“To think is easy. To act is hard. But the hardest thing in the world is to act in accordance with your thinking.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Who we are is not only defined by how we choose to interact with others, but also how we choose to interact with ourselves. Who are you? We’ve all thought about it. And we’re all developing it. Our words, our actions, and our being comes from who we believe we are. Integrity is about believing that we are cohesive and ‘make sense’ as a person.

What is integrity?

Integrity is a word we hear frequently, though nailing down a definition for “integrity” is not necessarily easy. Go ahead, think about it for a minute.

We can dig a little bit and look at the dictionary. Good ole’ Webster describes integrity as “firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values.”

That’s still vague. How firm? What’s a code? Good morals? Bad? Can someone still have integrity if they are adhering to “bad” morals? To use a morality trope: does Webster’s definition mean that Hitler had integrity?

Let’s try looking at the root of the word. It stems from the Latin adjective integer, which means whole, or complete. In this light, integrity would arise from a person’s “wholeness,” meaning consistency and congruency, or being ‘complete.’ Though vague at first glance, with a bit of effort and discussion it’s relatively easy to come up with some themes common to integrity. Ask your friends, family, and even strangers on the street, and you’ll likely hear things like: honesty; following through on what you say you’re going to do; responsibility; accountability; keeping your word.

Integrity means creating and living your life in alignment with your values on an interpersonal AND intrapersonal level. Integrity is the integration of ideals, convictions, standards, beliefs—and behavior. When our behavior is congruent with our professed values, when ideals and practice match up, we have integrity.

A Journey Towards Integrity

However, integrity is not something that is ‘understood’ – but rather something that is lived in to. As we remain aware of agreements that are kept, or not kept, we begin to notice a range of principles and values; needs are also intertwined here. Think of how many times you make agreements throughout a day, either with yourself or others, and how many values and principles are implicit in each of those agreements.

As you become more aware of what kinds of agreements you make, you’ll begin to notice, over time, what kinds of values are more important to you than others. Likewise, with agreements that are not made, or not kept, you will notice what values are less important. This allows you to know yourself, examine yourself, and constantly work to live into who you want to become.

Why Integrity Matters

But why should we even care about integrity? After all, plenty of people get along just fine without reflecting on, or acting in, integrity.

Living with integrity will allow you to fully create your life in alignment with your values, giving you freedom, power, and possibility in each moment.

Integrity is closely interwoven with commitment. When I am acting with integrity I have committed to living my life according to my values and beliefs. Commitment itself is a strong enabler for confidence and motivation. When you are truly committed to a result, you will not shy away from making the necessary improvements in your life to reach the desired outcome. With improvement comes confidence and motivation.

From Thinking to Action

Creating your life in alignment with your values

Reaching integrity is a journey. Knowing something does not mean that your interactions with the world will reflect that knowing.

Being-in-Integrity – Knowing vs Being

Even if you deeply know what your values are, this doesn’t inherently mean that your actions will reflect that knowledge. You might know how to read music, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you are a musician. You might know how to paint, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you are an artist. You might know how to run, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you are a runner.

When you become something, when you are something, all of your actions and communications reflect that. You don’t think about it, you do it. If you’re an artist, nearly everything you see in the world will be seen as potential for art. If you are a runner, nearly anywhere you go you’ll be scoping out the spots to run.

It is at these points of being when you are not just applying something you know, but rather you are doing what you are; you don’t have to think about it or remember it, rather you are used by it. When you are in integrity, your world is created and lived out of you.

This is not to suggest that there is a true self you are getting back to or uncovering. Nor is it to suggest that you are locked into an identity, or that your values and principles are unchanging. Rather, acting in integrity is about looking forward, intentionally creating your life in alignment with your values, full of freedom, possibility, and creativity.

In this next section, we will look at the journey from “knowing” to “being” and show you some useful interpersonal and intrapersonal tools that enable your own journey towards a whole and congruent life.

We also recommend checking out our page on The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz, which carry a central theme of Integrity.

The Journey to Internalization

Whole. Congruent. People of integrity act consistently across many situations and among many different people. They are maskless. This definition of integrity-as-wholeness encompasses three components, or subsections:

  1. Know Thyself
  2. Act in Accordance with your Principles and Values
  3. Word as Self

These subsections are organized in an order of development. Following these subsections step by step will likely provide you with understanding and perspective, and maybe some motivation on your integrity journey – on your journey from “knowing” to “being.”

When you know something, you can likely talk about it, converse with others about it, and have a sense of it. Yet, that may not mean that you actually live, or act, from that knowledge in a way that is internalized.

We can use a musical example to further illustrate this. You might know how to read music, might be able to talk about reading music, might even be able to teach people about music, and perhaps you know enough about the trombone to be able to take your knowledge of music and the trombone to play some sweet songs. Yet, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you are a musician, where the music flows out of the trombone as an expression of you, no longer thinking about hitting the notes, not thinking about reading each line…it simply happens.

Regarding integrity, ideally you will be moving from where you are now toward seamlessly integrating those values into all of your actions and communications.

1. Know Thyself

Both our speech and our actions are shaped by our culture, and we sometimes find ourselves acting/speaking in ways that we – truly – don’t support. When your external actions and your internal reality are incongruent/at odds, you know immediately that you are out of integrity. This is often accompanied by a sense/reaction that indicates it (an ‘icky’ or ‘uncomfortable’ feeling).

To know yourself is to listen & embrace your sensations, feelings, and thoughts as true in the moment, and then use that information to more deeply understand your principles and values. The more accurately you can ‘hear’ and articulate these things, the more clarity you will find in them being in/out of alignment with your words/actions. Thus, it is the first step.

There are countless subjects and resources across this site that help you do exactly that. Here are a few good places to start:

2. Act in Accordance with your Principles and Values

This step follows from the first section of knowing thyself, where your self-reflection (abstract and concrete) brings knowledge about your principles and values. Through your experiences and interactions, you become aware of, and continue to develop, personal principles and values. These are beliefs/stories of how you live your life, and can be influenced by relationship (spouse, parent, friend), family, group (church, club), community (geographic, cultural), organization(work), society (laws), world. They are the stories you live by.

3. Word as Self

This section follows from the first two, where, through your experiences, you learn and recognize that every word you think and speak, your word, has the power to create your reality in line with your agreements, principles, and values.

You directly create through the power of your word:  the context in which you exist, in which you live, is created by your words and your language. Your integrity flows from within you, and is intuitive. When your word is your self, you realize that things you say are agreements. You make agreements congruent with your mind and body (actions), and live into your word, honoring the agreements that you make. Gandhi’s quote, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” comes to mind here.

Agreements

The word agreement has come up several times, and is somewhat of a stepping stone for this ‘journey’ towards integrity. So, what are agreements? Agreements are formal or informal arrangements as to a course of future actions. Some are very specific and some are very broad, and they can be entered into in many ways. To name a few:

signatures, blood brothers, money exchange, pinky swear, head nod, law, social norms/constructs, not opposing, treaties, contracts, handshakes, and words

Implicit Agreements

It is important to note that honoring agreements also includes those which are implicit, and those which have not been definitively stated outright. For example, if you ask a server at a restaurant to bring you a hamburger, it says “$5” on the menu, and they bring you one, you have implicitly agreed to pay that amount for it. Or, if your housemate enters a room of other housemates and asks “Can someone please do the dishes that are in the sink?” and you say “I got it,” you are implicitly agreeing to do those dishes today or in a timely manner. There are many situations within social contexts that expect a certain behavior from an individual. If you enter a supermarket, you implicitly agree to keep your clothes on. Or, you implicitly agree to pay your taxes every year.

Explicit Agreements

To achieve congruence of word and action, explicit and clean agreements become a useful practice / art. They clarify our intention and action and build & inspire trust (if followed through on). To bring that level of clarity, only make agreements you want to make, with clear definitions of “what” and “when”, and even “why” and “how”. Consider these two agreements: “I’ll get this project done by tomorrow noon” and “I have 2 hours to commit to this project and will check in after with progress.”  The prior can mean scrambling, stressed, and needing to reach out and re-negotiate the commitment. The latter anticipates for the unknown while still communicating clearly.

A helpful, related subject on communicating agreements is Clean Communication.

The Journey Revisited

Here are several distinctions/reflections that may lend themselves useful to more deeply consider and understand integrity:

Word vs. Spirit / Keeping vs. Honoring

Our values and principles take on more depth when we consider how we navigate our agreements. Simply because we keep an agreement, doesn’t mean that we honor that agreement. Similarly, thinking of agreements in light of word (a.k.a. letter) vs. spirit gives greater insight into our values. As in, what is the “SPIRIT” (honor) of an agreement, and how might that differ from the WORD (keep) of an agreement?

Here are some indicators that can help to distinguish between the words and the spirit of an agreement:

Word Spirit
Phrases Thoughts
Comments Opinions
Literal Sentences
A document Policy
Power of Creation Expression
Emotions Intention
Attitude Actions
What you refrain from What you are drawn to

The words of the agreement likely exist more within the realm of external integrity: more straightforward and defined. The spirit of the agreement exists more within the realm of whole integrity (of both external and internal integrity, of interpersonal and intrapersonal integrity), which are the guidelines you’ll use to determine what spirit you take to be in those agreements.

Below are some examples of how the Word/keep differs from the Spirit/honor.

 

Word/keep Spirit/honor
Helping your friend move on a Tuesday evening
You have an early work meeting the next day and even though there are boxes from three rooms to be loaded into the truck, you know you only have time to load two-thirds of them. You take a bunch of breaks during the work. Besides, you only agreed to help today to get out of helping the next day when all the boxes will have to be carried upstairs to a new apartment on the 4th floor. You know there are a lot of boxes and are aware that you won’t have time to help with all of them. You try your hardest and also let your friend know that you have an early meeting the next day so that they can also ask somebody else to help and make sure that everything will get done as planned.
Calling your mother
You call routinely every couple of weeks. You quickly give an update on the latest news, but man, it’s really sunny out and after 10 minutes you try and get out of the call and go on a hike that you planned with some friends on the same day. Some things happened this week that really occupied your mind and you know that you can reinforce your relationship with your mother by telling her how you really feel. Besides, you enjoy hearing her personal take on things. You make sure that you plan the hike with your friends on a different day so that you have more time for the phone call.
A day at work
It’s another Tuesday. You have a comfortable work routine and friendly relationship with your coworkers. Why change anything? It’s another Tuesday. The usual work routine works just fine but today you’d like to make an extra effort and make it a special day. You realize that donuts are on sale and get a dozen for your colleagues. You also remember that it is Frank’s birthday so you get help from some other colleagues to organize a small secret surprise.

Consistent vs. Inconsistent Actions

When we are in integrity, what are we actually putting out there? Words, thoughts, and actions that are whole. Complete. Consistent.

People of integrity act consistently across many situations and among many different people. Your values and principles remain the same regardless of what the external situation is.

Many folks feel that it is okay to act differently, with different people, in different situations…that, of course, you’ll act differently with old high school friends than with your boss and his executive team. But consider what it is that might be different. Perhaps the level of conversation will be different. Take 5 levels of conversation:

  1. The Weather: Passing conversation. Small talk. Can be amusing or entertaining, but rarely very interesting.
  2. Let’s Talk About “Blank”: The lawn needs to be mowed. This project is due on this date. I find this interesting. Conversation, but no real insight.
  3. Energetic: Conversations with people with whom you easily align yourself. Spirited agreements or disagreements.
  4. Kitchen Table: Meaningful talk about life, love, work, etc. Serious decisions are made.
  5. Deep Conversation: You’re taking a trip with your closest friends. You’re all around a campfire at 2AM talking about the ‘meaning of life,’ really.

Do your core values and principles change across these levels of conversation?

Even though your physical actions and interactions may be different with different people, do your actions, as representations of your values and principles, change?

Do you allow yourself to drop sexist jokes with your high school friends that you’d call people out at work?

Even though situations and circumstances may change, and the needs and strategies of both you and others change, do YOU change simply because of who’s around you? We’re not talking about effectively honoring varying rapport or agreements (usually implicit) among different groups of people (or in different contexts); the congruency/wondering is if there are VALUES or PRINCIPLES that change – the core of you, your wholeness.

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”— Maya Angelou

Falling Out of Integrity: Disintegration and Reintegration

Disintegration

So what happens when we do not honor ourselves and our agreements? We lose integrity with the person or people that were affected by the loss of integrity. This can also be yourself. Being out of integrity = dis-integrity. Disintegrate.

Things tend to disintegrate when our integrity is compromised. Agreements are the glue that binds: interpersonal relationships, community, or the success of a business. They glue together the shared values and visions of people, and create the foundations to carry out a shared mission.

Sometimes there may be small, seemingly meaningless agreements that are broken. Yet, over time, those broken agreements form patterns and create relationships that are far from being whole and complete. Remember that agreements are both written and verbal, explicit and implicit, and spirit vs. word.

When we break our agreements, we may experience the challenging aspects of conflict and confusion, even remorse. So what do we do when our agreements disintegrate? What happens when we fall out of integrity with ourselves or others? We work to re-integrate!

Guidelines for Re-integration

When agreements are broken, below are some considerations for getting back into integrity. These may be questions that you go over with yourself, with whomever the broken agreement was with, and perhaps both. Keep balance and self-empathy in mind when considering these questions, as raw emotions and feelings can sometimes warp the responses. (See NVC need shifting for more on this)

  • What’s the agreement, word and spirit, and who was it with?
  • Did you keep that agreement, both word and spirit?
  • Did you make something more important than honoring that agreement?  Did you “come clean” with that?
  • Is there a shadow in this for you? (“shadow” as a part of yourself you want to hide, repress, not look at; perhaps it is a pattern of behavior that has caused you to break other agreements in the past)
  • What are the impacts/consequences of your choice?
  • How can you get back into integrity? (What new agreements might you make with the person you have fallen out from?)
  • Do you feel whole?

A note on “feeling whole:” When people peacefully contemplate their integrity, they generally know where they stand. To contemplate your integrity, try maintaining eye contact with someone for a full minute, and then discuss the area you are considering around your integrity. It would be very difficult to be disingenuous with yourself (and the other) in this circumstance.

Re-Integration: Forgiveness and Trust

When you have fallen out of integrity, and then re-integrated, there is an important distinction to be made between forgiveness and trust. Trust and forgiveness are related, but are not the same.

Those with whom you have fallen out of integrity with, can forgive the missed agreement, and be free from any enemy images towards you. Yet, that also doesn’t mean that trust will be immediately re-established. The history that precedes disintegration is not forgotten. There can be a clean slate in one’s intention and interactions with a person who has missed an agreement, with an understanding that that history is not useless and that it provides information which is useful. One can hold compassion, be free of enemy images, and not hold trust either, which changes both the landscape and direction of the relationship.

In many ways, one’s behavior towards another is teaching them how to interact with you. Can those patterns change? Absolutely, and forgiveness is an essential part of allowing that change to move forward. Yet that history, which includes things like frequency (how many times?) and seriousness (was someone in danger? Was a core philosophy breached?), has a place in the discussions and process that move towards re-integration. It will likely take a longer time to regain trust than to be forgiven.

Trust is lost when a person acts differently than was agreed upon or expected. Regaining that trust will likely require initiation (words and action showing that you intend to act differently in the future) and consistency (the old cliché “walking the talk” comes to mind here).

Side note: much of this section deals with re-integration with those whom you have fallen out with. It’s also important to note that you may fall out of integrity with yourself, and that similar processes of trust and forgiveness can be a solo act as well.

It may not be the most enjoyable experience as one works back into integrity and trust, and falling out of integrity may leave one with a sense of loss and sadness.

Failing Forward and Integrity

As already discussed briefly, one can still be in integrity with their agreements and still ‘fail’. It is important to note that Failing Forward will likely be part of your journey, and failure still allows one to remain in integrity with their agreements.

It is worth noting that integrity is not a rigid or unmoving state and changes to meet new needs and circumstances. Thus, we frequently revisit our path to internalization. Failure is part of the journey and your skills and proficiencies will increase as a result of failure.

It is the intention behind these mistakes that is important. If the intention behind your actions is to uphold your agreements, and you still fall short, you will remain in integrity with your agreements. If, however, you evade keeping an agreement for other reasons (see Word vs Spirit above for examples) your integrity will have been compromised.

Remember that every time you disintegrate it might affect the trust and forgiveness of those with whom you have fallen out of integrity. Bigger failures might not be met with “Oh well, keep trying!” Great compassion and support does not equal trust.

A good question to examine the intention of your actions is: “What do I really hope to accomplish here?” If it begins with something like, “To make someone realize…” then your intention is likely going to be compromised and self-serving.

The Burden of Secrecy

Along with Don Miguel Ruiz’s first agreement “Be Impeccable with your words” (see From Thinking to Action above) goes the idea of truthfulness. To reach integrity we have to be truthful, aligned with our values, with ourselves and others.

However, secrets are a very common human phenomenon. Psychologist Michael Slepian, PhD, an associate professor of leadership and ethics at Columbia Business School and his colleagues identified 38 common categories of secrets. They found that 97% of people have a secret in at least one of those categories, and the average person is keeping secrets in 13 of those categories (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 113, No. 1, 2017). In the study they took a broad view, defining secrecy not just as the moment of actively withholding information, but also having the intention to keep something secret from another person—even when that other person isn’t physically present. The paper showed that people’s minds wander to their secrets far more often than they actively try to conceal their secrets from others. And although the frequency of concealment didn’t seem to have much effect on well-being, the more people’s minds wandered to their secrets, the worse off they were.Having a secret can feel exhausting (Social Psychological and Personality Science, Vol. 10, No. 4, 2019). While confiding the secret can lighten the load – it makes you feel more capable of dealing with the secret and ruminate less about it.

Every day we have wonderful opportunities to design, define, and create a world that can change our lives. Our agreements, in every moment, and the integrity with which we uphold them, determine the degree to which our dreams and our visions are actualized. Let’s continue the revolution.