Millennials, we are told, are good at self-care. We know when a three-day “tech detox” is needed and can identify a flax, chai or sunflower seed in a lineup, along with its individual protein properties. We’re not afraid to spend money on scented candles, rose-oil facials, colonics, cupping and cacao nibs. We can meditate with the best of them.
We’re also good at self-love — listing what we’re grateful for in a leather-bound monogrammed notebook at the end of a shitty day; Instagramming ourselves while making sure to capture rolls of fat and dimples of flesh in the interest of realness. Sometimes, it feels like the only route to happiness is by taking the much-fetishized path of wild, abundant self-love, declaring your body, your face, your life perfect just as it is. Truly committed self-lovers can even marry themselves now.
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about self-respect, the more boring and less showy cousin of self-care and self-love. It is not in the immediate lexicon of the typical millennial, but it is a virtue of the highest degree for our parents and their parents. To those generations, self-care and self-love are unnecessary, vain indulgences. But self-respect — integrity, nobility and a loyalty to what you believe to be right and wrong — is everything.
In Joan Didion’s 1961 essay on the subject, self-respect is defined as a thing that is just for its owner, an acceptance that your outward actions should align with what you feel inside. Didion thought of self-respect as a self-assessed quantity, not something dependent on what others think. “Self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others — who are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation,” she writes. “Self-deception remains the most difficult deception. The charms that work on others count for nothing in that devastatingly well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself: no winning smiles will do here, no prettily drawn lists of good intentions.”
It is perhaps for this very reason that self-respect got lost on the journey to self-discovery in modern life. When nearly every thought and feeling is recorded online for an audience, it is hard to imagine practicing an act of self-maintenance that’s just for you. Dignity is quiet and boring while self-love is loud and proud. Public manifestations of self-love can sometimes feel like a short-lived, passionate, adolescent fling — fleeting and high-octane, something you fall in and out of quickly. It often feels very surfacy, primarily about how you look and present to the world.
In terms of sheer self-development, I don’t know how helpful it is to proclaim to the world that I love my rounded stomach or my buck teeth or whatever because I don’t, objectively. I don’t think I ever will. I would rather strive, instead, for self-respect — a deep and profound understanding of who I really am and a pledge to myself to reflect that core in the decisions I make.
After all, a scented candle is just a scented candle. Its wick will burn down eventually. A naked selfie is just a naked selfie; at some point people are going to stop hitting the ‘like’ button and move on to something else. What will care for and cradle you far longer than a matcha latte or a yoga session is feeling you’re being true to who you are; that you are comfortable with how you behave whether there is someone there to witness it or not.
Self-respect is always voting, instead of always talking about voting. Self-respect is recycling, instead of talking about recycling. Self-respect is not making dinner plans with someone to keep them happy when you know you have too much work and you’re going to cancel day-of. Self-respect is helping someone in need when no one is there to witness it. Self-respect is enjoying the acquisition of knowledge, without others having to know that you know it. Self-respect is leaving the party when you’re tired, instead of staying up for everyone else. Self-respect is pulling all facets of your personality together into one whole, steady place where you’re comfortable, rather than only showing certain sides of yourself to certain parties in the interest of their approval.
Self-respect isn’t about always making the right decision; it’s about taking gracious accountability for your actions. As Didion accurately describes: “people with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes. They know the price of things…we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously uncomfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. Whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves.” Self-respect is the only long-term foundation on which self-care and self-love can be built; the essential base-note of authentic, quiet contentment. Self-respect is sacred. We all owe it to ourselves to find it.
Dolly is an award-winning journalist who has written for The Sunday Times, The Sunday Times Style, The Telegraph, GQ, Marie Claire, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Vice and more. Collages by Maria Jia Ling Pitt.