Ethics and Emotional Health

Behaving ethically means doing the right thing, even when no one is looking. Sometimes that is an easy choice. Sometimes it is not.

In work as well as personal life, we face challenges that put us in the center of ethical dilemma. The dilemma is often an internal battle that reflects two powerful and opposing views of right and wrong.

Often there are a lot of gray areas that make a situation all the more challenging to resolve.

At the heart of most ethical dilemmas is a question about underlying values.  Even if there are two competing values, most of the time there is a dominant value that trumps the other.

When we don’t listen to the values that inform ethical behavior, it catches up with us.

Everyone has their own internal gauge for what is “right and wrong.” We’ve all encountered people who have lesser degrees of guilt for unethical behavior. Conscience guides most of us, but not all. The average person experiences feelings of guilt when engaging in behaviors that clash with their values.

If we push through feelings of guilt and ignore our core values, anxiety and depression can emerge over time.

Signs Of A Clash

If your behaviors aren’t lining up with your value system, you are likely to experience the following signs and symptoms:


Perhaps it is guilt specific to the ethical dilemma or guilt about the outcomes of the decision.

Challenges with self-worth:

Over the long-term, making decisions that don’t line up with your values can result in a loss of self-respect and self-worth.

General sense of discontentment:

Disregarding our value-driven ethics can increase a sense of dissatisfaction in life.

Mistrust of others (projection):

Ironically, disregarding our own moral compass can result in distrusting others; this is known as projection.

Avoidance of others:

Sometimes making decisions that don’t align with our values can result in a feeling of transparency. Logically we know that others cannot read our minds, but sometimes a guilty conscience can fuel paranoid thoughts and actions and in turn, avoiding others.

Avoidance of feelings:

When values and behaviors don’t line up, it can feel emotionally safe to disconnect and avoid having feelings about it. This can lead into depression or anxiety symptoms.

Brainstorming A Resolution

When faced with an ethical dilemma, it is helpful to ask yourself some questions to help shine a light on the best decision that reflects your values.

  • What would my decision be if I knew this would be published in the newspaper for all the world to see?
  • How would I feel if the situation were reversed and someone else needed to make this decision? What would I advise someone else to do?
  • Is there a possible resolution that I haven’t thought of that is more of a middle-ground approach?
  • What are the pros and cons of each of these choices?

Dealing With Workplace Ethical Issues

Helping others deal with their ethical dilemmas in a work setting can feel intimidating. If a co-worker is struggling with a clash between their values and seeks your input, it can be a great opportunity for growth for both of you.

Often the conversation about an ethical dilemma yields valuable insight into the solution. When we are thinking about an ethical dilemma on our own, our ideas are sometimes overshadowed by our emotions about the situation. This can limit our ability to come up with creative solutions.

It may be worthwhile to develop a team in your work setting that helps resolve ethical issues.

Sharing the burden of a difficult decision with others can feel much less lonely and isolating. As you explore others’ ethical challenges, consider what is at stake for a given ethical decision; who are the players? Who will be impacted?

If you were to take yourself and your co-workers out of the equation and imagine that this were a decision for another company to make, what would you advise based on your value system?

What About Unsolicited Ethical Advice?

Everyone has their own barometer when it comes to ethics and values. When we observe others participating in unethical decision-making, we are put into an awkward position. Speak up or hush up? This situation in itself is an ethical dilemma.

Consider the consequences of speaking up and of staying quiet. Are the consequences of speaking up as major as the consequences of looking the other way? Are you willing to deal with the repercussions of standing up for what you believe in?

So much of our character and personal growth is shown through the challenges of ethical dilemmas.

Whether we take the more difficult path or go the easy route, our sense of self and understanding of what we represent will emerge. Ethical challenges push us beyond ourselves and ask us to look at what is important on a larger scale.

Often we can ask ourselves to consider the interest of the “greater good”. Is there a decision that has the best outcome for the most people? Is there a decision that causes the least amount of harm? Ethical decision making asks us to weigh one “right” against another and make a choice based on least-harm.

Personal growth happens on a continuum. Ethical dilemmas help ground us in what we believe and help shape us into the best possible version of ourselves.

Often the most difficult circumstances help us grow the most. Consider the ethical dilemmas of your life as ways to explore your strengths and examine what is most important. Even the ethical dilemmas of others offer an opportunity for self-reflection and personal growth.

Hindsight is one of the most difficult parts of personal growth, particularly when we dislike decisions we have made in the past. We can often learn from our past missteps and they can guide us into better ethical decision making in the future.  

As long as we are willing to pay attention to the areas in which we diverged from our value system, we can make more ethical decisions moving forward.


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