Recently, someone close to me commented that I have a large amount of integrity. At once I was flattered and also quick to downplay the compliment: for a long time, I associated integrity with a true moral high ground that extended beyond basic lifestyle principles, and therefore something few people actually possessed. Integrity can be defined as a “firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values” or “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles.” After ruminating on these definitions for some time, I accepted that I do live a life of integrity, even if it isn’t perfect. I’m honest to a fault; I abide by my moral and ethical principles (i.e. veganism); and I’m fully committed to being a trusting friend, sister, daughter, and lover. Despite its fanfare in our culture, I started to wonder: can one ever have too much integrity? When does integrity devolve into stubbornness or inflated ego?
Take this example: for years, you’ve experienced chronic back pain, and despite attempting every natural remedy in existence, nothing has provided lasting relief. As someone who eschews most forms of Western medicine, you are firmly opposed to taking any sort of conventional medication to alleviate the pain. Do you take the medicine to support your well-being, or do you stand your ground as a means of proving moral rectitude?
In cases like these, the answer isn’t always apparent or easy. On one hand, wouldn’t someone with integrity admit to oneself the futility of natural healing methods? However, this same person might rather suffer through pain in order to remain aligned with his or her principles–in this case, abstaining from conventional medicine. Obviously, a case could be made on both sides of this issue, and neither approach is wrong or immoral.
What it comes down to, I think, is intention: is your steadfast opposition to a particular point of view a product of an established moral code or set of ethics? Or are you simply enacting a stubborn attitude for the sake of arguing against others’ opinions? Ironically, this requires a lot of self-knowledge and honesty–two important tenets of a life of integrity. Often, I find myself making pronouncements about all sorts of things–food, art, politics, medicine, and the like–but if I’m being honest with myself, I recognize that I’m harboring distastes or judgments that have few moral underpinnings. When confronted, I can feel myself tensing up, afraid I’ll have to explain my so-called “ethical stance,” when I know that no such stance actually exists. In such cases, I know I’m being more stubborn and less ethical. In such cases, it’s important that I reexamine what merits a firm declaration and what is really a hindrance to my happiness.
Living with integrity means knowing intimately your moral principles and values. It also means knowing why you’ve established such values. If you can identify the basis for your opposition to Western medicine, for example, you can more easily decide how it should inform your day-to-day life. And when you are met with people who question your integrity (and you most certainly will be), you’ll be ready to meet their concerns with an informed opinion. This will make it easier to stay aligned with your ethics and avoid being accused of stubbornness or egoism. When you examine it this way, your integrity won’t be lost.
What do you think? Have you ever experienced a time when your integrity was more harmful than helpful?
Also see: How to Be More Giving and Feel Happier
Photo: Daniela Vladimirova