In my dream, a man was acting inappropriately toward myself and a friend. Panicked, I searched my friend’s face asking myself “is she okay with this? Is she okay?” In my head, I heard a voice respond:
Then I woke up.
The dream became both a revelation to me and a call to action. I felt that God had spoken directly to my heart, encouraging me to respect my own inner voice, to stand up for that deepest part of me I so often ignore.
I recently started reading Joan Didion’s book Slouching Toward Bethlehem. In it is an essay entitled “On Self Respect.” There she writes:
“If we do not respect ourselves we are… peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out – since our own self-image is untenable – their false notions of us. We flatter ourselves by thinking this compulsion to please others an attractive trait: a gist for imaginative empathy, evidence of our own willingness to give. Of course I will play Francesca to your Paolo, Helen Keller to anyone’s Anne Sullivan: no expectation is too misplaced, no role too ludicrous. At the mercy of those we cannot but hold in contempt, we play roles doomed to failure before they are begun, each defeat generating fresh despair at the urgency of divining and meeting the next demand made upon us.
“It is the phenomenon sometimes called ‘alienation from self.’ In its advanced stages, we no longer answer the telephone, because someone might want something; that we could say no without drowning in self-reproach is an idea alien to this game. Every encounter demands too much, tears the nerves [and] drains the will… To free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves – there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect.”
I’d never before considered what the words “self-respect” really meant. But as I sat there, meditating on the lines before me, it occurred to me that self-respect was just that: respect of self. It’s the act of asking myself what actions I’d most like to take and what roles I’d like to play. It’s the act of divining my own interests and meeting my own expectations. It’s the act of respecting myself – my own thoughts and feelings, wants and desires, just as much as I respect others and being just as willing to meet my own needs as I am to meet theirs. Self respect is the act of paying attention and giving myself a voice.
It’s declining the invitation to the party I don’t want to attend.
It’s refusing to help with the project I’m too busy for.
It’s expressing my true feelings to those with whom I disagree.
It’s telling my friend where I’d like to go to lunch.
Self-respect doesn’t mean I’ll never put someone else’s needs before my own but it does mean evaluating and honoring the needs of both parties equally. When asked to do something I don’t want to do, there are two possible reasons I might do it anyway. The first involves laying aside my own desires because I love and want to be there for my friend. In this way, the “self” who at first didn’t want to help finds the desire to do so out of love. The second involves laying aside my own desires because I feel obligated to help my friend whom I fear will be angry or disappointed if I don’t. In this scenario, the “self” who didn’t want to help is ignored, bullied and forced into service… not just by the friend, but also by our own “outward self” who wasn’t willing to treat the needs of the “inward self” with the same consideration and regard as for the friend. Ignoring our own inner voice in an effort to pacify or placate someone else is to attempt to take responsibility for the emotions or feelings of those we are not responsible for to the detriment of the only one we are responsible for: ourselves. In this way, we are not just neglectful of ourselves, but actively harmful – wounding our own souls and teaching ourselves that we are of less value than those around us.
I’ve come to believe that self-respect does not require us to think ourselves wonderful or better than anyone else. It does not require that we ignore our own failings or discount our own flaws. Self-respect simply requires that we listen and respond. Listen to the inner voice and be just as considerate and gracious toward our own desires as we are toward those of other people. Listen to our thoughts and feelings and be willing to express them openly and honestly. Listen to our conscience and follow the guidance that we find there. It’s the act of giving ourselves permission and finding the courage to advocate for our own best interests. It’s the act of loving and honoring our deepest, truest selves and insisting that our outer “self” protect and reflect our inner “self.”
It’s becoming our own sanctuary.
Years ago, I had a dream in which I stood unclothed before a friend. I felt embarrassed and uncomfortable, but compelled to stand there, exposed and vulnerable. I had forgotten all about this dream until somewhat recently, when the image from the dream came to me with the following words:
“Some day I will stand before you, naked and unashamed.
Not because you have created a safe place for me,
But because I have.”