Your integrity and your relationship with yourself are the only things you can truly own; the only firm point in universe you can have. If you compromise it, you lose trust in yourself and in future it will be more difficult to rely on yourself. That means losing the most important and the only permanent source of support in life. If this happens, it can be repaired and healed, but it takes a lot of time, effort and testing yourself in real life. That’s why it’s wise to understand what integrity means to you and how to follow it.
What is integrity?
Integrity means living in aligment with our highest values, even when it’s in conflict with our temporary pleasure, profit, or avoiding discomfort. Dignity is a close term, although dignity seems more related to external behavior, while integrity refers to our inner world, solving our inner conflicts and making decisions.
Integrity often means choosing long term quality of our own character over a short term benefit or relief. It means chosing what brings us inner peace even if it temporarily means experiencing some external instability. Sometimes it also means giving up some of our less important values in order to uphold the more important ones.
Integrity includes respect, for yourself and other people. If we perceive both self and others as important and worthy of consideration and effort, decision making might be more complex, but such decisions will be cleaner, more constructive and bring more harmony.
While making decisions, you need to consider your needs too, not only the needs of others. Neglecting your needs is not integrity, it’s self-sacrifice. The core of integrity is finding a healthy balance.
Integrity also presumes accepting the consequences of our decisions and behavior, and dealing with them in constructive ways. This is also a good definition of responsibility. Healthy responsibility, whether to ourselves or others, is in essence the desire to do good. Responsibility means wanting and taking care to do things well and achieve long term good results with things in our power and people who rely on us. Therefore, healthy responsibility is an expression of love, rather than fulfilling external expectations and criteria.
In communication, integrity means not giving in to selfish of primitive urges, even when they are strong. It means not abusing any advantage we might gain in a conversation in order to feel powerful. Not twisting facts so that they match our interests better. Accepting an apology rather than rubbing it in. Being willing to apologize.
Many people give up their own dignity just to achieve a short term or even an illusional “victory” in an argument. Losing the complexity and the humanity of another person from sight in order to indulge your own selfish urges, is a way to humiliate your own self. The only victory that counts is the victory over our own need for power, no matter how subtly it might express itself.
How to recognize your life values?
Integrity includes listening to our own inner feeling of balance and ethics, rather than external morality. Rather than holding on to rigid, simplistic attitudes, we look at every situation separately and we perceive their complexity. We seek an inner judgement about what in a specific situation best represents a healthy balance between ourselves and others.
As I wrote in the article “Falling In Love With “Bad Guys” (And Girls)“, if you have to choose between an important relationship and your key life values, I’d always recommend choosing your values over the relationship. But we also need to know which of our values are important enough. People often like to oversimplify and go to extremes, but it makes no sense to give up on a relationship because of small frustrations or disagreements; every relationship requires making some compromises around our less important values.
What is more or less important, depends on an individual. Usually there will be discomfort in your body to warn you if you are drifting away from your values; the more intense the discomfort, the more important the value. If somebody breaks your most important values, you might feel an immediate loss of trust and respect. Once trust and respect are gone, healthy love is not possible anymore. Infatuation or childhood conditioning might still keep you feeling unhealthily bonded, but the joy, intimacy, and ease will be gone from the relationship.
Healthy values are not petty religious dogma or whatever encourages rigidity toward other people, which you probably learned in your childhood environment. Healthy values are created through our own experience and based on our insight in what benefits the whole world, rather than just ourselves and people close to us. (Of course, this works for people who actually care about the rest of the world.) Your key values might be what “makes your heart sing”. Some of them might not be compatible with other people’s values. That’s fine, as long as you are not doing something to damage others. You don’t have to agree with everyone and everyone doesn’t have to agree with you.
If you have trouble finding your inner guidance and if you don’t trust your own judgment and experience, a fairly good guideline for making decisions could be: how would the world look like if everybody chose this way? Of course, prejudice and lack of information could cloud the answer, but this question can at least bring you closer to integrity. Overall, the more you understand your own inner world (on this topic, check the article “Observing Feelings“), the better you can understand what is really important to you.
Integrity, self-esteem and support from within
Integrity includes being able to overcome your fears, if those fears sabotage following your key values. It might be the fear of how others might react if you tell them the truth, fear of “what would people say”, of material loss… To be able to overcome our fears, we need to face them, and to be able to face them, we need to be able to support ourselves and believe in ourselves.
Integrity also means being able to see things from several different perspectives, including those you might not like, those that don’t fit your expectations and beliefs, or don’t make you feel right, powerful, important and such. To be able to explore such perspectives objectively, we need to be able to accept that we might be wrong sometimes, that sometimes other people’s needs are stronger and more important than ours, or that certain beliefs we associate with safety and belonging might not be very wise.
To do all that, we need to accept that sometimes our ego might be a bit shaken, which requires being able to accept ourselves as we are – imperfect, with limited knowledge, humans among humans. The more healthy self-esteem you have, the easier it is to accept your imperfections, and the less self-esteem, the more need for ego-illusions. Thus, self-esteem is an important aspect of integrity (and the other way around).
Integrity and survival
People who still strugle to survive and fulfill their basic needs cannot be expected to neglect those needs in favor of much more abstract values such as integrity (although there are some people who do). Integrity becomes important usually when people feel safe enough to prioritize long term good feeling and quality of relationships over short term benefits. Therefore we could say that integrity is an external expression of internal sense of security. I’m not talking about basic fairness and cooperation with other people – this is by itself a way of ensuring our survival by being accepted by a group. I’m talking about a higher level of integrity – those choices which probably nobody will ever find about, or which might require risking being rejected by important people or groups.
To be able to live with integrity, you need to develop emotional and material independence, so that toxic people and toxic jobs cannot have power over you. Independence doesn’t mean amassing so much money (probably hurting other people and environment in the process) that nobody could touch you; it doesn’t mean never allowing yourself to love and avoiding emotional hurt (which, the more you avoid, the more you are likely to experience). It means developing your abilities, learning new skills, facing challenges, until you trust yourself to be able to deal with hardships and emotional pain. Money cannot give you that. (Check out the article “Turn Emotional Pain Into Passion And Inspiration“, too.)
Being truly independent means being able (and willing) to support yourself through pain… and here we come full circle. You cannot be supportive of yourself if you don’t like yourself; you cannot like yourself if you don’t respect yourself, and you cannot truly respect yourself if you don’t live with integrity. However, this circle can be broken, or a new one started. It’s never too late to create yourself anew.