Integrity is another of those slippery concepts, much like “character.” When people talk about integrity, they often do so in the context of being honest. This is certainly an aspect of integrity.
However, this honesty extends beyond telling the truth to others. More importantly, integrity means being truthful with ourselves. For the purposes of this post, I will refer to this kind of truth as internal integrity, although there really is no separating being truthful to oneself, and being truthful to others.
Being truthful to oneself may seem easy – almost automatic – but I suggest that most of use are in fact big fat liars when it comes to internal integrity. The majority of people in the world, or at least in modern, industrialized nations, are very much out of touch with who they really are. How can somebody possess internal integrity if they are living a life that others dictate for them?
What do I mean? Since early childhood we are conditioned to follow social and moral rules. Don’t get me wrong, many (most?) of these rules are absolutely good and necessary to maintain peaceful society. But others serve only to stifle personal development, and more specifically, growing to be the persons that we really are.
For instance, society’s (at least our society’s) rules for success are roughly: obey all rules, hang out with the right people, do well in school, go to college, get a great (e.g. – high paying) job, etc. And even after we do all of that, more rules still apply: conform with company policies, fit in to corporate culture, network with the right people, climb the company ladder, make even more money… That is how society defines success.
In short, we are brought up to conform to societal norms and succeed by society’s standards, not to “find our true selves.” In fact, in the U.S. taking time out from the path of “success” to “find oneself” is considered by most to be rather flaky.
Many people are so disconnected with who they are, so entrenched in living the life society expects them to live, that this whole notion of being one’s true self is beyond comprehension.
But in order to possess integrity, one must do exactly that. How can someone have integrity if they are being who and what society wants them to be, and not being their true selves? In essence, they are lying to themselves, and often are unaware that they are doing so.
Being our true selves
So what does it mean to be one’s true self? I propose that being one’s true self means being aware of, and acting in a way that is aligned with, ones inner self. That is to say, having a deep understanding of one’s own thoughts, emotions, beliefs, and values, and acting in a manner that is consistent with them.
In a nutshell, being oneself means acting and being on the outside the way we actually are on the inside. To do otherwise is a lie.
Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said that the deepest form of despair is to “choose to be another than himself.” In essence, to be someone who lacks integrity. Someone who acts in a manner that contradicts his true being.
Kiergegaard goes on to hypothesize that being ones true self is the deepest responsibility of a person.
Learning to first understand who we really are, then to live that way, is the goal of personal development.
It requires staring hard at our internal states, emotions, and thoughts – regardless of how turbulent they may be, and reconciling them with values that are truly our own (not dictated by society). It requires knowing ourselves in a deep way – knowing our own strengths and limitations, and accepting both with unconditional positive regard.
When we try to deny these things about ourselves, or struggle against them, we are living without integrity.
This does not mean that we should not seek to improve. One of the paradoxes about acceptance is that great personal growth often comes when we accept things we do not like or understand. This acceptance often actually results in change, while struggling against who we really are results in pain and stagnation.
This website has a number of posts that talk about the “how’s” of personal reflection and growth, so I won’t get in to them, here. But I encourage all of my readers to think about the meaning of integrity, and think about how closely aligned their life is with who they really are.
Carl Rogers, the famous humanistic psychotherapist, said that the #1 question every single one of his clients struggled to answer was “who am I? Really?” According to Rogers, to not know, or to know and not act accordingly, is the largest source of psychological suffering.