Appropriate self-respect can lift all areas of life


A reader writes to say he notices the subject of self-respect is a frequent theme of my columns about life, love, family and values, and he invites me to consider a column on the subject.

Respect is a passionate subject for me. My children were raised with the mantra, "Respect is the most important rule." To this day, they will roll their eyes and parrot the mantra with exaggerated parody, teasing me. I'm complimented by that, and smile.

My passion for the value of respect has more than one source. On one level, it's deeply personal. Jim, the professor of my very first undergraduate psychology class and later my friend, said something to me once when I was but 19 years old. It was a banal observation, coming, I assume, from his intuition, because he had no real knowledge of my childhood history. He interrupted me in the middle of a discussion, and said simply, "Steven, I don't think you received the respect you deserved as a child."

Jim had no idea that I went back to my dorm room and stayed up half the night dealing with his words. Until then, honestly, it had never occurred to me that claiming the right to be treated respectfully was one of the choices. Until then, I had never thought of respect as something you could and should deserve.

My passion also is theological. In my religious heritage, the baptismal vows come to this crescendo:

Celebrant: "Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?"

People: "I will, with God's help."

It always nails my soul to the floor. Respect, from the Latin respectus, meaning "to see again." Dignity, from the Latin digne, meaning "the breath of God." In other words, if you're breathing, that's the only credential you need to rightly claim that I treat you respectfully.

So, respecting the dignity of others is my passionate value. I don't always. I don't always even want to. But it's the measure. The goal.

But the work of self-respect is trickier for "normal neurotics" like me. It's easy to have regard, generosity, compassion and admiration for you. It's much more awkward and difficult to offer those things to myself.

And that's why I call it the work of self-respect. It's a learning curve. An intended discipline. Keep at it, and it begins to change ... everything.

Self-respect at once greatly raises the bar of your expectations for yourself, and, paradoxically, makes available a new wealth of compassion and mercy for self in the inevitable mistakes and human failings. Self-respect creates healthy interpersonal boundaries, because it shifts the energy from asking/pleading for what you would like to a shameless claim of what you deserve. Self-respect ferrets out the behaviors and attitudes in you that you don't respect, and demands you do something about it.

Self-respect fundamentally changes our motives for living our values. Take fidelity in marriage, for example. There are a wide variety of motives we might deploy as we live out the promise of not having sex with folks other than our spouse. We might want to be "good." We might see fidelity as the necessary sacrifice required to derive the benefits of marriage. Commonly, we understand fidelity as a promise made to our spouse, and therefore a gift to the spouse: "Isn't this nice of me, honey, not to have sex with other people?"

But, watch what happens when you take your motives for fidelity and "rewire" them to self-respect. Suddenly, fidelity is not first a promise made to your mate; rather, a promise made to yourself. It's not first a gift to your mate, but a gift to oneself. It makes you into the husband/wife you most respect. Suddenly, living your values becomes strangely mercenary, and, I would argue, eminently more powerful.

A warning: there's a downside, a real tricky balance in the work of self-respect. I have learned to nurture a healthy suspicion when I become too strident, too righteous about that value. There's a line between self-respect and simple, childish pride. It's a fine line. Easy to cross. Way too easy for me, anyway. And I cross it at my own peril.

When the human ego conscripts the language, the work and the costume of self-respect, you start to feel really good and right about discarding people from your life. And then you can know that you were right, because you don't have any friends at all.

Self-respect and self-importance -- not the same at all. But they can feel the same.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of "Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing" (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 227-4165 or skalas@reviewjournal.com.