For anyone committed to developing high, healthy self-esteem, integrity isn’t optional. It is an absolute necessity.
Some people misunderstand what “integrity” means. The word often gets thrown around as a synonym for “moral” or “ethical.” In fact, what “integrity” implies is wholeness. If something is “integral” to a thing, it means that thing would not be whole, would not be complete, without it. When a hole is punched in a ship, it’s said that “the integrity of the hull has been breached.”
To have integrity, in other words, is to be whole. Not missing pieces. Or, in the case of the myriad choices that inform our self-esteem, not having given away pieces of ourselves, our judgment, our priorities.
To have integrity means to be true to oneself.
Why is having integrity so vital to self-esteem?
Because self-esteem is impossible to cultivate if you’re constantly betraying yourself, either in your thoughts or in your behavior.
Now, that may seem so obvious, so self-evident, as to be almost silly to point out. Of course we don’t want to be going around betraying ourselves— why on earth would we? No rational person goes around betraying themselves, do they?
You’d be surprised at how insidious, how prevalent, self-betrayal is.
For example, we betray ourselves when we deny or downplay who and what we are. A lot of us actually seem to actively hide who we really are from the people around us, because we’re afraid. We’re afraid of getting judged; we’re afraid of getting mocked; we’re afraid of not being liked; we’re afraid of rejection.
So we hide. We try to blend in. We feign interest in subjects we’re not really into. We don’t cop to enjoying forms of entertainment or artists we really like. We keep what really moves us, speaks to us, motivates us, under wraps.
Is it any wonder our self-esteem takes a hit when that’s our mode of dealing with the world?
When we run away from who we really are, in either little or big ways, our self-esteem notices. It sees us ending and disowning our authentic selves, and it responds. After all, we must not esteem ourselves too highly, if we’re investing so much energy in hiding from and abandoning our real interests and perceptions and tastes.
Don’t get me wrong: we live in a judgmental world. No question about it. When our brains tell us that there is a very real possibility that we might be mocked or rejected by the people or culture around us for what we’re into, they’re not necessarily wrong. Public shaming and mockery is almost a pastime on social media for some people. It’s not the case that, if you show the world who you are, you’ll never be made fun of.
But it’s also not the case that running away from who you are, trying to keep the “real you” under wraps, and trying your very hardest to blend in, solves that problem.
Not only does it not solve the problem of potentially being judged, but it creates a much bigger problem in the long run: the wearing down of your self-esteem that comes when you’ve failed to live with integrity.
Understand, there are definitely times and places where it’s appropriate to be discreet and judicious about how much of yourself to reveal to the world and the people around you. The world is not always a stage on which it’s appropriate to “bear all” to an appreciative audience. There are situations where we have to use our judgment and strike a balance between being “us” and conforming to the demands of the circumstances. For example, when we get a job, it’s a reasonable thing for our employers to ask us to keep our clothing choices within a certain range of professionalism and restraint— this isn’t a matter of repressing the “real you.” This is a matter of being appropriately flexible and responsive to the demands of reality and employment.
What I’m talking about here is not you choosing to curtail your preferences and choices in order to get or keep a job. What I’m talking about is the pressure so many of us feel, and often cave into, in our broader lives. To fit in with a social group. To keep from making waves in a relationship. To “earn” the approval of people on social media who we fear might otherwise ostracize and shame us.
If we make surrendering our integrity a habit, if we make shutting up and trying desperately to blend in a primary way of dealing with the world, that’s when our self-esteem starts crumbling.
Alternatively: if we start wherever we are now, however old we are, whatever life position we’re in, making it a habit to simply be ourselves, and let the social chips fall where they may— that is, if we make it a habit to prioritize and value integrity— our self-esteem will immediately start rising. It will notice that we’re suddenly treating ourselves with respect and kindness— that we seem to be esteeming ourselves more.
Living with integrity might be awkward. It might be anxiety-provoking. But it also very much might be worth it.
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