The Importance of Self-Respect

When assessing the range of life skills which enable individuals to interact with society in a healthy way, self respect forms the hub to the various spokes. However, the term frequently falls victim to misunderstanding; overused in popular culture and confused with the term ‘self esteem’. This confusion often distorts the presence of self respect as a sign of arrogant egotism in any individual who possesses it. And yet, determining self respect holds the key to the very essence of character, for nurturing personal growth and understanding of how to give others, their due respect.

So let us make a distinction between the terms above: self respect differs from self esteem, as to ‘esteem’ something means to hold it in high regard. While the idea of holding yourself in high regard seems logical, the risk of slipping into an over-inflated self image presents a common pitfall. In this sphere, any accusations of arrogance and egotism may be rightly targeted at the individual, asserting high self esteem but lacking self awareness to discern the true measure of their abilities, efforts and actions.

This particular creed of asserting self-esteem at the expense of reality provides the staple means of appeal in ‘reality’ television programmes. In these settings, a countless parade of individuals, devoid of any discernable talent or charisma, are encouraged to willingly submit themselves to the unblinking observing eye of the camera and the baying public beyond. As the resultant ordeal erodes the Teflon bravado of the weakest contestants, some resort to extracting pity from the audience with hard luck stories: the inference being, ‘vote for me, or I will have nothing to live for’. Others take their rejection as a serious injustice (leading to admittedly entertaining rants to the camera) rather than acknowledging that the greatest service that they could do for entertainment – and indeed for mankind – is never to perform again.

This example, although extreme, illustrates how fragile and exposing the reliance on self esteem can be. We can often find ourselves in this position to a lesser extent, when we feel compelled to project our sense of self esteem as a defence against negative external opinions. In cloaking ourselves in this defence mechanism, like a suit of protective armour, we acknowledge (even on a subconscious level) that self esteem emanates from a place which is vulnerable to external approval, rather than from a calm sense of self, which emanates from within.

So in clarifying the direct connection between self esteem and the ego, self respect emerges as a concept which transcends the ego. It requires an understanding of the importance of maintaining integrity, both in our conduct towards others and in the way that we allow others to treat us. This means that we must develop our awareness of our internal guidance system; being our intentions and feelings towards a given situation, to gauge whether we are compromising or honouring our true sense of self.

Frederick Douglass observed this sentiment, by stating: ‘I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false and to incur my own abhorrence’. And Frederick Douglass (1818 – 1895) knew what he was talking about on this particular subject. Born into slavery in the Southern United States, he possessed an innate awareness of his self-worth as a human being – despite prevailing public opinion, perpetuated by the system of slavery and legal authority telling him otherwise. In his autobiography, The Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, he recalled his refusal to accept his condition of chattel status, maintaining his conviction as a human being worthy of respect.

Douglass also understood that compassion towards yourself and others is essential in regard to self-respect, and how it can help to transcend the self, progressing towards a ‘big picture’ perspective. This recognition informs his insight regarding how the institution of slavery not only debased the humanity of the slaves, but also that of the slaveholders.

Douglass’s struggle to maintain what he knew to be true in regard to his sense of self-respect, in the face of many formidable obstacles, eventually led to his freedom from slavery, years before the system was officially abolished in the United States. His eloquent account of his experiences also served as a compelling argument in favour of the then-growing abolitionist movement.

This inspirational lesson demonstrates that it may not be your choice, if circumstances find you in a ‘prison’, but your freedom of choice lies in whether you make it your home. Self respect; the hub of the wheel from which all of our interactions flow, stands for the recognition and acceptance of our sovereignty as human beings – despite our flaws and failings, and applies to one and all.

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