Notes on Self Respect

“To free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves –there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect.” Joan Didion 

Today is my 32nd birthday and I found myself missing the cold and howling wind raging outside the window of a grungy bar in Calgary, while I sat sipping an Earl of Franklin County. A strange memory, especially one to be missing, when what I had wished for today was 32 degrees and sunshine. 

This happened after tidying up (I also watched an episode of Marie Kondo today) and finding an old notebook. When I find such memorabilia, I can never help but flip through a few pages. Just a couple of lines will take me straight back to my life a year or so ago, and in this case, I had spent a night drinking cocktails with my friend who really loves grungy bars.

This past Friday, I arrived home after drinking a couple of cocktails that were not Earl’s of Franklin County. They were Negroni’s and they were shared with a friend not unlike the latter. I got home and drunkenly read for the third time Joan Didion’s essay titled, On Self Respect. It was originally published in Vogue in 1961 after another writer failed to produce a piece. Months ago now, I watched a documentary about her life and have wanted to read every word she’s written since. 

I had scribbled down “On Self Respect” on a note pad along with some other titles that sounded up my alley. Things to read someday when I had more time. 

Someday happened just the other day when a coworker mentioned that a couple of colleagues had made a comment about my self-respect. International Women’s Day was coming up so they were in a conversation around the values and traits in women that they admired. 

I didn’t understand. I thought briefly, are you sure they were talking about me? 

Words like positive, sunshine, and rose-colored-glasses are usually associated with me – words that are written down in birthday cards and congratulation messages. Cotton-candy fluffy-like words. 

Self-respect. Straight-talking. Boundaries. Clear. 

Me?

This was new information. 

There is a distinction that Joan Didion makes that I had maybe felt, but never thought of as “self-respect.” Those words used to conjure up someone who never let anyone that was less than a gentleman into her bed; someone who never let anyone talk down to her.

And frankly, I can’t say I’ve been that someone.

She also writes, “People with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes. They know the price of things…People with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve…The willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life…”

Still not entirely me.

But there’s more, and somewhere in this article things started to feel true to me.

“It is a kind of ritual, helping us to remember who and what we are…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 . . . we are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out — since our self-image is untenable — their false notions of us…We play roles doomed to failure before they are begun…” 

The ability to discriminate. As I read and reread these words, I began to realize that discriminating between what I love, and what I feel indifferent about, is what I’ve been learning how to do this entire time. Mom reminded me today that I’ve now been on planet Earth for 11,680 days. That’s a lot of days to fall in love with things, make a mess of things, change my mind about things, fail at things.

Self-respect, as described in this essay, seems to be more about determination and self-understanding, than anything else.

“The dismal face is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others – who are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation…It has nothing to do with the face of things, but concerns instead a separate peace, a private reconciliation.”

My flavour of self-respect doesn’t come out fiercely or unwavering. Often its been quite shakey. 

“You make me feel small,” I told someone that cared about me. It stumbled out of my mouth. A tiny vague sentence, but it took everything in me to be honest enough to say it. And sometimes self-respect is shown with no words at all. Now that I’ve been prompted to consider this about myself, to consider that maybe I do have self-respect, I can notice that there, for a long time, has been resilience. 

Finally, I didn’t stay the night.

Finally, I was firm in my no. 

Finally, I just asked the big question. Made the big request. Sent the email because why the fuck not. Stayed in. All these little things adding up to something, to a woman who respects herself. 

Perhaps this is a common experience. One that any strong woman would say comes with age. But it feels unique to me. It being commonplace does not change the amazement I feel that someone would think of me like that. 

The way in which I came about having this apparent self-respect is uniquely mine. How soon or how long it took me, or you, or anyone. The individual and entirely unique circumstances that led yourself to whoever you happen to be now, however tragic or mundane the details, is yours to be proud of. 

I think it may have really started to bloom when one May afternoon confronted by a past love, I didn’t apologize for falling in love with someone else. 

Now I sense it when I admit to myself more freely and quickly, “I am sad today. I feel weird about this. I’m sorry I was grumpy last night. I’m not into this. This pear is gross I’m not finishing it.” Whatever the thing. My honesty with myself is free and quick. 

When I miss someone from back home, because there are not too many days that go by where I am so distracted that I do not miss multiple people – I know that I’ve done this to myself and that the sad days are the price. I take responsibility for how much I may miss x,y or z.  

Personal responsibility – another boring rigid piece of jargon on the surface. And gold when you grasp it. 

I miss the life in those notebooks, yet, big deep breath, here I am.  A 32-year-old with a tremendous ability to show herself self-respect.