It’s an interesting and powerful phrase, isn’t it?
Of course this is from The Book of John and is part of the Creation story. But religion aside, I think it points to a powerful concept that we can use in our own lives and that is: the power of our own words.
After all, words are what differentiate us from every other creature on the planet; they give us the ability to articulate and share complex and abstract concepts. They give us also the ability to connect with others and explain and define ourselves. It is a two-edged sword though, because when we define ourselves through our words we leave ourselves open to failing to measure up to what we say we intend for ourselves.
I believe that living up to what we say we will do is where personal integrity begins. Living with integrity is a hard row to hoe, but looking back over my life, those moments when I was aware I was acting in complete alignment with my stated intent, are amongst the most powerful and happiest moments of my life; moments when I honoured myself and those around me; moments when I felt at peace with myself and in alignment with my values.
And then there are the times I realised I’d messed up. Those are uncomfortable and often they involved me dropping into child-like self-protective behaviours. For example I had organised a big printing job, and when it came back from the printer there was a huge error: the phone numbers were wrong. I had prepared the job and signed off on the proof. A colleague had also had signoff privileges but I knew she was not known for her thoroughness. Nonetheless when my boss pointed out the error I immediately blamed my colleague. I’m still embarrassed that I immediately looked for someone else to blame (yes I can tap for that, and probably should 🙂 ).
Of course we’re human, we will fail to stand by our integrity sometimes, or often. Luckily, we can bring ourselves back to integrity very quickly by taking a look at how we’ve failed to live by our word, and apologise to anyone our lapse has affected. This clean-up is a powerful process that, in my experience, strengthens you each time you do it because you are allowing yourself to be totally honest with yourself, acknowledge those aspects of the self that we usually hide from or suppress; and our honesty allows others to be honest as well. It clears the stuck low-frequencey emotional energy of self-disappointment, and simmering resentments that may blow up later. It opens the possibility of a new way of communicating.
In the example above, if I had acted more in alignment with my own integrity I would have acknowledged I had not looked at the proof properly, apologised, and talked through a procedure to ensure the error did not occur again. And taken any disciplinary action that was coming my way, without complaint. Instead I acquired the anger of my colleague, the distrust of my boss that took years to work off (I’m still not sure she ever trusted me completely again), and a feeling of guilt that stayed with me for years. Yes, it’s a small thing, but small things make up larger pictures, and that’s not the picture of myself that I wanted.
Often, coming into integrity evolves as we open up to self-awareness. It is only once we become aware of our actions and their consequences that we can start to evaluate and if necessary, change those actions. I had a long pattern of being involved with projects and honestly intending to do all the actions I said I would do. I did not understand why people got annoyed with me when I didn’t always follow through on everything, didn’t they know I was busy, or stressed, or that many people were making demands of my time? As I journeyed to improved self-awareness, I started to acknowledge that others relied on what I said I would do. Their jobs and lives flowed along with the expectation that I would provide the pieces I said I would. When I didn’t quite manage to do it they were left with incompletion, often also with a problem they had to solve, and were understandably annoyed. And were less likely to involve me in future.
Now I did not set out to annoy anyone but I was clearly not doing what I said I would do in all circumstances – I was out of integrity. And I was showing up in my life and other people’s lives as being unreliable and untrustworthy. Once I became aware of that pattern I decided I did not want to keep living my life in that way, and I took steps to change it.
- I asked questions about scope of work and deadlines and then had an honest look at my existing work load, before saying yes to any new tasks.
- I also honoured my existing commitments and did not take on new tasks because they sounded more interesting – also a long pattern!
- I learned to diarise tasks and timelines, and refer to the diary!
- I learned to not say ‘yes’ just because someone I liked or wanted to impress, or have like me, was asking. That’s called people-pleasing and if you fail to follow through, in the end it pleases no-one, least of all you!
- I learned to notice trash I created, and swallow my pride and clean it up! Surprisingly, I noticed also that apologising did not diminish me in any way, rather the clean up itself felt, yes, cleaner!
The lesson here I think is to not say what you don’t honestly intend to do. If you say yes to something to please another person, and then fail to do it, that person has every right to be disappointed and take whatever actions they need to take to have their needs met – needs that you agreed to meet and then did not meet. If you notice a people-pleasing pattern in your life, you have some work to do to change it.
Of course I still mess up and sometimes it’s hard to swallow that I messed up again, and need to apologise again, but I’ve noticed it’s very difficult to move on without cleaning up – like making breakfast is difficult if you haven’t cleaned up after dinner.
If you mess up: ‘fess up. Then clean up.
Because all we have, when all is said and done, is our word. It is the beginning and the end of who we are.