You may have noticed that you did not receive a September Continuing Search for Meaning newsletter. You did not miss it in your inbox – it was not there! I can come up with many excuses for failure to send the newsletter – I was busy teaching classes, I was putting my efforts into working with psychotherapy clients, I did not ‘feel’ the creative energy to complete the writing. I recognize these reasons as excuses. I can and do use these excuses to myself. I can also recognize another reality: I committed to offering a monthly newsletter, and I failed to complete the newsletter for September. I lost integrity when I failed to honor this commitment.
As I examined my loss of integrity, I recognized that most of us move in and out of integrity on a regular basis, and decided to devote a blog post to understanding ways I (we) disconnect from integrity, and ways it can be restored.
What is Integrity?
The root of the word integrity is from the Latin integer – meaning wholeness. Three definitions are offered by the American Heritage dictionary: 1) steadfast adherence to a strict moral or ethical code: a leader of great integrity, 2) a state of being unimpaired: soundness: the building’s integrity remained intact following the mild earthquake, and 3) the quality of being whole or undivided; completeness: replaced a lost book to restore the integrity of his collection.
In the introduction to her book -Integrity: Doing the Right Thing for the Right Reason, Barbara Killinger states: “…integrity is an internal state of being that guides us towards making morally wise choices. In contrast, … ethics are externally imposed values consensually acknowledged by societal standards to be for the common good.” So integrity is not externally imposed – it is the voice of our own conscience, rather than a mandate from someone else.
How do we loose integrity?
Living in integrity requires calibration of values and energy. If you always fully meet your goals– perhaps you are not challenging yourself enough. For a goal to be meaningful it needs to involve some struggle to meet. Imagine that you enter a Tennis tournament, and that through interest and years of practice have developed a high level of skill. You could enter the tournaments novice division – and perhaps easily win the trophy. But the victory would be hollow, because you were not challenged. You could also enter the tournament in the advanced division. In this division you would have to work hard playing others of similar skill level. Success is not a guarantee, but you will be pushed to perform at your best.
On the other hand, if you rarely or almost never meet your goals, then you are chronically out of integrity. You may need to re-commit to your goals, or recognize that you may not value the goal as much as you originally thought.
Loosing integrity can be very complex. Perhaps you commit to 20 tasks, and complete 19 of them, but fail to complete the 20th. You are partially in integrity, but not completely.
How can I regain integrity?
How can I recognize that I failed to live up to what I promised, forgive myself, and restore integrity as soon as possible? This is a common concern. Many (perhaps most) people live with a desire to do many things well, only to come up short on at least a few of them. In our busy lives it is easy to over commit, to not have creative energy or simply be too tired to complete projects that we fully intend to complete.
First, there has to be awareness of your commitments. If you “commit” to a task, with out really believing that you can and/or want to accomplish the task, then the problem is not integrity, but honesty. If you commit to perform a task that you do not intend to complete or because you felt it easier to say “yes” than “no” – you may need to reevaluate how you communicate your priorities to others. To what are you fully committed? To what are you partially committed?
Second, recognize the damage caused to self or others by breaking integrity. An integrity breach is a social interaction. Even if the only person I have failed is myself, I have failed someone. Recognizing who I have let down is a step toward restoring integrity.
Third, take action to restore the integrity. In my case I am publicly letting you know that I failed to live up to my commitment of providing a monthly newsletter. Sometimes an apology is in order, other times it may simply be recognition of the integrity lapse and a recommitment to prevent the lapse from reoccurring.
Fourth, forgive yourself. Holding on to feelings of guilt will not likely reinforce you integrity, but will make you feel bad. While awareness is important, self-punishment rarely leads to positive change.
Finally, review what happened. Did I loose integrity because I have too many commitments? Did the value of the task fall between the time I committed and the time to actually complete the task? Did an unexpected, but higher importance task arise? Reviewing how you fell out of integrity will help you avoid the same pitfalls in the future.
I fall out of integrity on a regular basis – I am late to a meeting, I fail to complete a task I said I would complete, or I fail to wash the dishes or drop by the grocery store like I had agreed. While these may appear to be small lapses, failure for me to recognize the lapse could set up pattern of lacking awareness. If I miss the small lapses today, will I miss larger lapses tomorrow?
Michael Winters is a Psychologist in Houston focusing on marriage counseling and therapy. Michael received his PhD from the University of Memphis and has been practicing since 1991.