Gary Gilles is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in private practice for over 20 years. He is also an adjunct faculty member at the University
To respect someone is to put them in high regard. Think of the people in your life you respect. It might include family members, friends and even people you only “know” through the media. There is something about those people that you admire. Now the tough question: Would you be on your own list of people who are worthy of that same level of respect? Many people would not put themselves in the same category as those they highly regard. If you are one of those people who struggle with self-respect, read on.
Respect can be elusive
Some people seem to garner respect without even trying. Others seem unable to figure out how it works. This latter group often seem to attract mean, insensitive people into their lives. It might be a boss who treats you like a child, friends who don’t take you seriously, or children who ignore your parental authority. You want to be treated with respect, you’ve even tried to make them stop their behavior, but it keeps happening. What’s going on?
A lot more than you probably realize! An old proverb says that you must first respect yourself before you can expect others to respect you. If you find that people in your life frequently mistreat you, perhaps they are simply doing what you ask. I don’t mean that you are consciously telling them you want mistreatment, but your behavior may be saying just that. Let’s explore how this might happen and what you can do about it.
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Listen to your negative self-talk
“Marissa” arrived to a counseling session with a cup of coffee she had purchased on her way to our session. Just as she sat down, the plastic lid on her cup popped off sloshing coffee on the sofa. The first words out of her mouth were, “How stupid of me. I’m so sorry.” I assured her it was not a big deal to me and thanked her for being concerned. She continued: “I can’t believe how clumsy I am sometimes. I promise not to bring any other beverages with me to sessions.” Seeing that she wasn’t going to easily let herself off the hook I decided to use the situation in a therapeutic way. I said, “Marissa, why are you being so hard on yourself? It was a mistake and I’m not angry with you.” “I know,” she said, “but I do a lot of stupid things.”
Marissa wasn’t just saying her mistake was stupid, but that she was stupid. Even when I extended grace to her, she felt compelled to convince me to agree with her perceived ineptness. She was unconsciously inviting me to put her down. Had I done so she would have felt it was deserved. Her negative self-talk, or how she feels about herself, leaks out when she is vulnerable and says “I’m stupid, don’t you agree?”
But the truth is she’s not stupid, she is actually quite intelligent. Marissa is like many other people who give off an unconscious beacon signal to others that says I don’t like myself very much and neither should you. People like Marissa berate themselves for mistakes they make, try extremely hard to be perfect, and go to great lengths to please others. If you are one of these people, take heart. There is a way to stop this craziness that you are perpetuating by your negative self-talk.
Root out the lies
Over time, our self-talk is shaped by important relationships and circumstances. If you have been exposed to a lot of criticism, rejection or abusive behavior, you will most likely have a low opinion of yourself. It doesn’t mean you think of yourself as worthless, but you lack confidence, are prone to self-doubt, and find it hard to ask for what you need. These are symptoms of the lies that are embedded in your self-talk. What you have to do is root out these lies. While not easy, it is possible with deliberate effort.
The best place to start is listening to your language. When you make a mistake or disappoint someone, can you acknowledge it, forgive yourself, and go on? Or do you apologize more than once? Do you find yourself searching for some type of “penance” to make up for it? Do you put yourself down, call yourself derogatory names, or use self-deprecating humor? If so, tune into how you do this. Write down phrases you hear yourself saying. Next to the negative phrase write how you could have said it differently so as not to put yourself down. And then practice these new approaches in everyday conversation. It will feel unnatural at first, but you are rewiring those faulty mental circuits. Give it time and you will start to feel like the worth you are attaching to yourself truly belongs to you.
Confront disrespectful behavior
So what do you do with all those people in your life who are accustomed to treating you like a doormat? Train them to treat you differently. Start by refusing to speak of yourself in negative terms as you normally would. When they revert to customary behaviors of disrespect, call them on it. Extend respect to them by helping them understand that you are working on valuing yourself more. Tell them how you would like to be treated differently.
I recall a former client who did this well with her best friend. “Cassie” decided she needed to confront her friend about her sarcastic put-downs. On a particular outing when the friend made a demeaning comment toward her, Cassie said, “I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t talk to me that way anymore. It hurts me when you put me down.” Her friend didn’t understand. She said, “I was just joking. It never seemed to bother you before.” To this Cassie replied, “But it did bother me. I just never spoke up for myself. I’m trying to change; to value myself more. You can help me by not putting me down.” While it took some time, her friend gradually got the message and their relationship grew closer.
Ask for what you need
By asking for what you need from people you are validating your worth in a very powerful way. It reinforces positive self-talk and clearly communicates that you want others to treat you similarly.
Unfortunately, not everyone is going to comply with your wishes. They may fight you by intensifying their disrespect. Many of your friends, co-workers, possibly even family, may not understand the change in you.
Some people are simply toxic to be around. If your efforts to help them understand what you need go unheard or unheeded, sometimes the best route is to spend little or no time with them. A relationship can’t grow when built on disrespect.
And don’t become sidetracked by trying to change these people. The focus of your work is to catch and root out self-talk lies that undermine your worth. Stay the course. Over time, those who truly care for you will extend respect to you. These will be the relationships that become the most precious because they reflect the truth: that you deserve respect. And the reason you’re now getting it from others is because you first gave it to yourself.
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