What does INTEGRITY really mean?

Years ago, when I first started in therapy, I was faced with what I would consider a typical situation with my family of origin. Promises had been made and then broken, and as usual it knocked the wind out of me. Somehow, even though I had 30 years of experience with these people, I was still blindsided when they behaved exactly the way they always had.

And my therapist posed a question – Was their behavior wrong?

Wait, what? I knew that it hurt my feelings. But was it wrong, like, morally? I just stared at her. I didn’t know how to answer that question.

My therapist asked me how I’d perceive it if the same thing were done to someone else. This question blew my life wide open. In all my years of life, I had never once asked myself, “Is this person’s behavior morally wrong?”

I became fascinated by the possibility of making a value judgement, and choosing my relationships based on a person’s character, versus a sense of obligation or duty.

Right and wrong

You may wonder how I’d made it over 30 years without going to prison if I’d never once examined the “rightness” and “wrongness” of the human experience. But be real with yourself. When it comes to family, and even people with similar lifestyles to our own, how often do you really dig into their character? How often do you dig into your own character?

How often do we give a free pass to others because it’s “just the way they are” or because they practice the same religion or live in the same neighborhood? How often do we make excuses for our own behavior without really examining how our actions affected other people?

Nature versus nurture?

Science has proven that babies are born with a sense of empathy. There’s a whole library of videos available online of babies and toddlers showing care and concern by comforting others who have been hurt or sharing their toys or food.

But how that empathy is nurtured into a solid value system depends greatly on the influence of caregivers. If a child’s basic needs are not met, or if they witness a lack of empathy in the adults in their life as a matter of routine, that child’s sense of morality becomes warped.

Add to that religion and cultural expectations, and suddenly it becomes very difficult to distinguish between what is inborn and what is a result of a child’s environment. At some point, unless or until we do an intentional inventory of our sense of right and wrong, our values reflect the way we were raised, for better or worse.

What are the expectations?

In my case, this meant that I knew what society and my family of origin expected of me, which was to lay low, follow the rules, and – essentially – disappear. I wasn’t supposed to have any needs at all.

Somehow, deep down, I had enough sense to know that was both impossible and not entirely fair, which explains my hurt feelings every time I was manipulated, abandoned, or a promise was broken. And yet, disappointment was routine enough in my life that it was expected. It never occurred to me that it was wrong to treat me that way. That’s just the way things were.

Integrity as a baseline

This conversation with my therapist was the first time that the word integrity was introduced to me in a way that was deeply applicable to my own life. My oldest child was a toddler, and the therapist asked me if I wanted my son to grow up thinking it was okay to treat others the way my family treated me.

My answer, obviously, was “Absolutely not!”

The therapist was blunt. She said, “Then you’d better figure out what’s right and what’s wrong, and start living your life with integrity, or he’s going to turn out just like you and your family. It seems to me, your family culture is one of push or be pushed. Have you ever considered the possibility that the whole dynamic is unhealthy?”

Yikes! That stung. But she was absolutely right. Because here’s the thing about integrity. It’s not just about doing the right thing to avoid prison or getting fired, or even to do the right thing in order to be liked and accepted. That’s a pretty low bar to set for yourself. But that’s what I was doing.

It’s time to get real.

It was like I was a child playing dress up. I was playing the part of a good person. I voted, welcomed new neighbors with a tray of cookies, and taught my son not to hit other kids on the playground. I got my son baptized and paid my car insurance. But never once in my life had I ever sat down and really thought about what I believed was right and what was wrong.

Basically, as embarrassing as it is to admit it in hindsight, I was really good at doing what I was told.

My therapist explained to me that integrity comes when we examine what we believe, and our life choices reflect these values. This doesn’t just apply to how we treat others, but also how we allow others to treat us and other people. If we don’t stand up for what we believe, not only are we dooming ourselves to a life of disappointment, but we are not living with integrity.

This pretty much blew my mind.

Over the next few months, I began really digging into what I believed to be right and wrong. It was surprisingly painful to discover that I had not been living into my own integrity.

It was discouraging to realize that being a person of integrity was a lot harder than I realized. It was so much more than just showing up and doing what my upbringing or my culture deemed “the right thing to do.” It took dedication, introspection, and self-awareness.

So what is integrity?

Integrity isn’t something you have. It’s a practice, like mindfulness or self-regulation. It’s a journey of self-discovery. It’s a journey towards boundaries, accountability, and grace.

Integrity requires you to do an inventory of everything you think, feel, and believe, and to truly decide based on your own exploration what is right and what is wrong. A member of the Redefining Love community likes to qualify it as authentic integrity, and this really spoke to me. It is the authenticity that really matters.

And, most importantly, integrity demands that you think for yourself. This requires maturity and courage.

Integrity requires a journey inward.

When we are children, we rely on others to set forth our values. But becoming truly an adult requires a willingness to stand on our own moral foundation. This means, we don’t “do the right thing” based on what our family, friends, neighbors, clergy, or politicians mandate.

To truly live a life of authentic integrity, you have to know exactly what you believe, absent pressure from outside forces, and then live into those beliefs, day-in and day-out, even when it’s hard.

This sounds hard, but there’s lots of good news, too.

Integrity is the only way to truly be free. Once we know who we are and what we stand for, it is so much easier not to take things personally. I rarely get my feelings hurt anymore, because I’m not relying on other people to fill in the gaps where my own values should be.

I’m not perfect. I make mistakes all the time. And when that happens, I can look inward and ask myself, “Did I live into my integrity, or did my values falter?” If I responded in the best way I know how, based on my own sense of right and wrong, I can rest easy knowing that my mistake was just that – basic human error – and that’s okay.

If I reacted thoughtlessly, from a place of ego and emotional immaturity, then I know it’s time to apologize and make things right. Once that’s done, I can again rest easy, knowing that I’ve done my best to bring balance back to my little corner of the universe.

Forgive yourself.

It took me a long time to make peace with my own naivete during the first 30 years of my life. But I finally came to a place where I realized that I was truly doing the best I could with the limited life tools I had. I can now look back at that girl and be proud of her, because dang y’all, she tried hard. So, so hard.

Maya Angelou said, “forgive yourself for not knowing what you didn’t know before you learned it.”

The queen hath spoken.

It’s a lifelong process.

Remember that integrity isn’t something you master simply by virtue of achieving a certain age and station in life. It’s not a destination, and it’s not something that simply happens when you “grow up” (whatever that even really means!).

Integrity is something you earn through intentional reflection on who you are and what you believe. It is the reward for a life well lived.

Doing life well is as simple and complex as this: Figure out who you really are, what you really believe, and where you fit into the grand scheme of things, and then do that thing and be that person, the very best way you know how.

Learn more...

To learn more about the Redefining Love Way, I encourage you to browse the site. Have questions? Feel free to email me at sara@sarabethwald.com, or schedule a free discovery call. 

For more information on how to join the Redefining Love Community, please visit redefine-love.com/coaching.

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