For years, hearing the word integrity squeezed the air out of my lungs and clenched my hands into fists. Somewhere along the way, I had come to define integrity as making sure my words and actions aligned with what someone else said was right.
If my thoughts, feelings, values, and beliefs lined up with that standard, then living in integrity would be easier for me. If not, then the pain and struggle of having to overcome who I was inside was just my punishment for not being good enough.
In those days, integrity felt an awful lot like lying.
But that wasn’t integrity, not really. It was people-pleasing. I was striving to gain the approval of others, even if it meant pretending to be different than I was. Part of that came from wanting people to like me, but it also came from believing that others knew more about who I was supposed to be than I ever could.
It’s easy to get there. There are many people in our lives positioned to instruct us on how to be—teachers, parents, coaches, pastors, etc—especially when we’re young. No matter who we are or where we are in life, there will always be someone who is older or more educated or holds a higher position of authority.
When I’m not in full agreement with someone in one of those roles, particularly someone I admire, I’ve been quick to assume that they are right and that I must be wrong. For a long time, I believed that the quiet voice inside me saying this isn’t you or this isn’t the way was the voice of my weakness and cowardice. I didn’t realize that it might actually be the wisest part of me.
It’s not necessarily that the people around me were modeling or instructing me to do something wrong or that I was inclined to do the total opposite of their standard. Even when people are genuinely trying to do the right thing, we can have different ideas about what that means and how to get there. No one is perfect and we don’t all have the same values and priorities.
The problem was that I didn’t trust myself enough to take my hesitations or uneasiness seriously. I thought they were evidence I wasn’t good enough. The more I doubted myself, the more I looked to others to tell me what I should do and say—to tell me who I should be. Every time I ignored myself in an attempt to live up to external standards, I further undermined my self trust and made it harder to know who really I was and what mattered to me.
In recent years I’ve gained a more healthy, helpful understanding of integrity—one that encourages me to bring out the best in myself instead of just trying to cover the worst. I particularly like this definition of integrity from Matthew Marzel via Kate Swoboda:
Integrity is: when your words and actions match, and they are in alignment with your values, commitments, beliefs, and life vision.
That’s very different isn’t it? Integrity is not about denying who we are to adhere to an external standard. It’s about making sure the things we do and say reflect what is inside of us, what makes us who we are.
Even now, with a healthier definition of integrity, I sometimes find myself falling into old patterns. It takes time and practice to learn to trust myself when the voice inside me disagrees with what people I respect say is best. It takes listening and attention to discern which of the voices inside me are wise and which are speaking out of hurt, anger, or fear. It takes practice and courage to do what is in integrity for me when I worry someone might disapprove.
Now integrity is a value I want to embrace wholeheartedly. I want to develop the discernment to know when what I’m doing is aligned with who I am. I want to trust myself enough to take a closer look when something feels off. I want the things I do and say to reflect who I am at my core instead of just indicating which rule set I’m following.
Asking questions helps us gain clarity and practice paying attention. Here are a few questions that can help us discern whether we’re aligning with someone else’s standards or our own:
- How does this align with my values?
- Whose approval am I seeking? Whose approval am I afraid to lose?
- What will this reveal about who I am? Is there anything about myself I’m trying to hide?
- Do I have any hesitations? What are they? What might they be telling me?
- What do I feel—both physically and emotionally?
I’m curious…How do you define integrity? How do you know when you are acting in integrity? What warning signs do you notice when you’re doing something that doesn’t align with who you are?