Someone close to me was telling me he was a failure. He was bemoaning mistakes he’s made, wrong things he’s said, goals he’s fallen short of reaching. It was painful to hear him talking this way, but probably not as painful as it was for him to voice these feelings.
If you have a narrative running through your head that is constantly berating you, if you feel like a loser, if you’ve been hurt, abused, or rejected by others, you might find yourself short on an important asset: self-respect.
Where does self-respect come from, and why is it often hard to come by? I don’t think it comes from the approval of others, who can be easily deceived for the most part, and whose approval can be fleeting. If you depend on others to determine how you feel about yourself, you will be ultimately disappointed—in yourself and in them.
Nor do I think self-respect comes from chalking up achievements or gaining material wealth—there are all kinds of outwardly successful people who can’t stand themselves.
Lack of self-respect can be debilitating. You can become mired in your own perceived shortcomings. Your mistakes can haunt you. You can end up shutting out people who love you—because what idiot would love a loser like you? Your character, your essence, suffers.
Joan Didion, one of the most influential writers in the past 50 years on culture, politics, and social relationships, wrote:
“Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs.”Joan Didion
I read those words from Didion a long time ago, but I’ve remembered them because they helped me at a time when I was struggling with self-perception. I wasn’t achieving what I’d set (realistically or not) as my goals as a writer. I’d made mistakes in how I behaved toward others. I lacked sufficient boundaries and allowed others to treat me in ways I should not have permitted. I didn’t even treat myself well because I didn’t think I deserved it. I was lugging the weight of failed relationships, misspoken words, missed opportunities, and negative thinking.
I was immediately drawn to Didion’s concept of accepting responsibility for my life as the source of self-respect. I and I alone had made the choice to be a writer, and I wouldn’t change that decision if given the chance. I can accept that. I put my family above all others, at times to the detriment of friendships or work. Accepted. I used to believe I didn’t care if others approved of me or not, and although I now realize approval of others can be gratifying, I’m not willing to compromise or be someone I’m not in order to gain it. Accepted.
Self-respect isn’t something we either inherently have or don’t. I think of it more as a skill we must cultivate to become better at. Significant effort is involved. You have to fight the darkness and the negative self-talk. You have to be totally honest with yourself, which means accepting things about yourself you wish weren’t true, and you have to maintain a keen sense of morality.
It can be lonely to be responsible for your own life. And yet, I found Didion’s words about self-respect to be liberating and inspiring. Somehow those words made me free to appreciate myself despite my many shortcomings and mistakes. Admittedly, it’s not always easy accepting the man in the mirror. I’m still a work-in-progress on some of this self-respect stuff, but I’m a lot further along than I used to be.
I didn’t offer my friend uplifting words of encouragement and I didn’t deny his claims: I knew platitudes wouldn’t help. I said I could understand why he might feel that way, which might seem like I’m agreeing that yes, he’s a failure, but what I was really doing is validating how he felt. Because self-doubt is natural, and falling short of goals hurts, and making mistakes can be demoralizing.
As I’ve written before, to have empathy “you must be able to imagine and understand another person, to experience their feelings, to live and love and suffer as they do.” In this case with my friend, empathy wasn’t so difficult for me to summon.
I sent him a copy of Didion’s “Slouching Toward Bethlehem,” where the essay On Self Respect appears.