According to the online Cambridge English Dictionary, self-respect is "a feeling of respect for yourself that shows that you value yourself." Respect, in turn, is defined as "admiration felt or shown for someone or something that you believe has good ideas or qualities." And finally, value is defined as "how useful or important something is." Self-respect, then, can be considered to be a feeling of admiration for your good ideas or qualities that you consider to be useful or important.
Growing up I had high self-respect. I believed I was intrinsically worth a great deal and this was constantly supported by leaders and family who made me feel as if I were some kind of uberkind. This continued through the first couple of years in college where I cruised through general ed classes with little effort and excelled at extra-curriculars. But then, the summer of my sophomore year, I had my first psychotic break. I thought I had been drugged and raped in a hotel room while I was visiting Vietnam. I returned to my junior year devastated. It wouldn't have been such a huge blow if it hadn't been for the Mormon clergy who heard my confession. Not only did he fail to properly advise me regarding my physical and mental health, but he manipulated me into assuming all responsibility for what I thought had happened to me. Over a period of six months, I went from being a victim of a heinous crime to being a monster. I gained nearly a hundred pounds and struggled at my job. I was hallucinating daily and deluded. Coming out as gay and generally still succeeding in classes despite my terrible attendance did little to lift my feelings about myself. I had failed my upbringing and lost all the promise of my youth. The uberkind had become a pariah, at least in my own mind, and there was nothing I could do to resurrect him.
I had applied and been accepted to law school on a lark. I figured it was something I could do to avoid the real world and would lead to a career that promised a good income. I was in no position to properly evaluate the decision about my future, not feeling the way I did about myself. I had also applied to Cornell but had moved rooms before receiving their decision. I never followed-up and don't know whether they accepted or rejected me. I didn't care. Santa Clara was good enough, I wasn't smart enough to go to an ivy league school.
But that summer I watched the Tour de France on a month's worth of same-day rebroadcasts. I was fascinated by the race. Each day the competitors would start in en masse, the peloton. Soon after they took off, though, a small group of ambitious riders would break away, pushing themselves until they sped ahead of the peloton and sometimes gaining as much as ten minutes on the group that stayed behind. But each stage was nearly a hundred miles and a single cyclist does not have the advantages of wind resistance and drafting that the mass of cyclists in the peloton does. Over the next hour and a half, the peloton gradually ate away the gap and caught up with the breakaway riders. Not once did they manage to maintain their lead to the finish line. Yet despite the hopelessness of the inevitable, day after day the breakaway appeared and tried as hard as they could to beat the peloton. I'm not sure whether it was the repeated breakaways that inspired me, but somehow I decided that I wanted to run a triathlon.
At the time I was probably 344 lbs (156 kg) and completely out of shape, but something inside of me said I was good enough and capable of making the change necessary to get in shape enough to run a triathlon. I looked up a training program, from couch potato to 5k (3.2 miles)--the running distance of the shortest version of triathlons--and began the journey that would, in the next year, see me lose over a hundred pounds and complete a triathlon. I felt good about myself. I was in good shape, exercising--which helped manage my hallucinations--and progressing in law school. For some reason, though, I was still wedded to Vietnam despite the fact that I had--in my deluded mind--been raped there. I kept going back, interned two summers at law firms, and directed my ambitions towards getting a job there. Perhaps it was some malfunction in my brain, or the delusions, or some remnant of my low self-respect, but I didn't think I was capable of working elsewhere.
This last was proved out after I graduated and spent a year looking for work in California. Sure, it was in the middle of the Great Recession and I was only a B+ student at a second-tier law school, but given the proper training, I should have been able to get a job. It never occurred to me that I had intentionally failed to obtain the proper training. Instead of specializing in areas of the law that were in demand in the United States, I had studied international law, spent a semester in Australia studying Australian law, and interned in Vietnam. What California law firm would want that kind of experience when hiring for California corporate practice? In my confused mind--I had begun drinking more at this point and stopped exercising, which contributed to increasing hallucinations and severe delusions--I was so worthless that the only job I could get was in Vietnam. Never mind that I had essentially studied to do just that. I was ultimately reduced to looking for work in Vietnam, the country that had raped me.
I've already discussed much of the next couple of years, heavy drinking, drug use, psychosis, hospitalization, more drinking and drug use, returning to live with my mother for a couple of years--always a good thing for a person's self-respect--a long litany of self-denigrating behaviors that clearly demonstrated how little I thought of myself. But at least I now knew that I had never been raped and that Vietnam wasn't such a bad place after all. When I received a small inheritance at the end of 2018, I decided I would leave my mother and family behind and return to Vietnam. I did some work online for a law firm and had enough to survive in a developing country and maybe I would eventually capitalize on my experience in the region and try to get a job. At least that was my thinking and I boarded a plane and flew halfway around the world, again, to arrive in Ho Chi Minh City, again.
I quickly acquired a boyfriend, the first guy I met, and we shortly thereafter entered a relationship. I would spend my week taking care of my responsibilities, writing, reading, and generally experimenting with my mental health. On the weekends he would come over and spend the night. Frequently, he wouldn't show up when he said he was going to. Sometimes he was hours late, sometimes he didn't show up until the next day. Rarely did he call or message me to inform me of his tardiness or absence. It was frustrating, but I lived with it. I had a boyfriend, after all, and I wasn't important enough to protest, nor was my time worth enough for it to matter. I didn't have a job and he did. I could live with his lack of punctuality. And there was another behavior that, though it bothered me, didn't strike me as sufficiently egregious enough to defend myself from. He insisted, every week he saw me, that I needed to "lose your weight." He said it was so he could drive me on his motorbike, but I always suspected it had less to do with weak tires than with his desire for a skinnier boyfriend. But again, I didn't do much about it, I was overweight and, thanks to the anti-depressants I was initially on, had little desire to exercise. I consigned myself to enduring his constant nagging about my weight.
Over the nearly two years since we met, however, I began to change. At first, there were adjustments to my meds. I stopped the anti-depressants which eliminated the brain fog and abolition which made it difficult for me to be productive and to exercise. And then, beginning last year, I started therapy. I don't remember talking much about self-respect, but I do know that we talked about setting boundaries and the purpose of boundaries. The idea that it is a protection of the self. There was frequent praise, too, when I began to take action to change my situation, when I succeeded in altering my negative thinking and escaping my victim mentality. Slowly, over six months, Victor, my therapist, trained me to realize that I was capable and worthy of happiness and that I could respect myself for who I was. I began exercising again, wrote another novel--the best one yet--and began negotiations to return to full-time employment. I was no longer the same person I was when I came out of America and entered a relationship with the first man who came along.
Even then, it wasn't until I started my job three weeks ago that I finally began to realize the full extent of the problem. One week my boyfriend didn't show and it wasn't until the next morning that he even communicated with me. And he did the same thing again, though this time he called after I had gone to bed. Not only was I working full-time now, and my time become precious, but I realized that his lack of respect for my time was symptomatic of his lack of respect for me in general. To him, I was something to be enjoyed at his convenience, when he felt like it. I wasn't someone who he respected enough to treat properly. I had also begun to lose a serious amount of weight and his nagging about weight loss had, as a result, taken on new urgency. Admittedly, I was losing weight, but for me, not him. And the fact that he had always wanted me to be thinner added to my feeling that he didn't respect, or love, me for who I was. Between learning to respect myself again and getting a job--which also added to my self-respect--I was no longer willing to put up with his lack of respect. One week ago, I told him I didn't want to be boyfriends anymore.
I'm not saying that this is the perfect journey, or that I'm anywhere close to finishing it, but in the last year I have come to learn many things, one of them, and perhaps one of the most important, is that I am worthy of self-respect. The fact that I am capable of changing my situation and of affecting my own behavior no matter what happens has created in me a sense of self-respect greater than I have ever felt. There were times--in my youth and in law school--where I was marching forward towards great things, but I was always under questionable orders (first from god and then from the economy). Now I'm heading towards my own future, a future that I can create and that exists with my own best interests at heart. It sucks that I lost a boyfriend, but it is demonstrative of greater growth in my own perspective, of my interpretation of who I am and of how I feel about myself, and the realization that progress in myself arises from the intrinsic self-respect that I once more possess.