Dear Dr. Hurd,
I am considering getting some psychotherapy. However, I was wondering if you could answer this theoretical question: Is it always possible to recover psychologically from profound breaches of integrity (i.e., acting against one’s deepest fundamental values)? I’m not talking about committing illegal acts or hurting others, but simply acting (say, for a period of a few months) in such a way that deeply conflicts with one’s basic virtues and professed character.
The key here is to understand that good or rational, life-serving ideas and motivations will tend to drive away bad, irrational or anti-life-serving ones. The same works in reverse: Bad ideas tend to drive out good ideas. The victory of good over bad, or bad over good, in any one individual is never inevitable. Yes, some (such as criminals who harm others) are usually too far gone, but even asking the question clearly suggests that you aren’t too far gone. From what you’re writing, you valued certain things that are life-enhancing (i.e., good for yourself) and you departed from those values for a period of time.
This means you were, and probably still are, a person who holds contradictory values. You still hold rational, life-serving values (honesty, integrity, love of life), otherwise, why would you feel badly for having temporarily departed from them? I suggest that you take part in good psychotherapy and, in that process, focus honestly on what your doubts actually were and are about your ‘professed character’ and ‘deepest, fundamental values.’ In short: Go through this process on the premise that there’s nothing wrong with having questions about what you think and hold as valuable. Never be afraid to question.
To a rational person, nothing should ever be considered true or valuable solely on trust, faith, or the notion of ‘just because.’ If you departed from things that you sincerely hold true, then you must have had some questions about the context of those viewpoints, and perhaps even of their truth. There’s nothing wrong with having questions. The only problem lies in leaving it to your subconscious to resolve these in haphazard fashion, often through behaviors you end up regretting, rather than tackling and looking at the questions or doubts consciously.
What’s done is done. Now you have an opportunity to make it right. You have an opportunity to create a situation where you still look back on past actions with regret, but also as a turning point before you developed a better understanding and grasp of why you think what you do. Don’t dwell on whether you are a ruined character. Just focus on moving on, and making yourself a better, more consistent and honest character than you were before.