As a School Counselor, I’ve talked with a lot of kids about self-esteem and self-respect. I like to explain that “self-esteem is how we FEEL about ourselves and self-respect is how we TREAT ourselves.” I usually follow this with, “and there’s no such thing as the Self-Esteem Fairy. We get self-esteem by practicing self-respect.” My students all nod their heads. This sounds good, but…what does “practicing self-respect” look like, in practice, really?
For some people, self-respect is intuitive and natural. They do it well without thinking about doing it well. Yet, many of us could benefit from a more intentional practice of self-respect. In fact, the daily practice of self-respect can have a deep and transformative impact on a variety of interpersonal and emotional difficulties from marriage challenges to anxiety and depression.
Why is self-respect so important? The most important relationship we have is the one we cultivate with ourselves. We are with ourselves 24/7. We talk to ourselves more than we talk with anyone else. We get constant feedback from ourselves. It is we who make all of our decisions. We have a great deal of influence over ourselves and how we do all of these things drives what it is like to be us. Unfortunately, if we feel badly about ourselves, we are likely to talk to ourselves with judgment. Our feedback is likely to critical (and constant). We are likely to make decisions that harm self and reinforce our negative self-belief. Over time, these decisions build a life around us that reflects these negative beliefs. These beliefs are manifested in our relationships, work, living space, and even how we take care of our bodies.
You may be asking, “Yeah, ok, but if my choices are based on feelings, then don’t I need to feel better in order to make better choices?” Nope. We likely began making these choices as a child in response to some event that happened outside of us, a disappointment, a humiliation, abuse, or even misunderstanding. We formed a belief that we took into ourselves and it became woven into our truth. Then we acted on that truth and it became self-reinforcing.
The practice of self-respect is about breaking the cycle of reinforcement. The event or abuse may have ended a long time ago, but we took over where “they” left off. We are now our own tormentor. We keep ourselves locked in negative beliefs through the way we treat ourselves. When we stop abusing ourselves, our story changes and our thoughts and feelings about ourselves changes.
The good thing about self-respect is that we can start doing it at any time. Even the smallest change in how we treat ourselves can have a big impact. The trick is to pick a practice of self-respect that is do-able, and commit to the action daily. Over time, this action will likely bring up new feelings that question the old story and this may lead to new practices that bring up new feelings and lead to new practices!
What is one thing that you can do to practice self-respect today in a way that is intentional? Whether it is simply making the bed each day, drinking eight glasses of water, taking the stairs, or making sure that you get a hot meal with the rest of the family, any time we practice self-respect over time, we are transformed. What will you do today?
Karen J. Helfrich, LCSW-C
As a therapist, mother, daughter, partner, and seeker, I am always on the journey toward a more peaceful, authentic life. I hope to share knowledge, insights, and the ongoing unknowns I find along the path...