Self Respect is the ability to maintain dignity in the face of stress, rejection, criticism, or any activity that can erode one`s value systems.
In a world of imposing immensity and persistent change, the forces that can strike at anyone`s value systems can be extreme, unprecedented, and persistent. Yet, we cannot contain or control those external events. There is no special stress that will always threaten every person. What threatens is the difference between what is imposed and the strength of the systems defining the person facing those impositions. If something destroys the systems that create value and define self, then it can destroy us. As human beings, we will always be bombarded by the immensity of work and the uncertainty of life to a degree greater than our developed strengths can allow us to manage. In addition, rejection and criticism will always reach us. We can, however, attempt to expand our internal strengths so there is greater resilience to the stresses that will impact us.
So what are these internal strengths? To understand this, we must first understand a simple stress and the internal strengths any object uses to combat a simple stress. Then we can extrapolate this into the complex stresses and complex strengths of the human psyche.
In a mechanical model, an object, say a box, maintains its wholeness (integrity) because internal forces are balanced against external pressures. In the case of a box, the internal forces are the tensile strengths of the fibres (wood or paper). The external pressures are the weights, humidity, temperature etc. that are imposed on the structure of the box. The box is designed with sufficient tensile strengths to withstand the pressures consistent with its use. If, for example, a weight greater than the box is designed to bear is placed on the box, the internal fibres become stretched, distorted, or even broken. In other words, the box is ‘stressed`. Such stress can occur whether the external pressure is an increase of weight, humidity, or temperature. Sometimes the distorted tensile fibres manifest externally as a distortion of the box. Sometimes, the box appears undisturbed, only to fall apart with the least added pressure.
This process is not very different for the human being. We too have the equivalent of a tensile strength. In our bodies it is formed by the biochemical and physiological activities that maintain the integrity of the body. In our psyche, integrity is defined by the emotional attributes of wisdom, the courage that drives it, and of course, the value systems that propels the courage.
Thus, the body can be ‘stressed` by external events that distort its biochemical or physiological balance. This distortion produces illness or pain, sometimes manifested as an identifiable disease and sometimes not manifested externally (e.g. headaches, backaches). In a similar way, the mind can be ‘stressed` by external events that challenge the internal strengths of wisdom and courage. So an event that is beyond present experience can introduce uncertainty, and stress the psychological strength of wisdom. On the other hand, events like rejection or criticism can destroy value systems and erode the psychological strength of courage. Then, the mind manifests its stress internally with emotional pain, and externally as behavioural maladaptations. Of course, just as with the box or the body, the mind can be internally stressed without this stress being externally manifested. Then a simple pressure may be all that is needed to have a total breakdown. In a world of such immensity that is so easily reached with modern technology, it is hardly surprising, therefore, that anyone`s wisdom can be exceeded by events that could not possibly be experienced earlier by that person. Similarly, in these time of change, the pressures of uncertainty, and with it, rejection and criticism, can so easily arise that even the most resilient person can be weakened.
Thus, our first observation is that the internal disturbance that is a stress on the integrity of the psyche can affect anyone anytime. Even the therapist is not immune to these stresses. The healer can, at times, be more wounded than the patient. Our second observation is that the internal disturbance can be prevented through building a secure value system and so strengthening the internal forces of courage and wisdom. Then, just as healing the body aims at restoring biochemical and physiological balance, not simply removing the pain, so must psychotherapy be the restoration of the internal strengths of wisdom and courage, not just pacifying the emotions or redirecting the behaviour.
Therefore, the traditional approach to fixing` the wounded psyche through healing the emotional pain and measuring success through observation of behaviour changes can be self-limiting, misleading or ineffective. Remember, Freud once thought cocaine to be the wonder drug. Heroin was once included in some over-the-counter remedies as “non-addictive cough suppressant”. Diazepams and now serotonin reuptake inhibitors are claiming this position. Yet, we can see from past experience that the psychological distortion apparently` returns after seeming to respond to our manipulation of the secondary biochemical distortion or our suppression of the emotional pain. In medical circles, this is known as tachyphylaxis. To the lay person, it is recognized as tolerance, a stage that requires larger doses to achieve the same effect.
We must consider, however, that the human psyche is closely associated with the human body. A distressed psyche will attempt to compensate for its distortion by straining the resources of the body as in worry, anger, or fear. In fact, it is not altogether different from the back pain that can arise as the body compensates for an injured leg. As a result, a psychological distortion can evoke a biochemical distortion. Therefore, we must not be fooled into believing that, by treating the biochemical disorder, we have also healed the distressed psyche.
Let us learn, therefore, to treat the psychological distortion for what it is – a natural stress of the psychological integrity caused by external events that are larger than the internal strengths of the individual at that time. Of course, every measure is relative. The event may be unfairly large relative to a highly developed wisdom. Similarly, wisdom may be extraordinarily small relative to a naturally evolved event. We cannot provide wisdom to another. People must be directed and encouraged to procure it themselves. We cannot provide courage. The person must be taught how to develop it within the conditions in which they function. It is these challenges that make the process of psychotherapy, not only difficult for the well intentioned therapist, but fair game for those with delusions of being able to provide the better answer. In fact, no one can create the ideal solution for another. There are no ten or twelve easy answers to being a better manager of any of the pressures, whether from life, business, or relationships. The person must create his/ her own answers.
To expand our internal strengths we must first realize that no one is so experienced that their wisdom will embrace all events that can arise. Wisdom, a quality we do not possess at birth, can be created progressively if only we can harness the courage to analyse events as changing paradigms, look for the patterns within those paradigms, and understand them as they appear. Courage, therefore, is the variable we must protect or immunize. This cannot be achieved if courage is propelles by value systems derived from external sources of past success, wealth, knowledge, physical prowess, beauty, or social acceptability since these external sources are secured through changing paradigms. Courage must be self-initiated, nurtured from a measure of self that cannot be eroded by the uncertainties of life. But how do we measure self?
As a measure of self, wisdom is always insufficient relative to the vastness of new events or the new twists that will consistently arise in old events. As a measure of self, the performance of our body or its appearance are qualities that cannot endure. A tiny virus or a simple injury can negate our best prepared presentation. As a measure, our acceptability is unpredictable. Our friends cannot always be there, and when they are, they cannot always be focused on our needs, or they will measure us against standards that are inappropriate to our efforts.
Instead, we must learn to measure ourselves by the product of our efforts. We must learn to see ourselves as intelligent beings with sophisticated bodies, not as sophisticated bodies with intelligent minds. Then we can learn to measure ourselves by how we use our intelligence. If we have the wisdom to manage an event, we must recognize that our intelligence created it. If we do not have the wisdom to manage a particular event, we must conclude that our intelligence can create it. Courage then, is based on our use of our intelligence, a facet no one else can measure or repudiate. Once we can learn to recognize this, we can free ourselves from the fragile external measures that can so easily reject us. It is these fragile measures we once determined to be greater than us that makes us fragile. It is our self-directed measure of growth that determines the security of our internal strengths. This is true self-respect, not to be confused with respect derived from and energized by external recognition of success, smugness with one`s level of wisdom, or conceit regarding one`s inherited qualities. True self-respect can allow one to create a solution and rise above oppression even when one is stressed by an external pressure or when other support systems are in short supply.
Thus, the building of true self-respect does not have as its prerequisite an unwounded therapist with a multitude of applicable solutions. In fact it really does not require a therapist. It simply requires a person with the courage to accept life on its terms and the desire to discover the true nature of self, build a vision of self that is distinct from and immune to the visible measures of strength, and do because we believe in self rather than believe in self because of what we have done.