As a culture, I feel like we’re bathing in a pool of reminders to consider ourselves discontent, incomplete, and unworthy. Advertising is predicated on the idea of creating a need for whatever needs to be sold, and since it’s so ubiquitous we’re awash in a chorus of commercials, billboards and banners that scream to us “YOU ARE NOT HAPPY. YOU NEED THIS.” The current administration has told us that “real America” has been left behind by an establishment that cares more about itself than any of us, but that they do care and they will fix it. When we speak up and tell them their actions are making things worse, or that the claims they’re working from are fundamentally untrue, we’re told that they’re offering “alternative facts” or attack us for being unpatriotic enough to disagree with them. On the internet, any assertion made by women, people of color, LGBQTIA people, disabled people or anyone else on the margins is frequently met with a pack of dissenters eager to tell us our own experiences are wrong, our perspectives are skewed. We are constantly assaulted with messages designed to make us doubt ourselves, which is why we need to start putting in the work to believe in who we are and what we care about.
Respecting ourselves can be a form of protest against the society that wants to shape us into people who will passively accept what we’re told by our institutions, uncritically and gratefully. With so many of our cultural forces attempting to control how we think about ourselves, it is a revolutionary act to reject those attempts and determine who we are and who we want to be. Setting our own standards for happiness and personal fulfillment, then following through on those standards, makes us more resistant to the constant messaging that attempts to set our values for us. It allows us to know ourselves and our beliefs in a way that gives us a solid and stable center, that roots us to ideals larger than we are.
Our connection to this foundation is essential to our well-being. Instead of being buffeted by the shifting winds of our cultural attitudes, we sway with them while keeping true to who we are. Just as a tree bends with the wind, carries the burden of rain and heat, and still provides shelter to the animals and other plants who depend on it, knowing who we are allows us to be both flexible and grounded enough to remain upright against gale forces that threaten to bowl us over. We can come to see these storms as intense but transitory and gain a courage of conviction that checks our fear.
This work is not easy. So many of us have been told all of our lives that there’s something wrong with us, or that we have to change to fulfill the desires of the people around us. But there’s nothing wrong with you. You, as a human being, are worthy of happiness and respect. It’s one thing to be told that and wish it were true, another thing to believe it might be, quite a different thing to know it’s so. Getting to that point is a long and sometimes difficult process; it requires us to face ourselves and acknowledge our thoughts, our desires, our actions and beliefs. We may find things that are unpleasant and hard to deal with. But accepting all of ourselves, even the bad parts, shifts our perspective to one that makes the effort to change that much easier. It’s possible to recognize our flaws, work to correct them, and still treat ourselves with love, respect, and care.
When we do that, something extraordinary happens: we begin to have a clear perspective on the flaws of others and we learn to treat those with compassion. We learn to see how the behaviors of our fellow man are rooted in their own system of values, and how similar we are to each other. We find it easier to forgive people when they make mistakes, because we’re able to forgive ourselves for our imperfections. When we love ourselves, it becomes so much easier to love everyone around us — even the difficult people, the awkward ones, the people whose personality grates on our nerves.
We also find a security that allows our beliefs to be tested and changed according to new and more accurate information. We don’t cling to false ideals, or assume that our identities depend on dogmatic thinking. We know that our morality is an extension of our values, our ideals translated into action. Our understanding of those ideals and the actions they lead to can be examined and adjusted without the feeling that we’re killing ourselves or becoming unmoored. We gain a deep strength that underlies a flexibility allowing us to admit when we’re wrong and change our behavior with sincerity and purpose.
I don’t mean to say that learning to respect ourselves is going to solve all of our problems, because it won’t. We will still be frightened from time to time; we will get angry when our sense of morality is offended; we will still react poorly, make mistakes, backslide into bad habits, behave without compassion. We’re only human after all. However, learning self-respect will make us more resilient, more confident, more open and more compassionate. All of those traits are absolutely necessary if we are to face the rising tide of intolerance, ignorance and cruelty that threatens to destroy us. We cannot force others to respect us if we don’t respect ourselves first. We can’t teach others if we don’t learn about ourselves first. We can’t fix society if we don’t set the wounds we’ve taken on and ignored.
This year, learning to love and respect myself is one asset of my activism that I’ll be paying attention to. I will think about my values, and how that shapes the way I see the world. I will work to resist those people who diminish my values in an attempt to control me. And I will encourage all of us to do the same. We are as worthy of happiness and respect as anyone else; we have the right to demand our society treats us with the same respect we give ourselves. Don’t let anyone tell you different.