Integrity, Personal Growth, and Forgiveness

Most who embark on the quest to forgive eventually discover how difficult the task can be. The trouble might come early in the process when we realize the world would prefer us to choose unremitting revenge over healing. Along the way, we may glimpse the depth of our emotional pain and retreat into the harbor of indignation. Or, perhaps we sense budding compassion for those who do not deserve it and realize just how much conviction forgiveness demands. Sooner or later, we understand we must evolve to succeed. Learning to become forgiving is a master class in personal growth.

Perhaps surprisingly, I find the contemporary obsession with self-improvement dubious. Whether being told to exercise more, eat this but not that, or fix our head, the subtext is there is something wrong with you. No wonder it is a multi-billion dollar industry—it taps into what most of us already believe! You’d think the fact that we stay on the treadmill and keep buying the latest advice regardless of making progress would cause us to question the whole rigmarole.

On the other hand, change is inevitable. And there are tools we can develop to help us through the messy bits of life. During times like these, having faith in how we will respond to stress is vital. Knowing who we are allows us to trust ourselves enough to push: To do and be better during times of change.

To have integrity means to be an integrated whole, with all of our words and actions reflecting the person one believes themselves to be. It is showing up as the person you know you are, even when it’s hard, even when you do not feel like it.

It is easy to see why this might be a good place to begin a journey of intentional transformation. We want those around us to have integrity because we know we can count on them to respond assuredly, predictably, and with accountability. This imparts trust. The same benefits are rendered within us when we live as an integrated self. As we set out to forgive someone else or ourselves, having a foundation of self-knowledge gives us the confidence to test the boundaries of our assumptions, stories, and the meaning we have made from our experiences.

Personal integrity is best viewed as an aspiration, not something we achieve. Most people consistently move in and out of integrity throughout life (and throughout the day!). To do otherwise would require either a very simple life (think monastic) or an unhealthy, dogmatic lifestyle (think zealot). In fact, it is the dynamic relationship to seeking integration that makes it so powerful. As we learn to come back to the consideration of how our beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and actions align, we move closer to self-actualization. It is this practice that makes a stable starting point for forgiveness.

So, how do we establish the integration that leads to more personal power? We begin with the sometimes unpleasant tasks of introspection and rigorous honesty. There are habits we can adopt to improve our capacity for this self-reflection.

Create guidelines or principles to live by. These are not the same as values. Let’s say you make up white lies to help navigate a complicated relationship. While being honest may be a value you want to adopt, the guideline might be: Don’t lie. Or, don’t lie to my partner. Principles are more dynamic than values and are generally action-based. Other examples might include the following:

  • Don’t use my credit cards
  • Sit in silence every day
  • Listen
  • Be authentic
  • Help when you can

The possibilities are endless. To maximize the utility of your principles, make sure they are in the forefront of your mind (put them on the fridge, memorize them) and review them every so often. Over time you will find it helpful to adjust to best support your current goals.

Avoid compulsive behaviors. Addictions and compulsive behaviors block integrity, but not because the behavior is inherently wrong, as some may have you believe. Compulsions hinder growth because, by definition, they are not activities we are consciously choosing. This undermines our ability to trust ourselves. Generally, this leads to dissociation, denial, or both. If we can’t be honest with ourselves, integrity will be elusive, and creating lasting change will be impossible.

Mindfulness meditation. Meditation quiets the mind allowing for space to hear our highest internal guidance. It also builds discipline. Knowing what is truly best and being disciplined enough to do what is needed will ultimately prove crucial to the most rewarding (i.e., difficult) progress. Mindfulness is one of many tools we can use to strengthen these qualities, and it is available to almost everyone.

As you explore what integrity means to you, be gracious. Living as oneself in a complex and challenging world is a tall order. Keep in mind (and heart) that we cannot know who we are until we know who we are not. Tenderness and grace open a pathway back to oneself, even from the farthest edges of who we are not.

“So, we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” – The Great Gatsby


Integrity, alone, says little about right and wrong. We recognize a person with integrity when their values, thoughts, words, and actions are congruent. They may act in ways we don’t agree with or understand. That does not necessarily mean they are out of integrity.

Let’s say, for example, that loyalty is a person’s principal value. For them, any number of other priorities—diversity, security, truth—may not be evident in their choices during difficult times. For example, it may be necessary for them to deceive people outside of their group. That choice may not be ethical, but it would not indicate a lack of personal integrity.

This is, of course, an oversimplification. One’s priorities shift and may not always align. Integrity can be held by filtering dynamic and conflicting concerns through one’s values to discern how best to proceed. Nonetheless, a person’s integrity may not reflect cultural norms or values perceived as paramount by most. In circumstances where the need for forgiveness (harm is caused) arises yet integrity is maintained, an honest look at one’s values (or the values of the wrongdoer) may be wise.