I have a friend who’s always tried to do the right thing. Many of us have a friend like her — or share some of her qualities ourselves.
Her integrity has always been one of her most important values. In her job, she’s the one who double-checks for mistakes that could cost the company. In her relationships, she has a strong moral compass, and constantly evaluates whether her actions are in line with that compass. In her friendships, she values people who are like her — who have a clear sense of what’s right, and live by that sense.
Part of what drives her, though, is insecurity. She wonders, “Will others see me as good?” This insecurity leads to positive behaviors, since she strives to prove that goodness over and over again. But underneath those positive behaviors is a constant hum of anxiety and self-doubt.
She’s also driven by unfair stereotyping of who “good” women are. In both business and our personal lives, women are often expected to be nice, accommodating — to smooth over the rough edges. Any behavior that falls outside that norm is subject to questioning, pushback, and even hostility from others.
My friend feels like her integrity is also attached to this outside definition of whether she’s being a “good” woman. If she’s doing something that’s completely for herself, that’s not “good” or “nice.” Instead, she’s implicitly expected to prioritize others, including her partner, her boss, and her family.
So, what are the major problems with the way this friend is living? And by extension, what are the problems that many of us face in evaluating our own integrity and worth?
First, her definition of “being good” or having integrity relies primarily on outside opinion.
And second, it’s debilitating to have to constantly prove her integrity — and relatedly, her worth — to others.
Let’s talk about these two problems, and then address how to repair the harm that others have inflicted on you, your integrity, and your sense of self-worth.
Why it’s harmful to let others define your integrity
It’s natural to want approval from people whose opinions we value, including friends, family, and colleagues. But how do we know when we have begun valuing others’ opinions more than our own?
First, it can help to know what integrity means to you. Commonly, integrity is defined as doing what’s “right,” even when no one else is watching. But that adage leaves out a crucial step: defining what “right” means to you.
One way to start is to think of a time when you felt particularly proud of how you handled a tough situation. Maybe it was a moral gray area, and you had to take action, even if you felt pulled in multiple directions. Getting curious about what your “gut” feeling tells you after you make a decision can help guide you towards a definition of what is right, from your perspective.
A natural pairing with this is to think about a time when you felt ashamed. This may be something that you haven’t told anyone about — in fact, shame often flourishes when we keep our struggles a secret — and that didn’t sit right with you. What was it about that action or decision that didn’t satisfy your definition of integrity? How was it misaligned with your values?
Second, after you have a clearer sense of what integrity means to you, think about the last time that your integrity was questioned by others. This can be a horrible experience — it might feel like your value as a person is in question. But try to separate your reaction to others’ judgment from your assessment of how you handled the situation. If you responded to a difficult situation in a way that aligned with your values, then you know that the emotions you’re feeling are likely a response to being judged by others.
In one sense, it can be helpful to take others’ opinions into account when reflecting on a tough situation.
On the other hand, it can be harmful if you are valuing those opinions above your own moral compass. If you felt that you responded in the best way you knew how, and in a way that aligned with your values, and yet you give more weight to another party’s negative opinion about your actions, this can ultimately damage your sense of self-worth.
Over time, if you feel that you have to “prove” your integrity and worth to others, you can become exhausted. Not only might their definition of integrity differ from yours, but they will never have a full understanding of your life, circumstances, or your struggles to balance your integrity with the tough decisions that come your way.
Knowing your own definition of “right,” “good,” and “integrity” will help you feel like your self-worth doesn’t take a hit every time someone else questions those things about you.
But how do you repair deeper harm, or recover from a deeply hurtful attack on your integrity?
How to repair the harm that others have done to your integrity
Returning to the example of my friend, she particularly struggles when someone accuses her of acting in a way that is motivated by selfishness or a desire to trample others. These are so far from the truth of what she values, that those opinions can rock her to the core.
So how can we work to heal ourselves when others’ opinions have damaged our sense of self-worth?
First, return to your definition of integrity. Revisit it as often as you need to, in order to reassure yourself that you didn’t stray from your values.
Second, know that others’ negative opinions about your integrity are a reflection of their own internal struggles. When people feel insecure, threatened, or harmed, they tend to lash out at others. Though it’s not your job to fix their feelings or underlying issues, remind yourself that they are struggling as well, and may simply be misdirecting some of their difficult emotions.
Finally, show yourself kindness. Remember that others will not work to restore your integrity — whether the outward appearance of it, or the inward struggle to maintain it. Thus, you have to be the one that constantly builds, and rebuilds, a strong sense of integrity, which rests on a foundation of self-worth.
This self-kindness will take work. In small increments, though, you can be your most powerful cheerleader. Daily affirmations, whether written or spoken, can powerfully counterbalance the negative thought loop that may result from hurtful attacks on your integrity.
Remember that you are no less valuable or worthy when others unfairly evaluate you. People will continue to question your integrity at various points in your life, but it’s up to you to define integrity, so that no one else defines it for you — and protect your sense of self-worth, because no one else will.
Originally published at medium.com