Joan Didion on Self-respect

Self-respect is a discipline, a habit of mind that can never be faked but can be developed, trained, coaxed forth.

– Joan Didion

I just read Joan Didion’s essay ‘Self-respect: its source, its power’. It’s a beautifully written piece that resonated with me so I wanted to share it.

people with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes. They know the price of things. 

Didion connects self-respect with the trait once referred to as character, which she defines as “the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life”. Character, she insists, “is the source from which self-respect springs.”

… people with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve …

The most unnerving part of the essay for me, because it struck a few uncomfortable home truths, was her insight that when we don’t have self-respect, a sense of who we are and what we stand for, we become susceptible to the influences of others, battling between feelings of needing to please in order to feel a sense of worth about ourselves while simultaneously resenting their opinions of us.

If we do not respect ourselves, we are on the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses. On the other, 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.

Joan Didion’s explanation of what self-respect is brought to mind the sanskrit word I shared recently, Santosa. Both express a feeling of peace and contentment within yourself.

I’ve read a number of different works over the past couple of years, gleaming insight from writers, painters, politicians, philosophers, religious texts, and I’ve come to develop my own understanding of what self-respect is, though I don’t necessarily call it that.

Self-respect puts an end to the inner wars we declare with ourselves. It’s about embracing who you are, understanding what matters to you, and then working in cooperation with yourself to live your own life.

When you feel content and at peace with who you are, those feelings of inadequacy leave. You stop worrying about what other people will think of you, stop senselessly people-pleasing in the hopes of earning love and praise. You stop self-sabotaging, believing you deserve all the things you want for yourself, as well as being capable of attaining them.

For me, cultivating an inner sense of self, one which is infallible, is the meaning of self-respect, without which it seems we cannot love or life in any meaningful way.

The essay was first published in Vogue in 1961, and you can find the whole essay here on their website.

What does ‘self-respect’ mean for you? Have you read something lately that particularly resonated with you? Please share in the comments. I’d love to hear your thoughts. 


2 thoughts on “Joan Didion on Self-respect

  1. Thanks for your lovely comment. I found the article very interesting and really aligned with my own thoughts, though yes, I didn’t identify it as self-respect either. It’s a very empowering term. Glad you found the article as helpful and as interesting as I did!


  2. Santosa. I love the sound of the word and yearn for a sense of peace and contentment with myself. Thank you for opening my mind to the idea – yes the idea of “self-respect” – I have thought about self-love, but self-respect takes on a whole new level of empowered thought. I have to think about this one, as more often than not I am behind enemy lines in my mind, struggling with negative self talk. I am going to read the link.

    Liked by 2 people

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