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How Integrity Impacts Your Health

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What role do integrity and honesty play in our physical and mental well-being? What are the consequences when integrity, and the mechanisms of trust, are absent or break down? How can you protect your integrity to protect your health?

To understand the role of integrity in well-being, it is necessary to explore intra and inter-personal honesty and integrity.

  • People can be honest with themselves and not others, or vice versa.
  • People can be honest with themselves in one or more contexts, but not in others.
  • People can be honest with their loved ones in some regards, but not in others.
  • They can tell one lie to their loved ones, and a different lie to work colleagues, and a third lie to their sports, charity or community colleagues.
  • People can be collectively honest, or collectively duplicitous.

In short, every conceivable combination of honesty and dishonesty seems to exist, across every type of relationship.

Let’s start by looking at the impact of intra-personal honesty (self-honesty) and inter-personal honesty on health.

Integrity and alcohol consumption

When a physician asks most people: “How much alcohol do you consume per week?” they know that almost everyone downplays their consumption. Speak to a few physicians and ask them to tell you what they do, in their minds, when someone says: “Oh, about, five glasses of wine during the week and four over the weekend.”

Some physicians will double, or even treble that figure in their mind, and act accordingly.

Most people know that drinking too much alcohol is harmful to health; that less is safer. It is difficult for people to admit to doing something they know is bad for them, especially to the person whom they know has responsibility for helping them to stay healthy.

In this situation, a lack of integrity has a negative impact on the person’s health. They will, in all probability, continue drinking too much alcohol, with all the inevitable consequences.

Not so people for with self-integrity, self-responsibility; they will answer truthfully. If they are consuming too much they will commit to reductions, and honour that commitment.

Integrity and body weight

Should we expect the same when it comes to maintaining a healthy body weight? Yes. The higher a person’s self-integrity, and self-responsibility, the more they will be honest with themselves about their body weight. If
it creeps up, the high self-integrity person will commit to doing something about it, and return themselves to a healthy weight.

Integrity and mental health

You can see the same pattern of behaviour in mental health, too. People who have integrity, and especially, self-honesty, will admit when they are struggling with their mental health. What does that mean?

That they usually admit, and act before their mental health deteriorates further. They will ask for help, guidance, suggestions, input, and counsel, from friends, relatives and colleagues. They will nip any problem in the bud; address it before it becomes more serious.

Integrity, especially self-honesty, is essential for good mental health.

Integrity, honesty, and trust

Integrity, honesty and trust are intertwined. Honesty and integrity are key ingredients in the development of trust. Trust is earned when people behave with honesty and integrity.

All seems clear. However, there are no clear or agreed definitions of honesty, integrity, or trust.

For instance, does ‘honesty’ mean always telling the truth to others? If so, we have another definitional problem: what is ‘truth’? Is it my truth, your truth, a third party’s truth? Is truth fact, perception or opinion?

If you are being honest, should you share a transient opinion with a loved one whom you know may choose to feel bad about your comments? Is sharing such an opinion telling the truth? Is withholding that opinion
telling a lie by omission?

Does ‘integrity’ mean having strongly held moral principles, and sticking to those principles, whatever the consequences? You may be familiar with the aphorism: principles are for those who can afford them.

Do most people hold their principles as immutable, or only until and unless they are paid enough to abandon them? History would suggest the latter, repeatedly. That means integrity can be bought and sold, and is not
an absolute.

What does it mean if you ‘trust’ someone? Does it mean that you have an expectation that a person will do you no harm, and keep their word to you? Our language contains confirmation that trust is not to be expected:
“No good deed goes unpunished.”

The next time you wonder why so many people walk by when they see someone in need of help, it is because they know that so many people before them have been harmed by trying to do the right thing. Countless
people have been sued for, with the best of intentions, trying to help someone in need.

Health and breaches of integrity, honesty, and trust

What impact does it have on health, on the ability to trust, if someone of integrity tries to do the right thing and finds they are harmed by the people they sought to help?

Every day, all over the world, there are vast numbers of court cases where one party claims that the other has breached their agreement and breached their trust. Both parties started off expecting the other to be integrous. Yet they have been harmed; legal proceedings are known to damage mental and physical health in vast numbers of people

What is the impact on well-being of integrity in groups?

A person is trusted by a group to keep confidences to keep secrets. If they do, they are seen as a person of integrity, honesty, and are, consequently, trusted.

What if the confidences, the secrets that are expected to be kept, are of wrongdoing, serious, and ongoing acts of illegality?

If the person trusted keeps the criminal secrets, they will be lying by omission to those who have a duty to uphold the law. Those who have become silently complicit in the wrongdoing, are expected by the criminals to be ‘honestly dishonest,’ they are ‘trusted to be untrustworthy,’ and carry out their ‘deceit with integrity.’

When does someone have integrity?

Whether someone is deemed to have integrity or not depends on the motives of the person making the attribution. Over and over again, every day we see scandals where huge numbers of people knew about illegalities, and chose not to speak up. They were trusted to keep quiet about the illegality.

Would the rest of the world think that being part of a conspiracy to conceal wrongdoing epitomised honesty, integrity, or trust? Of course not.

Would the rest of the world understand why they chose to be silently complicit in the wrongdoing? Yes, for the same reasons that people walk by when seeing someone in need of help; the personal risk of speaking up
is too great.

The effect on well-being of integrity surrounded by deceit

What is the health effect of being integrous when surrounded by wrongdoers? The evidence seems to suggest that the person either leaves the deceitful organisation, or their mental health suffers, or, they engage in cognitive dissonance to protect their mental health: “I didn’t do it. I can’t do anything about it. No-one will ever be able to prove I knew anything about it. Anyway, failing to report such crimes is not a crime. So, I’ll carry on picking up my pay cheque, look after my family, and stay quiet.”

Do people compromise their integrity in real life, to protect their health, their families? Only everywhere, every day, all the time.

Think of the scandals in the Post Office, Enron, Jimmy Saville, Madoff, Shipman, Dieselgate (Voltswagen was the first to be detected), Wirecard, BBC, Oxfam, Partygate, Watergate, Cash for Questions, Bungs for Gongs,
MPs’ expenses scandals… the list is very, very long. In every scandal, there were people who compromised their integrity for reasons of self-protection.

People whose lack of integrity damages the well-being of others

Machiavellis, narcissists, sociopaths and psychopaths (MNSPs, or the ‘corrupt quartet’) seem not to be detrimentally affected by their integrity deficits.

Guilt requires self-insight into wrongdoing and necessitates a conscience, and a moral compass. In the absence of both, even when they have been caught lying, members of the corrupt quartet will gaslight the a person who has uncovered their deceit.

If the gaslighting doesn’t silence the challenger, MNSPs will attack, and those attacks will escalate in seriousness until they are either rid of the challenger, or they have destroyed them.

Some people deceive their way to the top. We have seen it over and over again in politics; people will vote for the person who tells them the lies they want to hear. It always ends the same way. The deceitful politician is exposed for what they are, but not before they have done immeasurable harm. Lack of integrity harms countries, too.

How much harm is done by people devoid of integrity?

When integrity is absent or trust is destroyed, the consequences are almost always the same: serious harm. The evidence seems to suggest that MNSPs do vast psychological damage to large numbers of people, over many years, and seem to suffer no ill effects from so doing.

At least that is how it seems. Why? MNSPs would never want to appear to have any negative health consequences of their behaviour – they think that would appear weak, and may be interpreted by others as “just deserts”.

Corrupt people manipulate and gaslight their silent collaborators into believing that the words integrity, honesty and trust mean what they want. Trust and integrity, to them, are what they must secure from others
to help cover-up and conceal their criminality.

When people with a functioning conscience have been deceitful or silently complicit, they may experience guilt. We know that feelings of long-term guilt are detrimental to mental and physical health.

What is the health impact on those subjected to retaliation for having integrity?

Where someone has been a whistleblower of one or more persons directing organisational wrongdoing, the hero of integrity is almost always subject to false allegations, attacked, intimidated, defamed and reputationally destroyed.

The more reasonable, honest and empathetic a person is, the more they seem to suffer harm at the hands of the corrupt quartet. 85% of whistleblowers who are subjected to retaliation, end up with serious mental health problems, and never work again. Being a person of integrity and challenging those who are devoid of integrity is extremely dangerous to well-being.

What are the effects on people who have suffered abuse, (of any kind), in childhood? Again, the impact of the betray of trust, and the subsequent denials and false counter accusations, is devastating. The perpetrators
have doubled down on the harm they have done to their victimes by claiming that they are suffering from “false memories.”

For victims of such horrendous breaches of integrity, the risks of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress injury and risky and reckless behaviour, relationship difficulties, the inability to trust, are just some from the vast catalogue of psychological and moral injuries experienced.

Frankly, child abuse destroys the victim’s mental and physical health. It has been described as “soul murder.” The high damage and low recovery figures are similar to those who have experienced whistleblower retaliation.

Does integrity enhance well-being?

On a more positive note, integrity is also linked to better health and life outcomes. Research into character strength of honesty and integrity (CSHI) and its impact on health demonstrates that people who score highest on tests of CSHI have an 18% lower risk of lung disease, an 11% lower risk of depression, report lower limitations in mobility, and have fewer difficulties in daily living, in the long-term. Those findings were robust and independent of prior factors. In short, in the majority of life instances, honesty and integrity are good for health.

People who grow up in an environment where they can trust those around them, have much better life chances. They learn to have self-integrity.

What does that mean? When they have eaten too much and put on a few pounds, they will look themselves in the mirror, admit that they have overindulged, and resolve right then to do something about it. They honour
their commitment to themselves, and others, which in turn gives them better relationships.

They are people who, when they say they will meet someone at 11:00 hours at a specific location, will be early or on time. Why? They have given their word, and keeping their word to themselves and others matters to them. Why? They know that the way a person does something is the way they do everything.

Keeping their word to themselves gives them certainty that when they want to achieve something, they will take the requisite steps; they will not make excuses, even to themselves.

People who have the enviable combination of self-responsibility and self-integrity are almost always healthier and more successful. That is certainly the case with the people I have been honoured to coach. Indeed, it is one of the biggest predictors of successful performance enhancement from coaching.

What steps will you take to adopt self-responsibility and self-integrity in order to enhance your well-being?

Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.


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