Photo by Shutterstock.com / Khosro

I don’t usually eavesdrop on conversations, but when someone is talking loud enough for me to hear, it’s on them — right? So, I’m listening to this guy tell a friend that as he is now in his 50s, he has recently discovered self-respect, and having done so, has put his wife and his twenty-something aged kids on notice that if they dare to disrespect him, they are all going to be sorry. He isn’t going to take it anymore. But wait, there’s more!

Not only is his family now on notice, but he isn’t taking it from anybody else either. He says he found himself on a surface street that is being blocked by two cars, one headed in one direction and one headed in the other, and they’re having a conversation. When the one headed in the opposite direction moved, he drove around the person that had been blocking him, yelling something out the window at the driver. The driver catches up to him and starts yelling at him.

The storyteller eventually chases this other car into a cul-de-sac where they are both stopped with the cars facing each other. The yelling continues until the passenger in the other car gets out and pulls a gun on the guy telling the story, who then backs his car out of the cul-de-sac and goes home. But he feels vindicated, even though he almost got himself shot, because he wasn’t going to put up with being disrespected.

Respect is not something you can demand any more than you can demand that someone trust you. Respect, like trust, is earned — first from the self and then from others. It is not unlike understanding; if you want people to understand you, you must first seek to be understanding of others. People who can’t or won’t treat others with respect, as clichéd as it sounds, usually have no idea what respect means or don’t respect themselves.

So, where to start? Step one is to honestly and appropriately express all of your emotions. First you have to be able to correctly identify what you are feeling. Are you angry or are you sad? Are you happy or just content? Are you really hurt or just disappointed? Once you have identified what you are feeling, then express it appropriately. If I am angry or confused, sometimes just the admission of that can help clear it. If I acknowledge I am angry with myself or someone else, or I’m confused about something, then I can do something about it.

I will earn respect from myself for having identified the feeling and moving beyond it. But if I scream and holler at you because I am angry at you or I punish myself because I am angry with me, I am inflicting pain by my inappropriate expression and there is no basis there for earning respect from myself.

Further, too many people — like our friend above — get the idea in their heads that “out of self-respect, I get to tell you what a no good, dirty rotten, low down ass I really think you are.” That isn’t acting out of self-respect, that’s acting out of judgment and ego.

So it goes with positive emotions like love. Famed Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca wrote, “To burn with desire and keep quiet about it is the greatest punishment we can bring on ourselves.” Or suppose you are proud of someone else and instead of expressing that pride, you give them some kind of backhanded compliment or say something snarky instead. There will be no foundation on which to build respect.

Secondly, when you fail at something or fall short of your goal, stop and figure out what went wrong. Why did you not succeed as you had intended? Do not blame anybody or anything else. You can‘t fix what you aren’t responsible for. Whether it is a work project, a hobby, or a relationship, when something goes awry or falls apart, look for what happened. Could it have been avoided? What decisions, actions, choices, beliefs, etc. led you to where things are now? Admit and own up to the fact that you contributed to this outcome.

Many of us grew up with the idea that if we make a mistake, not only do we feel terrible about having done so, but we should be punished for it. No. I learned many years ago that when you hold up your hand, say, “Yeah, I did it,” and admit responsibility, people will break their backs to help you correct whatever went wrong. You and others will respect that.

But what about when things go well? How did you get here? What decisions, actions, choices, commitment, or perseverance got you across the finish line? Own that. Not out of ego; succeeding doesn’t make you better than others. But it is important to figure out and know how you succeeded. Why? So you can do it again. Honor the process you used to succeed so that you can replicate, usually with adjustments for the situation, additional successes and greater successes that you can and will respect.

And finally, always — always — operate from a place of integrity and character, meaning that the ends never justify the means. It is always about how you got to where you got to. The process. The steps taken. How you conducted yourself along the way, on a daily basis. Were you honest or did you manipulate others? Did you cut corners or did you make sure that quality of work or product was not sacrificed in the name of expediency? Did you build bridges to others or did you burn bridges in your quest to be first? Did you seek to be understanding and compassionate of self and others or were you impatient, condescending and rude as you progressed? For years my personal yardstick has been, if I can look into my own eyes in the bathroom mirror at the end of the day and feel good about me — that’s all that matters.

Life is a process in the big picture. No one is saying we have to be perfect. Clearly not. But understanding how we get to where we are going is one of the surest ways we can and will learn to respect ourselves. And rather than risking getting ourselves shot in a dark cul-de-sac, we will be able to respect that maybe someone else was just having a bad day. 

Living Skills offers positive psychology counseling, spiritual counseling and life coaching services in Atlanta for the LGBTQ community. Also available by Skype. If you have questions, comments or want to find out about our services, please email us at livingskillsinc@gmail.com or visit www.livingskills.pro