One of the things we often find in early recovery is that we need to learn to live in a new way. How we’re used to living has brought harm to ourselves and those around us, and if we are to stay clean and sober we must live with some integrity. Getting sober is a huge opportunity for us to build a new way of living and interacting with the world. In addition to getting toxic chemicals out of our system and clearing our minds, we are able to build lives in recovery of which we could have only dreamed when we were using. To fulfill our intentions and achieve our goals, integrity is critical.
What is Integrity?
We could offer you a definition from Merriam-Webster or the New Oxford American Dictionary, but we think Charles Marshall may have said it best when he said, “Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.” Often misattributed to C.S. Lewis, this definition of integrity really sums it up and makes it practical. To act with integrity means to do the right thing regardless of the situation you’re in. You have a set of values and intentions. Act in a way that is in accordance with these.
“Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.”
The late psychologist Carl Rogers spoke about an ideal self and your self image. In its simplest form, the ideal self is who you would like to be, and your self image is who you see yourself as in this moment. When we bring the two together, we find happiness. The more distance between self-image and ideal self, the lower our self-esteem is. This may be another way to look at living with integrity. As we actually behave in the way we want to behave, we bring together our self image and ideal self. We achieve what Rogers called congruency, and it can be quite freeing. Living with integrity may be understood through the image of bringing our actions to be in line with who we want to be.
The Importance of Integrity in Recovery
Integrity is important in recovery, especially when we’re new. Although we may not have caused a ton of harm, we likely weren’t living with as much integrity as we are able to. As Carl Rogers points out, behaving in way that is incongruent with who we want to be lowers our self-esteem. When we behave poorly, we feel worse about ourselves. When we feel worse about ourselves, we are less likely to behave well. Our “ideal self” feels out of reach or distant.
On the other hand, we have the opportunity to build our esteem every day with our actions. As we behave in a manner that nudges us toward who we want to be, we feel better. When we feel better about ourselves, we have the energy and opportunity to behave with more integrity in the future. Acting with integrity means we build new habits, a new sense of ourselves, and a new image of who we are capable of being.
How to Live with Integrity
The second century Roman emperor Marcus said, “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.” You can spend all day figuring out or discussing what it means to live with integrity, or you can go for it. Integrity isn’t about just having a wholesome intention or wish; it’s about taking action to become who you know you want to be. It takes practice to build new habits and behaviors, and we must make continual effort. Part of living with integrity is always being open to growing in new ways and learning new things about ourselves.
“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”
Taking contrary action is one of the best ways we can begin to live with integrity in our lives. Our tendency when in early recovery may be to fall into the behaviors with which we’re familiar. Taking contrary action and doing things we don’t necessarily want to do can help us to build a new foundation for a clean and sober life. There are opportunities to practice contrary action all day long, from making our bed in the morning to holding the door open for a stranger. When you have the thought of doing something healthy and good for yourself, don’t just let the thought pass; actually take action on it. That thought is a thought about who you want to be, so recognize the opportunity to behave accordingly.
Being of Service
Regardless of what your vision of integrity in action is, it’s hard to argue against being of service. Whether it’s in a recovery meeting or in your daily life, you likely have more opportunities to be of service than you realize. When I was newly sober, my sponsor had me put away the grocery carts in the parking lot of our local grocery store as a way to be of service. Maybe you can call a loved one, help clean up after a meeting, or share your experience with somebody struggling. These “little” ways we be of service help move us toward the kind and caring person that we want to be. Although they may seem little, these actions of service have incredible potential to build esteem.
Part of living with integrity is recognizing that we are imperfect beings. We all make mistakes, cause harm when we don’t intend to (or even know we are), and forget our intentions from time to time. When you make a mistake, own it! Remember the quote about doing the right thing when nobody is watching? If you have the thought that you may have made a mistake or caused harm in the privacy of your own head, own up to it. One of the best ways to practice living with integrity is to simply ask somebody if what you did caused some harm.
Intention, Plan, Action
This is the way I look at the more important decisions and actions in my life. Sometimes we have intentions or want to do something, but don’t seem to actually follow through. Maybe you had the intention of going to a meeting, of not picking up drugs or alcohol, or of being of service. Somehow, you find yourself not following through and don’t know what happened. We do all make mistakes, so don’t be too hard on yourself!
When you have a wholesome intention, start by recognizing it. When you notice it’s there, make a plan to follow through. In my own life, this often involves a super-clear and timed plan. Then, take the action. You can notice any excuses that arise, but make it a priority to follow through. When we prioritize like this, we can actually get done what we want to get done. No matter how small, the actions of integrity help build esteem and keep us on the right track!