a sign of something that needed attention.  I just became more inflexible and stuck to my moral principles.  When we separated, something, my ex-wife said really brought it home to me.  My moral principles, my rigid attitudes were a big part of the problem.  I only wish I had worked it all out sooner.

I wish I had learnt sooner, how to pay more attention to myself instead of being preoccupied with ideas about correct moral principles.

anonymous client

Psychotherapy and Moral Principles

In psychotherapy it is not necessary to look at our reactions to things, or our behaviour as a consequence of moral principles. In psychotherapy we can see that what drives and shapes our reactions and attitude’s is more to do with the dynamics of relationships, of the homes and families that we grew up in, than it is to do with moral principles.

Freudian or Jungian ideas are not moral exercises.  They are an attempt to understand the dynamics that shape our lives and the world we live in. 

  • The goal isn’t to learn how to behave better but to become more conscious and aware of who you are and how you live.
  • Feeling unhappy or conflicted about something is a sign that attention is required more than it is a sign that there is something wrong with our moral principles.

Moral Principles and Moral Codes

There is a place for moral principles and ethical codes. All psychotherapists abide by ethical codes. 

Treating other people the way we want to be treated, or telling the truth, are all constructive and helpful attitudes, all part of living well. 

But if our moral principles and code become too constrictive, if they start to block our authentic feelings and reactions to people and things, then it might be helpful to look more carefully at who we are, how we live, and how our moral principles work.

Psychotherapy provides a confidential relationship in which we can become more conscious of who we are and how we live.  And find out more about the moral principles that underpin the kinds of choices we make.

Marcus Aurelius

Ancient philosophy can teach us a lot about the moral principles that we follow today. And the Coronavirus isn’t the first time that people have had to search their moral codes to understand how to live with a pandemic. Marcus Aurelius’s book; The Meditations records the advice that he gave to himself during a plague in ancient Rome.

  • The problem isn’t the virus, the problem is how we think about the virus.
  • The problem isn’t the people who don’t wear masks when shopping so much as our opinions about them.

This approach can be extended in all kinds of ways. The turning point is in seeing that it is not necessarily the other person that is the problem, certainly, we can’t do anything about other people. But we might be able to change our attitudes to the other person. Other people’s attitudes aren’t our problem. It is my opinion that needs to change.

Alcoholics Anonymous and the Serenity Prayer

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

Jung, the Ego and the Self

In Jung’s work the attempt is made to recognise that the our ego is just one manifestation of consciousness. The work is in coming to identify oneself not with a particular ego content, but with the larger self out of which the ego developed.

The Stoics and Moral Principles

Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, pursued the idea that the path to happiness lies in accepting the present moment as it is. From these ideas, we can take the following principles:

  • What happens to me might not be under my control, but my thoughts and actions might be. 
  • Our desire for pleasure or fear of pain need not control me.

These principles of stoicism are also a premise of modern cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). 

Stoics and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

Stoics reflect on character strengths such as wisdom, patience, and self-discipline, which potentially make them more resilient in the face of adversity. They work to model these virtues when they meet the challenges they face in daily life. 

  • We might not be able to change things, but we might be able to accept them. 

This became one of the central principles of Stoicism. It is also the basic premise of modern cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

A problem with this approach is that we can become dominated by the idea that we should be reacting to things a particular way.  If we don’t, then there is something wrong with us.

Goal Setting and Moral Principles

Types of therapy that use a coaching framework as a model to live by tend to place a great emphasis on an idea of what living well means. 

Goals are selected, goals that if achieved will indicate we are living in line with how we would like to live. 

But these approaches can obscure the truth of our authentic and spontaneous responses and attitudes to life and other people.

When we pursue a goal at the cost of other things, we can become quite cavalier about how we treat the people around us. 

  • The goal becomes the most important thing and our relationships become secondary. 

It’s confusing because we might acquire things along the way that indicate good living, like money and status.  But all the time we might be creating dysfunctional relationships in our own lives and ignoring other sides of our nature. 

That’s why it can be helpful to understand more about who we are, before we address the goals we want to achieve. 

Putting the goals first puts the cart in front of the horse

Telling someone they have chosen to be made unhappy about something isn’t helpful or accurate.  It is often a very blinkered interpretation of events.  There really are things that do make us unhappy. So knowing more about ourselves, and our reactions to things might be a better starting point for living well.

  • It is helpful to recognise the difference between what we can and cannot change.  But it is to our advantage to develop a greater understanding of who we are first.

If it is not right do not do it: if it is not true, do not say it.

Marcus Aurelius

Contact me to discuss further

If you feel that your life is dominated by moral principles, that you are living by certain unhelpful rules, and that this may be getting in the way of knowing more about who you are and what you want, then it might be helpful to talk about it.

I have been working with people on issues such like this for twenty years.  My work is built around helping you to develop greater insight into who you are, and how you live.  In helping you develop a better understanding of why you feel the way you do about things?

Contact me to arrange a free 15 minute conversation to discuss how my work might be useful to you.

I have a lot of experience of using telephone and online platforms and I would be pleased to hear from you.

Telephone: 01494 521311
Mobile: 07980 750376
Email: toby@tobyingham.com