“Recovery of memories is not about gathering information about the past. It is about mastery over what has been unclear or avoided in memory, making meaning out of one’s personal history, and achieving integration.”
– Daniel P. Brown, et. al., Memory, Trauma Treatment, and the Law, p.481
I’m curious to know what emotions come up in you when you consider the word integrity.
Think about it.
If you are reading this article my sense is that the word integrity may elicit anger, anxiety, or even shame. Anger because the people who have promoted this impossible standard can go to hell. Anxiety because integrity is something I want to achieve but can’t seem to. Shame because my lack of what I assume integrity is is something I fundamentally am not. Which circles back to anger in order to mask the shame.
But what if integrity isn’t about external standards? What if integrity is about something within you that is the key to your wholeness? What if integrity is something you can actually achieve?
In most circles the word integrity implies meeting a list of criteria. For example, don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal and you have integrity. This is a top-down perspective of the word. What I’m talking about is bottom-up. It is holistic. What I am talking about is having integrity because you are an integrated person. In this sense, integrity is a product of something else happening within you. Integrity happens because of a fundamental shift in who you are as a person. Integrity is the product of Real Change.
I will discuss this concept bit by bit. And I will even introduce my own personal theory about integrity and our sexual preferences. It goes like this: The degree to which you can see the objects of your sexual desire as complete integrated wholes, not pieces and parts, is directly in proportion to how complete and integrated you are as a human being, how much integrity you have. In other words, masturbating to a picture of a woman’s breast is a fragmented activity and may say more about you than you like women’s breasts…or breast.
I’ve said a lot and I will unpack it in the following sections. The reward to reading this article through is you may get a new conception of the word integrity and instead of it eliciting anger, anxiety, or shame it may start to elicit a sense of pride and wonder.
Customary Sense of the Word Integrity
Most of the men who are in my groups or who see me as individual clients don’t like the people they feel they have become. Usually there is a tipping point – pornography use has taken them to a dark place; they’ve visited a strip club or massage parlor and never thought they would; they’ve hired a prostitute; they are married and had an affair. They are acting out in ways that they feel are “wrong” and “wrong” means that they are acting out in ways that for them don’t demonstrate integrity.
From where this conception of integrity came, even if the word integrity isn’t explicitly used, is often a topic of discussion.
What is “right” and “wrong”?
Where did your sense of right and wrong come from?
What do you fundamentally feel is right and wrong for you?
Often these conceptions are a product of parents, caregivers, and communities. Often they are products of religious communities.
But in all of these instances it is often shame that motivates them to have “integrity.” Shame is a product of being something bad not doing something bad. In this case some behavior means you are a “good” person and some behavior means you are a “bad” person; some behavior means you have integrity and some behavior means you don’t. It isn’t until these clients switch their idea of integrity from being one dictated by external standards to one dictated by internal standards that Real Change occurs.
Many of my clients have had affairs. Some have been married for many years and acted out with another person – or people – either in one-night stands or in longer-term extramarital relationships. Others had just been dating someone for a while when they acted out sexually with someone other than their committed partner. If my clients hadn’t already been outed or outed themselves they come see me. Often, I think, it is in the hopes that I will have some magic cure to their guilt that will preclude them from having to come clean.
While I ask many questions of my clients who have had affairs and have not yet disclosed them, there’s really only one question to ponder, “Do I tell my partner?” I usually don’t see again the client who has decided not to tell his partner. But the client who has decided to tell his partner starts seeing me regularly. And when I see him a great many questions arise…
How do I tell my partner?
What do I need to tell her about the affair?
If she wants to rebuild, how?
If she doesn’t, what then?
While having hurt their partners was probably the first regret these clients have had, it was their lack of integrity, as they knew the word to mean, which really affects them.
I want my integrity back!
I want that feeling I had when I would face my family and my community and be known as an upstanding person!
What is missed, until my clients have made it to the other side of this experience, is that the very thing they want back is actually the cause of their acting out behavior. It is that very desire to be seen by others as being a certain way – “having integrity” – that has ironically caused them not to have integrity.
Please read these words carefully and meditate on them: When your value and worth is dependent on how your behavior is perceived by other people, the anxiety of trying to meet people’s expectations can lead a man (or woman) to seek validation from anyone who will give it to them. And thus, an affair is born.
Even more ironic in this matrix is the fact that the exact experience these clients are hoping to get out of – having lost their integrity – is providing them with the fertile ground in which they can actually find it. Since the magnitude of their improper behavior prevents them from regaining the approval of others, they are left with the only option of discovering who they really are and being that.
In the example of an affair you can’t make her get over it. You can’t make her take you back. And it is within the sitting still, the waiting, that each of these men come up against themselves, and it is within the sitting still and the waiting that they discover the many ways in which they are lacking in the true meaning of integrity – that is, knowing himself, knowing where he came from, understanding his resentments and regrets, discovering the many fragmented pieces there are to himself, the many pieces and parts of himself he has denied and left packed away that he needs to face in order to become whole.
Let me explain…
Psychology of Integration
One way of conceptualizing our psychological experience and those mysterious emotions that we may or may not be able to put a name to is through the concept of “integration.”
Many things happen to us throughout our lives. Many of these experiences make sense to us or we make some reasonable sense of them and they become a part of who we are. These experiences become integrated into our sense of self.
Part of integrating these experiences into our sense of self is through our parents or caregivers. If we are fortunate enough to have parents or caregivers who were capable of organizing their own life experiences into meaningful narratives we have a greater chance of being able to do the same for ourselves. This includes things like…
I was born here.
I had these parents.
I went to these schools.
I had these challenges.
I was able to overcome these challenges in order to become the person I am today.
Family lore and family creeds do more than just help us stick together as clans, they give us some of the raw materials for creating our own life stories.
Conversely, if we have parents or caregivers who cannot construct meaningful narratives out of their life experiences, if they have not been able to face their own struggles, challenges, and missteps and make meaningful sense out of them we, as their children or dependents, are left to make meaning of our own experiences either with the aid of their limited capabilities or with whatever sense of reality our young minds can construct.
Imagine what sense a misguided or unassisted five-year-old mind makes out of the complicated world in which he lives. Imagine what sense a five- or seven- or ten-year-old makes of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse if no one is there to help. And imagine if that physical, emotional, or sexual abuse was at the hands of a parent or caregiver to whom we have turned to help us make sense out of our experiences. Maybe you don’t have to imagine it; this happened to you. And if it did, I want you to know that there are avenues to becoming whole again. Keep reading.
When our minds cannot make adequate sense out of our experiences – at whatever age – or when our minds cannot fathom the behavior we ourselves have engaged in (read: an affair), those experiences can get ignored; they can get packed away in our unconscious; they can become fragments.
The theory of integration holds that our psychological health is determined by the extent to which we can integrate all of the fragments of our life experiences into a complete sense of self, a complete narrative. When we are not whole or complete, we are fragmented.
How, then, does a person become whole? How does one become integrated?
By accessing and acknowledging as many of the fragmented pieces and parts of life’s experiences as is reasonably possible and making some sense out of them, even if the sense is as open-ended as “shit happens and it just so happened to happen to me.” Integration is also an ability to construct a meaningful spiritual life that allows a person to give up that which he couldn’t control in those experiences – which is a lot of it – to a Higher Power, to God (more on this in a second).
This is the therapeutic process – to sit in a room with another human being who is trained to handle, and legally required to keep confidential, the delicate nature of difficult memories. It is also the 12-step recovery process – to make “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves” (step 4) and then admit “to God, to ourselves, and to another human being [a sponsor] the exact nature of our wrongs” (step 5).
Yes, this is a difficult process. It is often no fun. It is often painful. But so too is waking up after having cheated on your wife. So too is having to explain to your wife why you have a sexually transmitted disease. It’s either own and understand all that we have done and all that has been done to us, letting the pieces fall where they may, or allowing fragmented pieces and parts of ourselves to gnaw at our psyches until we don’t know who we are anymore, until we don’t know why we make the poor decisions we make.
To live with integrity is to be an integrated person. To live with integrity is to know that our insides match our outsides. To live with integrity is to be honest not because we are making a concerted effort to be honest but instead because we have been courageous enough to be honest with ourselves first and as a byproduct of that honesty we just happen to be honest with others as there is nothing to hide.
Again, this is Real Change.
My Theory of Integrity and Sexual Preferences
One can see, then, how my theory of sexual preferences is relevant in regard to tracking the degree to which a person is integrated in the way in which I am discussing integration, the degree to which I am discussing integrity.
Again, the men, and some women, who turn to me for help have done so either because their sexual behavior is contrary to who they feel they should be as a person or their sexual behavior has forced them to change for fear of losing someone or something they would like to keep, including their integrity.
The assumption is often to push away the behavior, or even cast it off as disgusting and pathetic or, again, “wrong.” This is self-judgment, and ultimately self-judgment allows a person to say to himself, “Look away! Dig no deeper here!” Self-judgment allows fragments to remain fragments. True integration, and thus true pursuit of integrity, is to take a look at the sexual behavior and integrate it into your sense of self, to explore what it says about you.
So what does your sexual behavior say about you?
We see the world in the way in which we see ourselves, the degree to which we can see ourselves. We can’t recognize something in the world that we cannot recognize in ourselves. We can’t see racism, for instance, if we deny our own racism. We can’t see injustice if we deny the ways in which we are unjust. We can’t see another human being as human when we can’t recognize our own humanity; in fact, we might dehumanize another person when we can’t recognize our own humanity.
When we are integrated people, and can see and accept our powers and limitations, our very natural drive and desire for sex meets its end in ways that take into account the completeness of the person with whom we are engaged in having a sexual experience. We know her; we respect her; and we recognize that she is not pieces and parts but is instead an individual with a past, with hopes and dreams, and with challenges.
At their core pornography use, compulsive sexual fantasy, affairs, prostitution, strip club visits, etc. are all fragmented behaviors. They are fragmented because they are taking the pieces and parts of human beings outside of their complete and integrated context as human beings and objectifying them. This is not a moral issue I am discussing here; this is an essentially psychological and human one.
Pornography use may be the best example. Not only are the subjects (objects) in pornography removed from their context as human beings – after all, they are “actors” pretending to be people whom they are not – but often pornography’s focus is limited to pieces and parts, body pieces and parts. Add to that the fact that pornography users often don’t watch the entirety of a given pornographic movie – if there is such a thing anymore – but instead only watch fragmented clips, sometimes fragmented clips of many different fragmented clips of fragmented clips. Fragments upon fragments upon fragments.
Clients often ask me, directly or indirectly, whether or not a given subject (object) they are viewing is actually to be considered pornography and thus permissible for them to view. First of all, they are looking to me to define what needs to be defined for themselves. Secondly, the more therapeutically relevant question may be, To what degree is what you are viewing putting sex in its complete context versus in fragments and what does this say about how integrated you are as a person?
A sex scene in a movie, for instance, may not be pornography when it’s viewed in the context of its entire narrative, which explores the lives and challenges of its characters. If you are focusing on the narrative arcs of the characters, and how their sexual behavior plays a part in those arcs, then it may not be porn you are watching but instead a relevant story from which you can gain valuable insight about how to organize your own self-narrative, how even to organize your sexuality. We don’t just receive guidance from our parents and caregivers in organizing our life experiences; we receive it, both consciously and unconsciously, from the culture that surrounds us, from the stories that surround us (see Honor Your Conflict).
Rarely are people able to extrapolate a narrative arc by which they would like to live from pornography. This is not only because pornography often is not designed to have a narrative, but also because pornography users are not searching pornography for a narrative but instead for objects of sexual gratification. In this case, there is a big difference between watching a sex scene in the context of a narrative and searching the internet to masturbate to a clip of that same sex scene isolated (fragmented) from the rest of the movie’s narrative.
This is not to say that pieces and parts of human beings can’t arouse anyone sexually, but the more fragmented you are as a person the more your life, and sexuality, becomes limited to that which your mind can associate, which is often fragments and fragmented objects.
Spirituality and Integrity
Seen this way, I guess it all comes down to how integrated we wish to be as people and thus how much integrity we wish to have.
But the truth of the matter is, we will never become fully integrated. We will never be able to make sense out of everything that has happened to us or everything we have done. There is in life a considerable amount of uncertainty. And you can call that uncertainty whatever you wish to call it – I’ll call it the Unknown – but it’s there, and one can’t deny it unless one wants to remain fragmented.
In this way, an essential component to being integrated, and thus to having integrity, is the pursuit of a relationship with the Unknown, to stare into it, to ask it questions, and to accept that it is in charge, not you. And, if you wish, you can choose to trust that the Unknown has your back and will shape that which you cannot control into something that is benevolent, even when it doesn’t feel that way.
Again, this isn’t about meeting external standards. In fact, it has nothing to do with external standards. It has nothing to do with “rights” and “wrongs” and what is commonly associated with “having integrity.” It has to do with humility, non-violence, understanding, compassion, and forgiveness. The irony being, of course, that the more you live with this sense of integrity, the more you tend to fulfill the majority of those conditions that are commonly associated with “having integrity.”
Nothing is more essential to the Christian message than this and I bristle a bit in bringing this into the discussion. I bristle because I don’t want to feel as if I’m slapping a Christian seal of approval onto a psychological discussion. My real hope, however, is to point out the truth in Christianity, a bit of psychological apologetics if you will.
As Christians, we don’t strive to please God or anyone else through our behavior, instead it is our acceptance of, and I would say meditation on, the unconditional love and acceptance of God through Jesus’ action on the cross that transforms us.
We are loved. We are deeply and profoundly loved and accepted no matter what we have done or what has been done to us. It is the acceptance of this reality that makes it less likely that we will act out in ways that go against God’s will because we just don’t need to. We don’t need to turn to porn or affairs or prostitutes for validation because the validation we ultimately need is right with us, at all times. To accept God’s love through Christ is the starting point of integrity for Christians.
Christ demonstrated this. Christ always focused on his relationship with the Father. Christ always focused on His call, even when tempted by the devil. Christ wasn’t concerned with the “rights” and “wrongs” of society at large. In fact, if he had been, injustice would have prevailed unchecked.
Living with integrity for Christ was to accept that the Father was in charge and that the Father cares about all of His people – the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak, the healthy and the sick. Christ saw people as he saw Himself – integrated human beings with pasts, with hopes and dreams, and with challenges. Christ did not see people as fragments.
Many of us won’t be called to die on a cross because of our commitment to integrity but most assuredly we will be called to strive to see people as integrated wholes just as we are striving to see ourselves as integrated wholes. To do this requires a fair amount of humility, non-violence, understanding, compassion, and forgiveness. And, as it turns out, there are few things more Christian than that.
 For those reading this wondering if there is a magic cure, there isn’t. These are what I call “big boy moments”. Or perhaps more clinically accurate would be “existential dilemmas.” No one but you can face what has been done. And no one but you can make whatever decision needs to be made. No one.