When I was in junior high, I asked a girl named Rhonda to go steady with me. She was funny, confident, popular. And I wasn’t. If I could talk her into being my girlfriend maybe I’d have a shot at being one of the cool kids. It was a gutsy move.
Just after the 3:00 bell rang, as I was gathering up my books to go home for the day, Rhonda’s best friend Margie ran up to me, excited. “Mark! Rhonda said yes!” Apparently the whole school knew about it. I hurried to the bus, ducking and dodging behind lockers, scared to death that I’d run into Rhonda―she was my first girlfriend; I had no idea what I was supposed to do.
The next day Rhonda pulled me aside in the lunchroom to break the news that the whole thing had been a joke. Everyone else was laughing about it. The dorky, dumpy kid tried to make time with one of the cool people and was put squarely back into place. It was one of those moments that I’d spend the rest of my life trying to un-remember.
Things like that happened frequently, all the way through high school. By college I’d had enough and began to bite back. I lifted weights, changed my look, only spent time with “cool” people, etc. I started to defend myself, physically at times, if anyone treated me poorly. All of the crap I took in junior high I gave back to the dumpy, dorky crowd in spades.
I remember feeling my own weight, like I wasn’t a piece of garbage. I experienced self-respect for the first time in my life, but didn’t realize that it came at the expense of someone else. I needed people “below” me to feel OK. If they didn’t know they were below me, I’d put them there. All of the stuff that had been done to me, I did to others, buying self respect by stripping it from someone else.
I lived that way for years, and paid for it, all because I didn’t understand the basics of self respect.
Do an online image search for “Self Respect” and you’ll get tens of thousands of memes that read something like the following:
I know plenty of people, myself included, who have tried to think their way into self respect, who’ve embraced every idea known to humanity, and are still searching.
But we tend to look in the wrong places.
The trick to self respect is not in trying to find it, or build it up from nothing. We already have it. Disrespect would have no power, it wouldn’t make us so angry, if we didn’t have some sense that everyone’s supposed to treat us respectfully. We come out of the womb with self respect, and won’t hesitate to respond if people dishonor it.
Self-respect isn’t something we lose, it’s something that gets buried. The trick is figuring out how to rescue it, and making sure it doesn’t get buried again.
It feels good to slam people, pass judgement, place others “below”. Some people do ridiculous things and it’s our job to put them in their place. We want justice. But we’re typically not willing to risk anything, so we stand at a safe distance and utter things that change nothing, showing disrespect into the souls of others ‒ and into our own.
All of this is exacerbated by the fact that we live in a culture that values disrespect, fueled by a forum that allows us to say whatever, whenever, to whomever. We indiscriminately spew all manner of vitriol on the internet without a second thought. Our music, TV shows, movies, etc. all pay homage to this new way of life that’s unprecedented in any culture before us. Disrespect has never enjoyed such a spotlight, such a part of humanity’s daily diet. It’s never been so popular, or eaten so well.
But disrespect won’t share the same soul with self respect. In a culture that so highly values the former, we shouldn’t be surprised that the latter is so elusive.
There is however one simple task that anyone can accomplish, something that flies in the face of our culture, and gives us the best chance of keeping our self respect intact.
The more I give respect to others, the more I feel my own… and vice versa… unfortunately.
I have a few friends who reek of self respect, so much that you feel respected when you’re around them. And their dignity is not easily shaken.
I didn’t get anywhere in this arena until I embraced their secret.
These people are respectful when they argue, when they confront someone, when they’re hurt, offended, cheated. They’re part of a very small tribe of others who believe that it’s never OK to disrespect anyone, even if you’re merely fantasizing about it. The more they manage to unconditionally respect others, the more cement-like their self respect becomes.
Respect is an investment, not just in themselves, but in what ripples beyond them.
They’ve decided to respect others―always―without condition, excuse, or qualification. But they’ve also managed to live with a deeper understanding of where disrespect really comes from.
Nobody wakes up in the morning deciding to be disrespectful; it’s much more complicated than that. Disrespectful people are disrespected people – they’ve been laughed at, scorned, shamed, dismissed. They’re people who have managed to laugh it off, act like it never happened, and cached it deep in a place where it can do some real damage.
Show me a disrespectful person and I’ll show you someone who’s been disrespected, too many times.
Sure, we can return the scorn of our detractors, throw it back, or worse, internalize it; but there’s another way. Understanding where disrespect comes from, that it has nothing to do with our shortcomings, is the key to giving it no quarter.
Disrespect has to do with pain ‒ very real pain, something so bad that it incites her victims to lash out at others, to spread her hurt. It’s not about truth, or justice, it’s about retaliation, making sure everyone feels as bad as the bearer. People will disrespect us over and over again in this life, and we’ll be tempted to hurt them back. But if we’re incapable of mourning the origins of their pain, we haven’t yet understood what’s really happening.
We don’t have to “protect” ourselves from others, or go find our self respect, or try and build it from the ground up; and we certainly aren’t in need of another opportunity to be disrespectful. We simply need to find the strength and wisdom to respect others, unconditionally.
You can still confront, stand up for what’s right, have relationships with toxic people, etc. But if you’re interested in living with more self respect, you’ll have to interact with others in a way that honors theirs.
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