Self-respect vs Self-esteem

I recently read a passage from Joan Didion’s essay “On self-respect”:

“To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference. If we do not respect ourselves, we are on the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses. On the other, we are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out — since our self-image is untenable — their false notion of us. We flatter ourselves by thinking this compulsion to please others an attractive trait: a gist for imaginative empathy, evidence of our willingness to give. Of course I will play Francesca to your Paolo, Helen Keller to anyone’s Annie 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 meting 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, drains the will, and the specter of something as small as an unanswered letter arouses such disproportionate guilt that answering it becomes out of the question. To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves — there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.”

The type of self-respect she talks about (or the lack of thereof) really resonated with me. The idea of pleasing other peoples and living shaping myself to others people’s needs is something I have been battling with for a long time, and came to realize only in recent years how exhausting and disrupting this habit is for myself, and my relationships as well.

I have always been thinking that the trait I lacked, or in general, the trait people needed to cultivate and aspire to, was self-esteem. I have never really thought about self-respect, about the true meaning of it, and in general the differences between the two. So after reading this passage, and somehow awakening to the necessity of reconsidering the aim of my quest, I googled around, and found that self-esteem and self-respect are indeed two very different and distinct concepts, and that yes, the answer might be to cultivate the latter, rather than the former.

Within the jungle of articles that populated my google search, nuanced by different terminologies and point of views, the one I find more close to my opinion, is the definition given by Ellen Langer, professor of psychology at Harvard University:

“Self-respect is not contingent on success because there are always failures to contend with. Neither is it a result of comparing ourselves with others because there is always someone better… People with self-respect are less prone to blame, guilt, regret, lies, secrets and stress.”

“To esteem anything is to evaluate it positively and hold it in high regard, but evaluation gets us into trouble because while we sometimes win, we also sometimes lose. To respect something, on the other hand, is to accept it.”

Basically, self-esteem is a concept connected with the praise of our own achievements and good qualities (some people associate it with pride) mostly in relation with the external world and other people, while self-respect is connected with knowing and accepting ourselves, regardless of how positive our attributes and accomplishment are.

Even though I do not necessary agree with the definition of self-esteem as something filled with pride, narcissism and shallowness, I can clearly see how more complete and good-doing is the self-respect path. It totally exclude the judgments and evaluations that can bring so much pain and trouble, and simply focus on self exploration, on listening and accepting.

….I don’t know, but after reading Didion’s passage, I somehow felt liberated. Self-esteem sounds like such a huge and unattainable concept, while self-respect leaves space for errors, for darkness, for plainness. It’s so much more human.

“Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs.”


Image from “The Reconstructionists“, by Lisa Congdon.