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The Importance of Integrity

How do you know when to trust someone?

How do you know when to say “yes” and when to say “no?”

How do you decide between two things you really want?

Why do you sometimes experience resentment or regret?

When is it best to selflessly give to others and when is it best to let others take care of themselves?

How do you know when to “follow your heart” or when to “feel the fear, but do it anyway?”

In a word: Integrity

I often see couples in conflict over issues of integrity. There’s a misconception that integrity is simply the act of relaying facts truthfully, but there’s a lot more to it than that.

To understand integrity, I find it helpful to divide it into two parts: External and internal integrity. The first refers your relationship with others, while the later refers to your relationship with yourself. Let’s dig deeper into both, including examples and action steps to grow in these areas.
my bill of rights

External Integrity

External integrity is when your actions meet up with your words. It means doing what you said you would do, being where you said you would be, and keeping your commitments. These basic skills are fundamental to maintaining trust and respect in relationships. There is no short cut for this, it has to be earned every day and built over time. This doesn’t mean you have to be perfect – cars get flats, meetings run late, people get sick. It does mean that you have to be thoughtful of others and communicate when plans goes awry.

Examples of External Integrity

Time commitments are a useful example. If you are truly thinking of your family and putting them first, you’ll be punctual over 90-percent of the time. In the remaining 10-percent, you call or text as soon as realize there is a hitch such as bad traffic, a meeting gone long, or other significant reason that you will be delayed. What’s important is communicating BEFORE you were supposed to be home. Why is this important? Disregarding your time commitment means you’re not thinking of your family as much as getting caught up with what’s in front of you.

Another example is making a commitment to do something. Often, I find, people develop the habit of agreeing to do something just to get someone off their back. Or saying “yes” because they are afraid to say “no.” Or because they think saying “no” means that they are somehow a failure or disappointment. Then, after saying yes, they either don’t do what they said they would, or require a lot of complaints, reminders and arguments before actually getting it done. In this scenario, everyone loses.

Action steps to improve external integrity:

Stop making excuses and put your actions where your words are – Start taking pride in showing up and following through. If you say you’re going to do something, do it. If you find yourself avoiding a task or feeling resentful, look inside yourself for a misalignment of your values. If you find a conflict between your commitments and values, I suggest finishing out what you said you would do, but not taking on that commitment again in the future. Which leads to…

Learn to say no – Integrity means that you tell the truth. Be honest with yourself and say “no” when something genuinely doesn’t work for you. “No” might sound like, “Sorry, that doesn’t work for me.” Or “Sorry, I can’t do that.” Or “Sorry, I’m already committed.” You may have to do this with your spouse, children, friends, boss and others. Will they be upset? Maybe. But not nearly as upset as they will be if they think you lied to them, forgot about them, or if they interpret your tardiness or lack of enthusiasm to mean that you don’t care. Better to have your family adjust to your honest priorities – what you will and won’t do – than to feel they can’t trust or depend on you.

Sometimes it helps to explain that you have a prior commitment, while other times just “sorry, I can’t right now” will suffice. Alternatively, if time is the only problem, you can you can look at your calendar and tell them when you realistically could do what they are asking. This may effectively be the same as saying “no,” but it shows that you are thinking of them and simply asking them to respect your prior commitments. On the other hand, if they take you up on it, put it in your calendar right then and there and keep your word.

Stay in communication and negotiate expectations – In the rare circumstance that you’ve promised something and can’t deliver, communicate promptly and establish a new expectation. Do this before you were expected to deliver, and most people will understand. Don’t over-use this as an alternative to improving your time-management skills.

Get in the habit of under-promising and over-delivering – Using punctuality as an example again, imagine that you expect to be home from a fishing trip by 7:00pm on Sunday. You tell your family that you’ll be home by 7:00pm, but then don’t show up until 7:30pm. From your perspective, you were gone all day, maybe all weekend. Given that time frame, being off by a half-hour might not seem like a big deal. Unfortunately, it might not feel the same to the people around you, who may have been worried or possibly made plans (like dinner) based on your word. At the very least, you have reinforced the belief that you are unreliable.

Instead, under-promise and over-deliver. If you tell them you’ll be home before 9:00pm, but show up at 7:30pm instead, no one is going to be upset with you. If you say that you will build a bookshelf, do the grocery shopping, or wash the dog by next Wednesday, but you get it done two days early – you’re a hero.

I know a building contractor who used this approach to develop an enthusiastically loyal customer base that would be the envy of any business owner. He learned to quote jobs for 1/4 to 1/3 more than he was planning on charging. He also estimated jobs to take significantly longer than he knew they would. Sure, some people were put off and went somewhere else.  On a regular basis, however, he tells his customers that the job cost less than he estimated. Or the job gets done a week or so ahead of schedule. And, of course, he does great work. His customers talk about this guy like he walks on water. He now get’s to pick and choose his ideal jobs and ideal clients. Under-promise, over-deliver.

Internal Integrity

If external integrity is about making sure you’re actions line up with your word to others, internal integrity is about making sure you’re words line up with your honest values and commitments to yourself. Internal integrity is about discerning when “yes” is an honest yes and when “no” is an honest no. Internal integrity requires developing two aspects of yourself:

  1. An ever deepening sense of what is and isn’t important to you.
  2. A willingness to risk the upset and disappointment of people in your life if living your values conflicts with their expectations.

As life presents you with an endless stream of interests, pursuits, careers, relationships, opportunities, books, movies, investments, hobbies, organizations, and more, internal integrity means choosing those things that resonate with your values the most. These choices help define you as a unique individual.

As you refine your commitments, the limits of 24-hours, 7-days, and 52-weeks will impose themselves. You will be forced to choose between multiple things that are important to you. Do you go on that weekend with friends you’ve been waiting for all year, or stay home because your spouse is sick? Do you use your money for the bike you’ve been saving for, or to help your kid fix their car so they can get to work? Do you work long hours, save every penny, and sacrifice now so that you can retire early and comfortably? Or do you live for today because you question the value of retirement if it costs you the best years of your youth, your kid’s childhood, and your marriage? These hard choices never end. Each is an opportunity to make healthy, self-creative, value-based choices; or the unhealthy, co-dependent choices of victimhood.

Having internal integrity doesn’t mean you become selfish or narcissistic. It’s not doing only what you want, satisfying your immediate gratification, or not caring about the wants and needs of others. In fact being in service to others is a vitally important part of a happy and successful life. Instead, internal integrity is about making choices based on what YOU value most. These could include relationships, kindness, security, and more. Your list will be different than mine and possibly different than your family’s.
Integrity means being true to your personal values. SteveSeliger.com

At a cost…

While increasing your integrity will likely result in increased health, happiness and satisfaction, it also means you will have to make stressful choices. I love the quote that says, “In life, you can have anything you want, you just can’t have everything you want.”  Sooner or later, life will force you to let go of something you don’t want to let go of, in order to hold onto something that is even more valuable to you. If you are new at creating healthy boundaries and begin to take time for yourself, it may be stressful as your spouse or children adjust to the fact that they need to take care of themselves (or take care of you) sometimes. Alternatively, if you are new at taking care of others, it may be stressful to learn to say “no” to yourself even if you are embracing the value of service. Taking responsibility for your choices, taking ownership of what is most important to you and aligning your commitments, means no longer blaming others or life for your circumstances. A good question to ask yourself is, “when I’m 85, what am I going to look back and wish I’d done more of?”

Perhaps the hardest choices will involve setting (new) boundaries that invoke structural life changes, “I’ve decided I’m not going to live with someone who drinks anymore,” “I’m only willing to be in a relationship where I can count on being treated with kindness and respect,” or, “I’m going to create a budget, live within our means, and not go into debt anymore.” Less significant, but still difficult, choices might involve temporary disappointments, “I’m staying home tonight – I need some quiet time,” “I know the deadline is tomorrow and everyone else is working late, but I’m going to my daughter’s baseball game, so you’ll have to finish up without me,” or, “I know we planned a romantic date for tonight, but my best friend’s dad just died and I want to be with them.”

These choices are hard, but they get easier over time. As you know yourself better and embrace integrity in your decision making, those who truly love you will come to know you better, respect you more, and accept you for who you really are.

Action steps to improve internal integrity

Know Your Values – I invite you to think back on your life and recall key experiences that resonated deeply within your soul. Experiences that moved you, that changed you, that brought you bliss, peace, or left you saying, “this is it” or “this is me.” Take a few minutes and write down as many of these experiences as you can think of. Beware of including what others say should or shouldn’t be important to you, rather than the things that really turn you on, spark your interest and inspire your creativity. For example, my list would look like this:

My Interests

  • Hiking
  • Climbing
  • River trips
  • Caving
  • Skiing
  • Canyoneering
  • Canoeing
  • Watching nature
  • Camping
  • Martial arts
  • Target shooting
  • Archery
  • Reading
  • Meditation
  • Writing
  • Gardening
  • Bicycle / motorcycle rides
  • Time spent in and around water
  • Camping
  • Artwork / Crafts
  • Blacksmithing
  • Building / Fixing things
  • Social time with friends
  • Intimate time with a partner
  • Working on projects with my children
  • Taking classes / ongoing education
  • Deep philosophical or intimate conversations
  • Learning about nature and science
  • Cooking
  • Crossfit
  • Road trips

Next, organize these experiences into groups that feel like they belong together. It doesn’t have to make sense to anyone but you. Use your intuition, search your feelings, and re-group your list until everything that feels alike or similar is in its own group.

For example, scanning my list, I discern one group as:

  • Artwork / Crafts
  • Blacksmithing
  • Building / Fixing things

Another of my groups would be:

  • Deep philosophical or intimate conversations
  • Learning about nature and science
  • Watching nature
  • Reading
  • Taking classes / ongoing education

And a third:

  • Hiking
  • Climbing
  • River trips
  • Caving
  • Skiing
  • Canyoneering
  • Camping

Once that is complete, look at each list and ask yourself, “What value do these things have in common for me? What is it about these things as a group that resonates with me?” As you answer these questions you are discerning your core values. These underlying values will likely be important to you for the rest of your life. While you may change how you choose to express these values, the values themselves are unlikely to change.

As I look at my list(s) I discern the following values that ring true for me:

My Values

  • Creativity and imagination
  • Loving respectful intimate relationships
  • Spending time in nature / the natural world
  • Learning about science and nature
  • Friendship
  • Fitness and Health
  • Kindness
  • Honesty and trust
  • Peace
  • Stability
  • Adventure
  • Self-sufficiency / self-reliance

Align Commitments with Values – Mental health and happiness have a lot to do with aligning your commitments to your values and your behavior to your commitments. How well does your calendar, your actions, time management, conversations, and relationships reflect this? Having discerned what is most important to you, how good are you at saying “yes” to your highest values and “no” to things like “shoulds,” “supposed-tos,” approval seeking, and the avoidance of criticism? How well do you uphold your boundaries and make time for what is important to you when confronted with other people’s priorities?

Back when I did this, some changes I made to my daily life were:

  • Waking up at 5:30 weekdays to make time for meditation, writing, and exercise
  • Getting to bed at a reasonable hour to make sure I get enough sleep
  • Going to the gym or going running every day
  • Learning to cook and eat healthy food
  • Going on an outdoor adventure almost every week
  • Splitting my schedule up so that I can pick my kids up from school and be available during homework time
  • Reading about science and nature with my kids
  • Learning to treat others with dignity and respect even when I’m upset
  • Learning how to maintain effective boundaries and self-respect when those around me are upset
  • Learning to be a good listener

A common mistake is waiting for spontaneous openings to do the things we value most. For most adults, that strategy doesn’t work. Instead, put your calendar and list of values side by side. One by one, start arranging your life to include the things that are most important to you. As you do this you might experience excitement, but perhaps some stress or fear also. The excitement comes from the joy of self-expression and pursuing the things we love. It’s one of the best antidotes for depression I know.

Stress may come about because life insists on balance. You still have to sleep, earn a living, and some aspects of your schedule might not be so easy to work around. You might need to change some old habits. Fear may come as a result of asserting yourself with family members, declaring yourself worthy to have time for yourself, and establishing or defending new boundaries. People resist change and your loved-ones may not be supportive at first. Don’t forget that your life is as important and valuable as anyone else’s. Carving out time, space and money for yourself will not only make you happier and healthier, in the long run it will benefit everyone around you. Who knows, your actions, excitement and happiness may inspire your spouse or your children to discern and follow their dreams.

Review this about once a year

While your core values aren’t likely to change, how you order and express them might. I used to learn a lot about science and nature by reading books, whereas now I do more research and learning on the Internet. I used to go climbing and kayaking almost every weekend. Today I’m more likely to hike or go canyoneering. What I consider a healthy and balanced diet has changed significantly over time, but my commitment to understanding nutrition and eating well has not. Your job is to live a balanced life that is right for you, while maintaining integrity with yourself and others.

In a world of words, actions speak volumes. Integrity is a key ingredient in your health as an individual, and in your relationships.