What does being “a person of integrity” mean? Though most people would immediately think of moral, ethical, or right, there is a deeper meaning to integrity. It’s about wholeness. It’s about being one person and not different people in the same body depending on context. Henry Cloud explains in Integrity: The Courage to Meet the Demands of Reality how integrity is much more than simply ethics and morals – though that’s not a bad place to start.
Before diving into the details of the kind of character that Cloud describes with “integrity,” it’s important to share that I’ve been a fan of his work for years now. Boundaries, which he co-wrote with John Townsend, is a cornerstone of my recommendations for people struggling to find ways to go through life. His books Safe People (also co-written with Townsend) and Changes that Heal, Cloud connects the kinds of people we need to be in relationships to the need for boundaries. His more recent book, The Power of the Other, helps us to understand how others impact us – often without our knowledge.
Integrity isn’t the latest book that Cloud has written (The Power of the Other holds that distinction), so this was a chance for me to go back into the foundations of Cloud’s thinking and writing and look at more basic components of how we get along with one another.
At the heart of Integrity is the understanding that we need wholeness. We need to have what I’ve described as an integrated self-image (see my reviews of Braving the Wilderness, Happiness, Beyond Boundaries, and many more), which circumscribes all that we are instead of carving out only the parts of our identity we want to allow others to see. Many authors have hammered away at this topic, as they’ve sought to capture and relate the sense of completeness that philosophers have struggled to share for ages.
The fundamental problem with wholeness is that it is difficult to explain. It’s like trying to explain a plane to a tribe that has never met modern civilization. Until you’ve seen a plane, it’s hard to make sense of them in your brain. Even after seeing an airplane, that doesn’t mean you can build it. As you’ve stumbled across people who appear to be wholly integrated, you may think to yourself that they’re interesting. But, for the most part, there are barely clues to how they became so whole, complete, and integrated.
One of the ways that people become more whole is to see their blind spots, and that comes through feedback from others. There’s a simple truth that you cannot see everything. From the blind spots in our eyes where our optic nerves connect to the fact that we can’t see the soles of our feet when we’re standing, there are limitations to our own perception. (See Incognito for more.) We need others to help us develop a more complete picture of the world and ourselves.
Feedback is often difficult to take. It often highlights an aspect of ourselves that may be true but we conveniently ignore or gloss over. It’s often painful to adjust our self-perceptions to include our limitations and opportunities for improvement.
However, truly whole people invite feedback and seek to better understand themselves and their worlds – even if it’s difficult at times. They’ve figured out how to recognize the value that it brings to them more than the immediate sting, much like the athlete who pushes through their pain in exercise to gain stronger muscles and better endurance.
Feedback can drive us apart – or it can bring us together. We’re all wired for connection. It’s a fundamental part of the way that we live. Our togetherness has been woven into our very survival since well before our written language. (See Mindreading, The Righteous Mind, and The Evolution of Cooperation for more.) Books (The Dance of Connection, for instance) and entire careers have been made on our need for connection with one another.
A wholly integrated person isn’t incomplete in one sense. They understand who they are and don’t rely on others to complete parts of themselves. Simultaneously, they’re aware of their fundamental need to be connected with others. This paradox of being complete and at the same time acknowledging the need for other people is what makes wholehearted people interesting.
Whenever there are two people involved in a relationship, there must be some level of grace. Grace is a gift, an unmitigated favor, bestowed upon another person to accept and redeem their faults. Done well, grace is given with the humility of acknowledging that we give grace because we need grace ourselves. We will make mistakes, we’ll be blind to our limitations, and we’ll struggle.
Because we need grace ourselves, others must need it. Though we all suffer from a fundamental attribution error – attributing our setbacks to situations and others’ to their character – we at some level know that we’re not perfect. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more on fundamental attribution error.) It would be disingenuous to expect grace from others and offer it to ourselves but then not offer it to others in return.
Cloud is a bit fuzzy with his use of the word “trust,” sometimes using it to mean trustworthy and other times meaning the giving of trust. I’d offer that I’ve spent a great deal of time learning about trust. While you must be trustworthy and learn to appropriately trust others to be a whole person, I’m not sure that this well understood. (My most recent capstone on trust is at Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy, Revisited if you want a longer explanation about trust and how it works.)
Cloud appropriately flags person of integrity as trustworthy because they are worthy of trust. Persons of integrity also have a greater capacity to give the gift of trust to others. They can see where and how people can be trusted and can extend trust in more situations and to a greater degree than people of lesser integrity.
While being a person of integrity is a good thing with a host of benefits to yourself and those around you, it’s not easy. Just knowing what needs to happen doesn’t make it happen. People of integrity have typically worked long and hard to become the person of integrity they want to be. It’s hard work, and it take determination and grit. (See Grit for more.) It’s more than the willpower to pass up the chocolate cake. It’s an enduring commitment to seek to become more than they are today.
In the end, a person of integrity is willing to accept the feedback and accept the assignment to make themselves better. Perhaps they’re even willing to take a nudge to read Integrity.