Respect and the Power of Dignity

by Marc Winitz

This is a companion post to the “Know your worth by finding centered truth” post I wrote that was published on 6 Aliens.

One of the most powerful and difficult aspects of self development is the need to feel respected. I believe most people seek respect from peers, colleagues, friends and even strangers if only to feel that they have gained validation for themselves. I say “confusing” because we have a tendency to believe that if we are respected by others we are somehow complete. We have “arrived” as it were in terms of how others see us.

It is as if our position in life only matters if we are respected by those around us.

Consequently many people focusing on winning the respect of others. We spend a lot of time working hard to build success through work, academics and other activities simply to prove we are “worthy”. These actions are important and I am not for a moment suggesting to not work hard for success, whatever that may mean for you. But it is this need for self worth that creates and drives the actions we take to be respected. I think that ultimately this is the view of the majority of people, and their actions reflect this.

Interestingly it is this intense focus we have about “working on ourselves” that only provides a one dimensional view of the respect most of us seek. I have seen this play out many times teaching in a martial arts domain. The reasoning is puzzling at first because an important part of the answer is not obvious.

How is Respect Defined?
The term “respect” has several definitions but I believe they are misinterpreted. One common view, such as in a martial arts setting, is that respect is taught and subsequently shown due to age and wisdom of the people with who you train. Traditionally speaking this has been the case. The Japanese concept of senpai (senior) and kohai (junior) speaks to respecting knowledge which is historically associated with age. There is a lot of value in this type of training framework but it is only part of the picture I am getting at.

Another definition commonly held is respecting others that are more powerful than we are. Being powerful can mean a lot of things but it can include:

  • Intimidating personalities who physically project their power through words and appearance, anything from a bully personality to the extreme of how a gang member carries themselves (“show me respect or I will hurt you”);
  • Autocratic authority figures, which can include an abusive partner in a personal relationship, such as a spouse, or in a business setting, with a boss or supervisor;

I can “project” a lot of power when I need to, although I almost never do. And those that don’t know that I train in the martial arts view that as weakness, but it is not. It’s actually the opposite as I am choosing not too. Most people will say “respect is earned” which is true and commonly held view. But for it to really matter, there is another element, a reciprocal element that must be applied.

You Haven’t Offered Dignity – How Can I Respect You?
So, when we look at the term “respect” is it really possible to despise someone and simultaneously respect them? I don’t think so. Perhaps we may respect certain qualities or characteristics of them. But on a personal development level, respect is really framed around the view of the whole person. Anyone that has ever trained with me in Karate knows that I can be “unpleasant” in a dojo setting. I actually use quite a bit of humor (I think I am funny) when I am teaching. But I am only hard on students because I am driving them to succeed and advance themselves. It is a training mechanism and is not projected personally at a student, or more importantly to make me feel better about myself. And that is a fine line because the only way respect can be taught for others to associate the quality of respect towards you is if you offer (read “give”) someone dignity. It is this missing element that makes the respect and dignity a reciprocal relationship. Dignity is given and respect is earned.

I am not saying to not be demanding or not to be firm. You should do this. Just do it in a way that offers others dignity to those you are dealing with. Western culture is fairly focused on the concept of respect. But hardly any activity is focused on giving dignity to others. It’s hard to offer dignity to others because often times we are so focused on ourselves (need to earn that respect) we forget, or more likely never even think of giving others dignity.

Ways to Offer Dignity
There are many ways to do this and it is more of an approach than a hard and fast rule.

  1. Praise – Offer praise to someone when they do a good job. I do this all the time with students and employees.
  2. Don’t Belittle – Don’t belittle others accomplishments (which I see for too often). Instead complement others on achievement. Belittling others points to a problem with you, not them.
  3. Mean That You Care – You can be hard on someone (your child, a student, a subordinate at work) to make an important point or get something out of them, but then turn around and let them know if it because you care about them as the reason behind your action. You have to actually “mean it” in regards to the later part of don’t do it as you will only be lying to yourself and the other person.
  4. Stop Avoidance – Engage others that are less “successful” than you. This is hard to explain but a very simple example is the beggar on the street. If a homeless person comes up to me I don’t always immediately avoid them. It depends on the situation, however I do listen to them, ask them how they are, and tell them I can’t give them any money. I can quickly end the conversation simply by saying “I am sorry, I have to go. But I hope you are OK.” At least I have bothered to acknowledge their existence rather than just turning away and not offering any dignity.
  5. Proactively Engage – In a social setting where you know others and a new person is present, proactively go up to them and talk with them. Introduce yourself, welcome them and ask them some questions. I am amazed at how little dignity we show others in this kind of situation, especially when the person that needs it most is not fitting in right away.

The most powerful and fully developed people I know put others before themselves. A different definition of power perhaps, but I think a more accurate one. It is through this idea of offering dignity to others that shows a strength in character that is evolved. They likely live by an internal code as I have written about here. They may not necessarily be the most successful people in the text book definition but that doesn’t really matter for this discussion as we are talking about this idea on a personal development level. This sort of comes down to the question of how you gauge others. Is it based on what you have achieved or who you are? Believe me; I am not down on achievement at all. I am simply saying that those who can show dignity are ready to respect others. Because they feel that they want to, not that they have to in order earn their own self respect.

If you look at the photo at the top of the post you will see a cultural example of embracing dignity. The people bowing to each other (called a “rei” and pronounced “ray”) are offering dignity as a show of respect to each other.

Thanks for training with me.

Photo credit courtesy of This Particular Greg

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