Dear Neil: I am a pretty religious man, and I believe that I should operate by the highest standards and principles. But I don’t always do it. On a couple of occasions, I have been unfaithful to my wife, skipped my son’s baseball games with the excuse that I had to work, and I don’t always tell the truth to others, either. I think this is because I have low self-esteem. What do your think?
Incongruent in Los Angeles
Dear Incongruent: To understand why lapses of integrity are detrimental to self-esteem, consider what a lapse of integrity entails. If I act against what I believe is right, then I against my judgment and I betray myself. Hypocrisy by its very nature is self-invalidating. It undermines me and contaminates my self-image and self-worth.
If I give sermons on honesty to my children yet cheat on my wife; if I ask for honest feedback and then penalize the person who disagrees with me; if I say tolerance of others is important but act intolerant of others myself, I launch an assault on my self-respect that no rationalization will dispel. If I am uniquely situated to raise my self-esteem, I also uniquely situated to lower it, states Nathaniel Branden in the book The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem.
One of the great deceptions is to tell one’s self “only I will know.” Only I will know I am a liar; only I will know I deal unethically with people who trust me; only I will know I have no intention of honoring my promise. The implication is that my judgment is unimportant and only the judgment of others counts. But when it comes to matters of self-esteem, I have more to fear from my own judgment than from anyone else’s. In the inner courtroom of my mind, mine is the only judgment that counts, says Branden.
Most of the issues of integrity we face are small ones, yet the accumulated weight of our choices has an impact on our sense of self. Many people greatly underestimate the self-esteem costs and consequences of hypocrisy and dishonesty. They imagine that at worst all that is involved is some discomfort. But it is our spirit itself that gets contaminated.
Branden offers some questions to allow you to explore this subject more personally:
- Integrity to me means….
- If I think about the areas where I find it difficult to practice full integrity….
- If I bring a higher level of consciousness to the areas where I find integrity difficult….
- If I bring 5% more integrity into my life….
- If I bring 5% more integrity into my work….
- If I bring 5% more integrity to my relationships….
- If remain loyal to the values I truly believe are right….
- If I refuse to live by values I do not respect….
- If I treat my self-esteem as a high priority….
- If any of what I am writing is true, it might be helpful if I….
It might strike the reader, reflecting on these ideas, that they sound very much like a code of ethics—or part of one. That is true. The virtues that personal integrity asks of us are also the ones that life asks of us.