Jonathan Hooker

Personal Growth, Integrity and Taking Responsibility for Our Lives


Integrity to me is about being straight. It is about being clear about what we are setting out to achieve and being open about it. It is not about playing games. The sort of games in which, we say and do things which imply something to others, but secretly we are trying to achieve something else, and not being open about it. In other words we are not being clear, or open, about our intention.

What Does it Mean to Give ‘Clean’ and ‘Dirty’ Gifts?

For example, when we give a gift to someone, how often is it in the hope that they will then; be nice to us, do something for us, or perhaps we are trying to buy their affection. When we give someone a gift with these other intentions, it can be called a dirty gift, because it has strings attached, it cannot be considered clean. Clean means clear of obligations, or the debt that a dirty gift usually carries with it. 

Also it is important to remember that when we give something to someone, we are giving up the ownership and all control of that item, when we give it away. Sometimes we hear a parent say; “If you don’t take more care of that, I’ll take it back”. This begins to teach our children that they do not own the things they receive. I am not saying they should not learn to respect their things, but we need to teach them that in a healthier way.

What do we do if we receive a gift that we already have, or that we have no need for? Do we give it away? If we do, what will happen if the person who gave it to us finds out? Will they be offended? And where does all this complication come from, and does it serve us, or make our lives more complicated?

Politeness, courtesy, graciousness and chivalry are some of the things that truly make our world more beautiful and charming. I think we would be much less well-off without them, and they have the ability to delight us. However they can be used to excess.  They are over-used when they clash with honesty. Often we can mistakenly think of honesty as being soft and warm and comforting, because we think of it as a noble quality, which of course it is. But it is not soft. It can be harsh and it is uncompromising. As soon as we compromise on honesty we face ourselves with the dilemma of where to draw the line between, good and bad, honesty and dishonesty, and acceptable and not acceptable. We face ourselves with the question; ‘How honest is honest enough?’ So honesty does not compromise and therefore it can be harsh.

Honesty feels harsh when it challenges us. It challenges us when we are caught out by a growth opportunity, or, when we are not taking an appropriate level of responsibility for our own lives. So what does this mean? What are we responsible for in our lives?

We are responsible for all of our actions and for all of the consequences that flow as a direct result of those actions, whether we intended or foresaw those consequences or not. In addition, we are responsible for all that we say and for how we say it, and for all of the consequences that flow from that as well. Again this is whether or not we foresaw, or intended, those consequences. If we want to grow as individuals, it is important that we accept these responsibilities very seriously.

Here we must return to the subject of intent or intention. It is also important if we want to grow, to acknowledge the intent that caused us to act the way we did, or the intent that caused us to say what we said, and to be honest about that intent. Openly recognising the intent that causes us to act is integrity. When we deny our intent we are acting without integrity.

The next step is even tougher, and is about learning to take responsibility for our feelings. When we recognise that, we and we alone, are responsible for our own feelings, and no one else is responsible for fixing us or making us feel okay, or making us feel bad, then we are taking an important step towards being responsible for our own lives.

If my children behave badly, I can laugh or become angry, so who decides? Well I do. Is this an entirely a conscious choice? No, of course not, I am affected by what it was that they did, how stressed I am, how tired I am and so on. But ultimately I react, or decide how to respond. Also, how we feel or react to a situation is partly this conscious choice and partly our subconscious reaction. So where does this reaction come from? Our subconscious reactions come from our personal conditioning that took place as we grew up, and that was the time we developed certain ideas about how to respond to different situations. These ideas have become very deeply held beliefs, and so now we do not even have to think, we simply react. Moreover, if we want to act in a different way, we find it quite difficult to change the habit.

For example, if someone criticizes me, I may have learned to be defensive, or to attack back. If we have grown up with a lot of criticism, we may have developed quite low self-esteem, and we may believe we have many faults. For us criticism can be painful, because if someone criticises us we may believe they are right, and that is what makes the pain hurt so much. If someone criticises me in a way that I do not agree with, the chances are it will be much less painful, and may not even touch me at all. I may still be defensive, if that is my habitual response, but if I want to change that response it will be much easier, because I am not hurt by the remark. So I may just ignore the remark because it does not affect me at all.

In this way emotions are like physical pain, they give us information. If we touch something hot, the pain is helpful as we react and withdraw our hand before the heat can do serious damage. So pain serves a useful purpose.

In the same way, our feelings show us our unresolved issues. If a criticism really hurts me, I know that I must agree on some level that this remark is true of me. Firstly, in that moment I may react and will not think about this to later. Secondly, when I revisit this later, the criticism may be true of me or may not be, but I have identified from my reaction, that I believe it to be true. So next I must sort out if it is true, or just my perception. I can ask really good and very trusted friends if they think this is a fair criticism, and if they are true friends they will be honest, because I am asking them to be. If it is just a perception then I can start to think differently about myself. If it is reality, then I can begin to work on responding differently, or changing the way I am.

If on the other hand someone is angry with me and criticises me, in a way that I do not agree with, it is likely that I will not be affected much or even at all. I may think; ‘I wonder what is going on for them’. If I wish to resolve the issue, I might say; “You sound very upset about this – tell me why it is affecting you so much”. If they are upset it is likely they will respond with; “You’re damn right I am angry” or some other confirmation. My response is likely to be something like; “Well if it is important enough for you to be this upset, I would really like to understand how you feel and why, so please tell me all about it”. In this conversation I am not accepting responsibility for upsetting anyone else, I am merely asking for information in an attempt to understand, and in a way that shows I care about how they feel. I am purposely using words that show I am interested to understand, because anger is usually about disappointment. In this case, the disappointment is about not being heard. The raised angry voice is to gain my attention. My words show that it is not my anger, because I said; “You sound upset”. This signals I have seen they are upset and shows them they are being angry towards me, and that I can see that. This is likely to start diffusing things, and when I say I want to hear about it and understand, there is no longer any reason for them to shout, because it is clear I am giving them my full attention.

Part of my conditioning from my upbringing, is to avoid anger, and to feel responsible if someone else is angry. If this is familiar to you to, it may be helpful for you to read the section on CodependenceMy conditioning means that when someone raises their voice, I tend to back away and make excuses because I feel that they are right and it is somehow my fault that they are not okay. This stops us reaching a resolution, because the other person simply blames me, for which I feel resentful, and as I am backing away, they feel that I am not listening to them at a time when they just want to be heard.

If instead of backing away, I come forward, and say; “You sound upset”, putting the anger back where it belongs. It takes the pressure off me, and causes them to look more at how they are behaving rather than just blaming someone else. Even if they do not consciously realise it is their anger, they will at some subconscious level begin to calm down.

If on the other hand, their original criticism is something that I do feel is true of myself, the likelihood is that I will feel hurt and may simply react. My emotional reaction may drag me into an argument. It takes quite some time and practice to be able to receive a criticism that really hurts, and to be able to observe it and not react in that moment in a defensive or attacking way. If we are not able to do that, all is not lost. After the argument has finished, we may be thinking; ‘How did I get into that’? Then is the time to reflect and realise that it was the reaction to the remark that hurt. So then we can think; ‘So why did that hurt so much?’ There must be some way in which I believe the remark is true, so I think about it, and maybe talk to a friend about it. If it reveals a belief that I did not know about, then it has been a useful conversation, for all the anger.

In this way we are using emotions to learn about ourselves and not letting emotions drag us into arguments. Those of you interested in the traditions of the world may be interested to know that in the Hindu tradition, there is a God called Shiva or Lord Shiva, who has the title of the First Rishi. A rishi is a learned or wise man. It is believed that Shiva said; “I use emotions, I do not allow emotions to use me”. In this way he was saying the same thing. Emotions show us our beliefs about ourselves and give us this opportunity to grow and we can use them to learn about ourselves. However they can drag us into arguments with others if we allow them to, and end up being used by them.

So if we come back to gifts. When we give a gift to someone we like to think that they will cherish it and think well of us. We often equate their feelings for the gift with their affection for us. But what if they already have one, or do not like it? They may give it away. This does not imply they do not like or value our friendship, it merely means we made a poor choice of gift. They are not rejecting our friendship or us by rejecting the gift. Intellectually we may know this but it can still feel like rejection.

When my children were younger, I could feel angry or disappointed if I cooked a meal and they didn’t like it. I felt as if my efforts were being rejected. But of course that was in my head. Even if I had worked hard, they were rejecting tastes and textures that was all. I am sure they are really relieved that I have realised this.

If we suffer from low self-esteem, we may try to esteem ourselves from outside, by using others. We may try to buy this ‘affection’ by giving them small gifts or presents. Afterwards we may drop that item into the conversation to remind them of it, and to try to extend the period for which they give us affection. But this is not a clean gift. It has strings attached and it is better if we see this as being our issue and work on it ourselves rather than involving someone else. Also if they do not react ‘in the right way’ to the gift we may become angry. This is unfair on them. In this case the anger is due to our disappointment at not having achieved our aim.

If we are only okay when and if other people react the way we want them to, then we are giving an awful lot of power to others. We are giving them control over, whether we feel okay or not. This is likely to set us up to be unhappy for a long time, and very easy for other people to manipulate. Why should other people carry the responsibility for our happiness? Only we can do that, and taking those steps towards responsibility is very empowering, and allows us to live with more integrity. The more we take responsibility for our lives, the more empowered we become, and the less we believe our lives are not working because of others, so we become less angry too.

So we can grow by being more aware of why we are doing and saying things and take increased responsibility for our actions and words. In addition we can become more conscious and aware of what others are saying to us, and recognising those words are coming from them because they have an intention. If we let them own this intention and recognise what they are saying is about them and not about us, (even if it about their experience of us it is still about them), then we will be less likely to be dragged into an argument. We need to ask ourselves what they are trying to achieve with this comment. When we really begin to form this habit, we will find it increasingly easy to observe our reaction to these comments, and even if some remark hurts, remain able to focus more on what it is telling us, and less on getting into arguments.

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