This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem" by Nathaniel Branden. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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What does it mean to act with integrity? Why is it important to align your actions with your values? What does acting with integrity entail in practice?
When you act with integrity, your behavior reflects your values. You may not choose the perfect option every time, but you strive to find and follow the option that best reflects your values. If your values point to opposing behaviors, you weigh your options and select what seems best.
Keep reading to learn why integrity matters and how to act with integrity.
What Is Acting With Integrity?
When you act with integrity, your choices and behavior align with your values. Since you only live by your values if you know what they are, living with integrity also involves examining why you have certain values and changing them if necessary. You developed your values based on both your personal experience and what others taught you, but you may no longer believe in them. These values may even cause harm. If so, don’t ignore them—re-examine and update them.
(Shortform note: In The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck, Manson also warns that we may hold destructive values that crowd out positive values and lead to dissatisfaction. For example, Manson says that prioritizing superficial pleasure may disrupt your relationships with others.)
Why Acting With Integrity Matters
Branden argues that when you act without integrity, you damage your self-respect and thus your self-esteem. By rejecting the behavior your own mind decided is right, you reject yourself and lose self-respect. This is also why others’ knowledge of your bad behavior is irrelevant: Your self-respect depends only on how you judge yourself. Since you can’t avoid knowing whether your behavior reflects your values, you can’t violate your integrity without damaging your self-respect—and thus your self-esteem.
(Shortform note: In reality, how others perceive you also massively impacts your behavior. In Atomic Habits, Clear explains that we often behave in certain ways because we want to fit in with different groups. So surrounding yourself with people who have similar values—and would judge you for rejecting them—may help you act with more integrity.)
In addition to self-judgment, living without integrity causes guilt, which you feel because you chose not to live by your values. But you can only choose to live by your values—to practice integrity—in situations you can control. As such, it’s important to understand the difference between what you can and can’t control. For example, you can’t control that you were promoted right after your friend was fired, but you can control how you deliver that news to her. Otherwise, you may feel guilty over something you couldn’t control—which may comfort you by making you feel like you could have changed an unfortunate situation, but will damage your self-esteem.
(Shortform note: If you still feel guilty over a situation you can’t control, some experts recommend expressing gratitude in practical ways, like thanking people who have supported you and acknowledging opportunities you’ve had. )
How to Improve Integrity
How can you improve your practice of integrity? Here’s how to act with integrity, according to Branden:
Method #1: Five Steps to Repairing Integrity When You Damage It
- Accept your behavior and take responsibility for it. Don’t try to shift blame.
- Compassionately examine why you did what you did.
- Face anyone you’ve harmed. Explicitly acknowledge any damage you’ve caused.
- Do whatever you can to reduce and compensate for this damage.
- Pledge to act with integrity in the future.
Branden contends that you must follow all five steps; otherwise, you won’t stop feeling guilty. However, it’s OK if you’re unable to complete a step due to circumstances you can’t control (for example, if it’s impossible to minimize or make up for the damage you caused)—as long as you try your best to complete it.
(Shortform note: Branden never makes explicit why these five steps repair your integrity. However, he writes that acts of integrity can alleviate any guilt you feel from acting without integrity, which suggests that these five steps work because they are acts of integrity.)
(Shortform note: Branden’s five steps align with Mark Manson’s advice in The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck for repairing broken trust in relationships. Manson argues that people break trust when they value something else more than the relationship, and that’s what damages the relationship. To regain trust, the transgressor must own up to the values that led to the rift. Then, through improved behavior over time, they must prove that they prioritize the relationship over those values.)
Method #2: Sentence-Completion Exercises
To improve your ability to act with integrity, Branden recommends a two-week sentence completion program.
Every weekday, follow the instructions listed below. Then, each weekend, review your answers and write six to 10 answers to the following: “If any of what I wrote this week is true, it might be helpful if I…”
Week 1: Create and answer four sentence stems that address what integrity means to you, in what situations you struggle to act with integrity, what would happen if you became more aware of those situations, and what would happen if you behaved with more integrity in your life.
Week 2: Create and answer four sentence stems that address what would happen if you behaved with integrity in your career and relationships, and what would happen if you lived only by the values you sincerely believe in—not by the ones you don’t.
An Alternate Method for Practicing Integrity
In Dare to Lead, Brené Brown recommends a different method for ensuring that you regularly practice your values: Create a set of guidelines for each of your values, then check in with those guidelines occasionally to ensure that you’re acting with integrity and that your actions represent who you really are. As you develop your guidelines, reflect on these questions for each value:
- What are several behaviors that support this value?
- What are behaviors that I would consider to be outside this value?
- Can I think of a particular moment of integrity, when I was especially living by this value?
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