Self-respect is toughness, moral nerve, character, a certain discipline to defer gratification, do the honourable thing, seek a goal with open eyes knowing its price, and the odds of success. It might manifest itself in English formal dress in the rain-forest
(hold on! what about all that fiction showing the Empire-builders’ civilisation mere window-dressing over weakness and hypocrisy!)
a symbol of values inculcated long before
(in some people, perhaps).
It is to have the courage of ones mistakes and sins- to commit adultery then accept the result
(I thought earlier it was about honour)
It is to know yourself, take your own measure, and make peace with that
(when honour is not possible. Becky Sharp had self respect.)
It never keeps you safe, but safe enough
(my summary, not in her words)
and does not proceed from certain charms such as clean hair and fingernails, the child’s passive virtue of good manners and a good IQ score. To believe that is all you need is a kind of innocence, before you realise those child’s virtues are not enough.
You cannot deceive yourself.
(Um. I feel I always did; I ferreted out the lies I told myself, beginning with the lie “I lie to myself because I want to see myself as a Good person”. Perhaps she saw herself more clearly, only needed one “does not compute” moment before the scales fell from her eyes.)
Without self-respect, you see all your failings in turn, the hurtful words, the things done wrong, both real and imagined.
(I seek to let go of Perfect me, the me that does all that I expect of myself, without undue effort, showing up the physical Clare with all her failures. Perhaps this is a similar idea.)
The person without self-respect is bound to try to please all of the people, all of the time, to be unable to say no except by not turning up, or not answering the phone.
(This begins to worry me. I am withdrawn from society. It has always been my way.)
We flatter ourselves by thinking this compulsion to please others an attractive trait: a gift for imaginative empathy, evidence of our willingness to give.
(I may have a gift for empathy, but this is really frightening me now.)
That is alienation from self.
This is a summary of Joan Didion’s essay On Self-Respect, first published in 1961. I don’t agree with it all. Possibly I don’t understand it all. My feeling that I do could be the Dunning-Kruger effect, which one could never recognise in onesself so is the perfect source of paranoia- Omigod, I am an idiot, everyone’s laughing at me and I could never know- but again, I am sure enough. It talks of good things, seeking your own goals, living by your own sense of honour, which might be derived from the group, such as the colonial overlords, or purely idiosyncratic, knowing the cost and the odds.
And throughout it has wonderful sentences. It has weight and power:
character—the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life—is the source from which self-respect springs. That “is”! She exhibits such certainty that I am tempted to make her my guide and role-model.
It has a bracing acknowledgment of the darkness and difficulty:
That kind of self-respect is a discipline, a habit of mind that can never be faked but can be developed, trained, coaxed forth. It was once suggested to me that, as an antidote to crying, I put my head in a paper bag. As it happens, there is a sound physiological reason, something to do with oxygen, for doing exactly that, but the psychological effect alone is incalculable: it is difficult in the extreme to continue fancying oneself Cathy in Wuthering Heights with one’s head in a Food Fair bag. There is a similar case for all the small disciplines, unimportant in themselves; imagine maintaining any kind of swoon, commiserative or carnal, in a cold shower.
Joan! Explain to me, that I may understand! No, you feel this viscerally or do not get it at all:
To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which, for better or for worse, 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.
I like how each of her two final sentences is in two balanced halves, like verses of the Psalms, a rhetorical trick I use myself, but they convey so much: rich promise, coupled with an image of terrifying insignificance, Heaven and Hell in two sentences.
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.
I share paintings by women, but here is Peder Krøyer’s picture of his wife, a completely different femininity from her self-portrait: