There was a therapist I worked with for a number of years who had one question he would always ask me. Almost any problem I brought to him, he would ask it. Miraculously, it still often surprised me. Perhaps even more miraculously, it usually helped me find my way forward. The question?
“Would that raise your self-respect, or lower it?”
Almost any situation I ran into and didn’t know how to proceed, this question appeared. Likewise for each moment I looked back on, trying to unpack why I felt like shit about it.
All along, self-respect has been with me. It is a quiet voice guiding me to better choices, along with a deep sense of contentment and internal harmony. It took me quite some time to learn how to listen to this voice, but my life has been happier and easier to navigate ever since.
Here’s how it works, so you can start to hear it, too.
What is Self-Respect and Why Is It So Important?
Before we get to the challenges with self-respect and figuring out how to improve it, let’s take a quick moment to clarify the “what” that we’re dealing with, and the “why.”
Self-respect is a tool we have for creating peace and satisfaction in our lives. It’s an internal heuristic that lets us look at our choices in the context of our conscience, values, and ideals.
By learning to treat self-respect as a voice in your head, a guide through those choices, you learn to act in line with your ideal view of yourself.
The natural result of consistently acting in a way that earns your own approval is that you start to hold yourself in higher regard. In other words, when you act out of self-respect, you build self-respect.
When this feeling burns strongly at your core, it leads you down a course of treating yourself well, and building a life that makes you feel happy and healthy.
Inversely, if you repeatedly make choices that you cannot respect, then your image of yourself will depreciate. And so too will the way you treat yourself, and allow others to treat you. When you have limited respect for yourself, you devalue what you feel you are worthy of.
Self-Esteem vs. Self-Respect
A quick clarification on how self-respect relates to a similar term: self-esteem. The two are often thrown around interchangeably, but are they really the same thing?
Both self-esteem and self-respect describe a feeling, the same feeling. That is the feeling of calm confidence in who you are and what you’re worth. It’s a feeling of understanding and appreciating yourself.
When your self-respect (or self-esteem) is low, you’re likely to act out of line with your values, have a negative view of yourself, and cause others pain or discomfort due to insecurity. But when this feeling is high, you get the opposite. You are more likely to be confident in your abilities, proud of your accomplishments, and better equipped to advocate for yourself.
But that’s where the definition of self-esteem ends. Self-respect, on the other hand, goes on to describe the act of building that feeling.
It’s something you feel, yes, but it’s also something you do. When you act out of self-respect, the natural result is that you will feel self-respect. And that’s why it’s the term that we’re focusing on here. It’s not just the state we want to get to, but how we’re going to get there.
What Does Self-Respect Look Like in Practice?
Self-respect, very much like a personal mission statement, is a tool that uses your own values to guide you to a happier life. In contrast to a mission statement that takes upfront work to distill into a sort of physical “artifact,” self-respect is a little less tangible, but no less real.
Imagine a sort of internal meter you have, that tells you whether your choices are getting you “hotter” or “colder” in the search for a you that you’re proud of. Almost like some kind of thermo-type meter, someone should come up with a name for that. Anyway…
When you’re facing a tough choice, but you have a gut feeling telling you which is really the “right” call, chances are that’s your self-respect trying to be heard. It’s saying, “I’m getting warmer! This is what the best version of me would do, so that’s what I should do.”
On the flip-side, when you look back on a moment in your life and feel regret about your actions, that too is probably your self-respect speaking up. In this case, it’s saying “Nope, getting colder. That was not acting in line with my ideal self. That was me acting like someone I don’t respect very much, and now I feel less respect for myself because of it.”
Practical self-respect means listening to this internal thermo-meter (seriously, I really think we could be onto something here), and learning to follow its guidance.
When you reach a fork in the road, take the path that you would respect yourself more for taking. And don’t be afraid to look back, from time to time, on an uncomfortable moment you’re not proud of, and ask if self-respect didn’t have a lesson there for you to learn about yourself.
How to Practice Self-Respect (3 Everyday Habits)
I’ve said that self-respect is not only something you have, but something you do. So let’s get into how you actually do it.
Here are 3 simple habits you can practice daily that will help you move toward a life of deep, lasting self-respect.
1. Work for Your Own Approval
The only way that self-respect can work is from the inside out.
This is not some outside-in, “fake it till you make it” kind of ordeal. This is a kind of confidence that builds from deep within, by listening to your own guidance. That is its strength. That is what makes it such a healthy and powerful thing.
But that also means that no one else can give it to you. You cannot build self-respect (or really any form of respect) by chasing the approval of others. Their validation, even if you can get it, will not translate into much appreciation for yourself.
What people respect is principles, integrity, and healthy confidence. And those things can only come from following your own compass, from offering respect to others, and to yourself. Chasing the respect of others ironically makes it harder to get.
Work to earn your own approval first, ignore what you think others will respect you for. Focus only on becoming a person that you can respect more and more. And strangely enough, this will almost always garner greater respect from others in the end anyway.
2. Remember the (Entire) Golden Rule
The golden rule. Pretty much every language, culture, or philosophy in history has arrived as some form of the idea: Treat others the way you want to be treated.
It’s a great lesson in empathy. Every time we follow it gets us one step closer to a world where we can all just get along. But let’s not forget its equally important and oft-missed corollary:
The Golden Rule, Corollary 1 – Treat yourself the way you want to be treated.
Consider the way you treat others when you intend to be kind, respectful, or loving. Do you always treat yourself the same way? Because too often, the answer is a quick “NOPE.”
It’s a great thing to put a high premium on the happiness of another person. But why are we so quick to discount the same for ourselves?
Remember, in order to have respect for yourself, you need to consistently show respect for yourself. You deserve every bit as much love as everybody else. And you need to be the first person to show it to yourself.
When you ignore your own wants and needs in this way, you open the door for others to mistreat you, too. Because if you constantly put yourself down, or treat yourself as undeserving, it won’t seem that weird to you when a toxic friend, family member, or boss does it.
Self-respect is valuable not just for the more positive self-image it gives you, but because healthy self-respect can give you warning signals when you are being mistreated. It tells you when something isn’t right, when it’s time to advocate for yourself and say, “No.”
3. Ask the Question
Remember the question from the very beginning of this post, the one that I’ve needed to be reminded of so many times:
“Will this raise my self-respect, or lower it?”
The question is deceptively simple, and immensely effective. It has shown me the way through more situations than I can count.
Every choice you make and every action you take can either raise or lower your respect for yourself. Choices are everything when it comes to lasting happiness. So think about which way you want to pull that lever.
Remember, what you respect is what you value. And this question is a shortcut to using your values as a guide. It separates the feelings of the present moment from the cool brilliance of your core beliefs.
When you feel stuck at any point in your life, great or small, not sure which way to go, let self-respect help point the way. Take the road that most closely fits your values, and you’ll arrive at a greater sense of self worth every time.