Self-Respect 101: We Teach Other People How to Treat Us
Well-known TV icon Dr. Phil is revered by many, and repelled by others. Love him or hate him, we know that he sometimes comes up with wonderful sayings and slogans, such as his classic “How’s THAT been workin’ for ya?” It’s a great question, designed to keep us on track in our lives—because if the way we’ve been doing something isn’t working, it could very well be time to try another way.
The other Dr. Phil-ism I like and use a lot – in both my personal and professional lives – is: We teach other people how to treat us. I absolutely believe this to be true, although there can be a variety of reasons for the ways we choose to do that. I like this saying because, when we can take responsibility for our part in any abuse we’re receiving from others, it takes us out of a ‘victim’ stance and allows us to see the only thing we actually are able to change – ourselves.
Is There a Difference Between Self-Esteem and Self-Respect?
I talk about self-respect a lot with my clients. When they ask me what the difference is between self-respect and self-esteem, the best way I know to distinguish between them is as follows:
Self-esteem is more external. It is that feeling of knowing we can conduct ourselves well out there in the world. For example, we may know that we are good at our job, or that our family is thriving due to our leadership. We may have a good grasp on how to budget our time and/or money, and our relationships with friends and family may be mostly positive and nurturing. Outwardly, we are successful in at least some of the ways our society defines success, and that contributes to our self-esteem.
But I believe that it’s very possible to experience self-esteem while having very little self-respect. To me, self-respect is more internal. It is that deeper, inner feeling we have about ourselves. In the same way that self-esteem is earned, by proving that we can achieve positive results in our various life tasks, self-respect is also earned – it’s an ‘inside job’ that nobody can do for us. Self-respect is not something we can buy in the 7-11, nor can another person bestow it upon us. In fact, when other people respect us, but we don’t respect ourselves, it’s very difficult to let that positive attention in. It’s not until we truly love and respect ourselves that we can begin to believe that we are worthy of another person’s love and respect.
In fact, the only way to have self-respect is to earn it – by continuing to do the next right thing, over and over again. Self-respect is perhaps the most important thing we either have or don’t have, because it forms the keystone of how we treat ourselves and how we allow others to treat us. I believe that every decision we make in life – without exception – stems from our level of self-respect and, in my opinion, nothing is more important than that.
The Way to Develop Self-Respect
The good news is that it’s really not that difficult to develop our self-respect. I believe that when we’re not treating ourselves well, on some level deep inside, we know that. Because we can’t heal anything about ourselves that we’re not aware of, we need to be more mindful of those times when we don’t feel good about ourselves. Here is an easy gauge to see how well you’re faring in terms of your self-respect. Ask yourself this question, and be willing to look honestly at your answers:
“What do I need to do, and what do I need to NOT do, to be able to really look honestly at myself and be okay with who I see?”
Each time you ask yourself that question, listen for your most truthful answer and actually base your behavior on what you’ve heard from yourself. If you do this regularly, you will build up your self-respect – as well as your self-trust – because this will become the foundation for all of your interactions, whether you are aware of that at the time or not.
This may be a difficult change for you to make, especially if you are used to pleasing others instead of yourself. Your personal challenge may lie in learning how to put yourself first without feeling guilty or ‘selfish.’ But if you continue to put others first while feeling resentful or badly about yourself for doing that, your self-respect will inevitably suffer.
And when you do put others’ needs ahead of your own on a consistent basis, the fact is that you may actually be enabling them instead of helping them. When that happens, everyone involved suffers.
When you find yourself involved in situations where you experience some negative feelings about yourself such as guilt, shame, or self-inflicted anger, here are some questions you might ask yourself in order to become more aware of your self-respect level:
- What behavior of my own may have contributed to my feeling this way about myself?
- What can I do differently next time, so that I can respect myself more in a similar situation?
- Is there anyone I need to talk with so that I can resolve or feel better about what has happened?
- Can I be more gentle with myself and understand that I’m going to make mistakes – and hopefully learn from them?
We Teach Other People How to Treat Us
When we deeply understand that we teach other people how to treat us – either by how we treat them or how they see us treating ourselves – we can learn to change our own behaviors and obtain different, healthier results.
Because the only things we can change already reside within us – such as our choices, our decisions, our attitudes toward ourselves, and life in general – we can come out of our feelings of ‘victim’ by acknowledging that we do actually have control over many aspects of our lives.
So the next time you say yes to someone when you really want to say no, be aware that you may be teaching that person that it’s ok to take you for granted and treat you poorly. The next time you are spoken to in a disrespectful manner and you choose to accept that by staying silent rather than standing up for yourself and speaking your truth, see if you can remind yourself that you can indeed make another choice and begin to teach that person to treat you differently.
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