Here’s the Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s definition of Integrity: The quality of being honest and fair; the state of being complete or whole; incorruptibility; soundness.
What, then, is Emotional Integrity? Here is my definition: Knowing what you feel and why, and being able and willing to share it with others, even when it’s painful.
General integrity involves being honest with others; not lying to others. Emotional Integrity involves being honest with yourself; not lying to yourself. It’s more about your internal choices than your external ones. It’s the opposite of what we think of as denial. It’s the opposite of avoidance.
It is entirely possible to be a person of good integrity while also lacking Emotional Integrity. We human beings have a natural tendency to avoid difficult things, like painful feelings, conflict, problems, or our own weaknesses. It’s somewhat built into us to take the easier route. It’s not always clear to us that the easier route carries its own threat; a threat to our Emotional Integrity.
Here is an example:
Barry, a 35-year-old stock analyst, is a successful and reasonably happy guy. He loves his job, and he loves his wife Jeanette. Jeanette, however, has recently been talking more fervently about having a baby. Each time she has asked his feelings about it over the past year, Barry says, “Yes, I want to have a baby, but just not quite yet.” Or, “I’ll be ready soon. Just give me a little time.”
What Barry does not tell Jeanette is something he does not tell himself either. He is not exactly lying to her with his answers, because he wants to believe that he will be ready soon. But in giving her these vague, open-ended, affirmative answers, he is not being honest with Jeanette because he is not being honest with himself. The truth is painful, and he does not want to go there.
Here is the truth:
Barry was raised by a violent, alcoholic father and a narcissistic mother. Throughout his childhood he had little support, and witnessed a lot of ugly fighting between his parents. Growing up alone and frightened, he vowed at a young age to never bring a child into this world. As he put himself through college, established his career and built a good life for himself, he put his childhood behind him and never looked back. Barry did not want to revisit his childhood vow, or his childhood at all. He did not want to think it through, as that would bring back the pain and fear from his childhood.
Barry is, overall, a person of integrity. He possesses all of the qualities that Merriam-Webster describes. He would never cheat in business, he does not lie. He is a reliable and consistent person who can be trusted to follow the rules of honesty and morality.
But, with Jeanette, on this one extremely important issue, Barry is not showing Emotional Integrity. He is avoiding pain, taking the easy way out. He doesn’t actually know how he really feels about having a baby, and he doesn’t want to face it. Right now, the delay tactics are working okay for him, but this is clearly headed for disaster. Jeanette’s biological clock is ticking, and she will eventually have no choice but to force the issue. At that point, under duress, Barry will have to decide between his own avoidance and his wife’s happiness and trust.
Here are my Tips for Care and Maintenance of Your Emotional Integrity:
1. Remember that painful feelings are temporary. They go away much faster and thoroughly when they are faced and dealt with. Avoiding the pain gives it more power over you.
2. Take seriously your duty to know yourself. People who love you rely upon it.
3. Be willing to say things that others might find painful. Speak your truth with compassion and care. If Barry would just say to Jeanette, “When I was ten and living in misery, I vowed to never bring another child into this world,” then Jeanette would know what she’s really up against, and would have the opportunity to talk with him about it.
4. Own your mistakes and weaknesses. We all have them. And it is far more honest to accept and face them than to ignore or hide them.
No one can be perfect at this. Everyone’s Emotional Integrity is vulnerable, and will often be tested through the course of our lives. We will falter and fail at times. The best we can do is try our hardest.
After all, we’re only human.