We value integrity highly in both ourselves and others: we expect others to act with integrity and let us keep ours. But like most things worth having, integrity isn’t always easy. So how do you live with integrity despite the fact that it's sometimes difficult?
Integrity is all about living according to your values and principles, even if it’s hard. Integrity isn’t something you achieve, but rather, something you consciously choose every day. When you know your values, they will act like a compass pointing you in the right direction. Communicating assertively and striving to always be honest with yourself and others will also help you live your life with integrity.
In this article, I’ll take a look at what integrity is and what it consists of, and more importantly, some ways to live with integrity.
What is integrity, anyway?
Integrity is something we like to see in leaders, politicians, teachers, and health professionals, as well as in our loved ones and in ourselves. But ask people to define “integrity” and you’ll likely run into hesitant attempts at trying to find the right words.
Before reading on, I recommend trying to define what “integrity” means for you. If you have someone nearby, try asking them, too.
My own understanding of the word has been sullied by the research I’ve done for this article - which I will present shortly - but for me, “integrity” is best described in Frank Sinatra’s My Way.
If you’re not familiar with the song, I recommend giving it a listen. In short, the lyrics tell the story of a man at the end of his life, reflecting on how he faced all of life’s joys and hardships his way - in other words, with unwavering integrity:
For what is a man, what has he got
If not himself, then he has naught
Not to say the things that he truly feels
And not the words of someone who kneels
The record shows I took all the blows
And did it my wayMy Way - Frank Sinatra
Many definitions of integrity have to do with having a strong internal moral compass and behaving according to your values and principles. It’s closely connected to ethics and morality and is considered a foundational moral virtue.
Honesty is also often mentioned, especially in dictionary definitions.
It’s also interesting to note that in my native Estonian, there’s no direct translation of the word “integrity” (which isn’t to say that we’re unfamiliar with the concept), but the word is most often translated as ausameelne and põhimõttekindel, meaning “honest” and “principled”.
Chances are that your own definition also used similar keywords.
There’s another great take on integrity that is often falsely attributed to author C. S. Lewis: “Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.”
This is a paraphrase of the following quote from comedian and motivational speaker Charles Marshall:
Integrity is doing the right thing when you don’t have to—when no one else is looking or will ever know—when there will be no congratulations or recognition for having done so.”Charles Marshall
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Values and morals and principles, oh my
In a way, integrity can be thought of as a compass that points you in the right direction, your own magnetic north. In this metaphor, values, morals, and principles are the needle of the compass aligning you with your north, not the north itself.
It’s important to make this distinction because sometimes, we can treat integrity and values like goals or destinations. For example, we might say that we want to act with integrity. If we value acceptance, we might say that we want to achieve acceptance.
Goals are good to have, but values aren’t goals. Therapist and coach Dr. Russ Harris write:
Values are not about what you want to get or achieve; they are about how you want to behave or act on an ongoing basis; how you want to treat yourself, others, the world around you.Russ Harris
The same goes for morals and principles: they aren’t something you achieve, they’re something you act on. You can’t become a moral person by doing immoral things in the name of the greater good; you are a moral person if you consciously choose to be one.
It should go without saying that everyone’s values, morals, and principles are different. Even if our general definition of integrity is the same, our integrity won’t look the same.
For example, some people make a point of being independent and never relying on anyone else, while others will build a group or a network to consolidate forces and achieve more through cooperation.
And we haven’t even tapped into the numerous political or religious differences that are often inseparable from our values and principles.
How to live with integrity
It’s not always easy to act with integrity, but that’s not the point: integrity isn’t doing what’s easy, it’s doing what’s right. If you’re looking to build your own compass, look no further: here are four tips on how to live with integrity.
1. Find your values
It’s much easier to stand for what’s right if you know what you stand for. Integrity often starts from figuring out and defining your values.
There are many ways to go about this. For example, you can simply try to brainstorm and write down behaviors and characteristics that you value in yourself and others.
The most important thing is to take as much time as you need and be completely honest with yourself. Keep in mind that values in different domains of life can sometimes contradict each other: you may value independence in your personal life and cooperation at work or vice versa. You may also find that your values don’t entirely align with those of your loved ones or role models. Don’t be discouraged if these things happen: you’re working out your own values, not someone else’s.
2. Make conscious decisions
A large part of living with integrity is acting with intent. This means making conscious decisions in your relationships, career, or life in general.
When we’re unsure of what path to take, we tend to postpone making the decision until the decision is made for us. This can apply to small, inconsequential decisions like where to have dinner (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone back and forth between two spots until one of them closes and I’m only left with one option) or to bigger, more important things like relationships.
Small choices are a good place to practice conscious decision-making. Take the time to weigh your options and make the best choice you can with the information you have. In retrospect, it might turn out to be the “wrong” choice, but we can’t see the future.
Living with integrity means making choices that are yours, no matter how “right” or “wrong”.
3. Strive to be honest with yourself and others
We’ve all told a white lie every now and then, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Sometimes, it’s a conscious decision to preserve a loved one’s peace of mind, or sometimes we’re just trying to save our own skin.
However, honesty is an integral part of integrity. This can mean telling your friend what you really think about their new haircut, being truthful with your spouse about the cost of your new gadget (and having a long think about your relationship if that’s something you can’t be truthful about), or owning up to your mistakes.
It’s completely okay to still tell a little white lie when you need to, as long as you understand why it was necessary. But consider being honest first: it’s often easier to excuse your late arrival by blaming the traffic, but consider if admitting that you slept in would really be the end of the world you think it is.
Things happen, people make mistakes and you’re no exception. And there’s nothing wrong with being honest about that.
4. Be assertive
Integrity can mean standing up for yourself and asserting your needs or opinion. When you’re used to being passive, being assertive can feel aggressive. Similarly, when you’re used to aggressive communication, assertiveness can feel like submitting.
Assertiveness is all about expressing yourself clearly and effectively while remaining respectful and non-judgemental of other people. It’s communicating your needs without disregarding the needs of others. Assertive communication is always based on mutual respect.
A common way to practice assertive communication is to use “I” statements. For instance, instead of saying “You’re wrong”, say “I disagree”.
A longer form of an “I” statement incorporates your feelings and thoughts without judging the other person. For example, instead of “You’re always late!”, use “I’m upset when you’re late because I don’t know if you’re going to make it. In the future, can you let me know when you’re going to be late, so I don’t worry so much?”
Here's an entire article dedicated to how to be more assertive in your life.
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Integrity isn’t easy, because it’s not about doing what’s easy, it’s all about doing what’s right. However, when you make the conscious decision to live with honesty and integrity, you may find life easier to navigate, because you have your own internal compass of values and principles to guide you.
What do you think? Do you live with integrity, or do you find it difficult to have your actions aligned with what you believe in? I'd love to continue this post in the comments below!