Gaining Self-Respect

Gaining Self-Respect


Do you know when you are being mistreated or disrespected? It seems like a strange question, but my experience tells me that most of us don’t actually feel it in the moment, or we do sense something is amiss but we gloss over it. Then it wakes us up in the middle of the night. Even then, we may question our feelings, and be uncertain about whether we should do something about it. Mostly, we do not act on behalf of ourselves, and find ourselves simply adjusting to the bad treatment. In popular parlance we “swallow” it.

“Forgive and forget” is another internal adjustment strategy. It’s reinforced as the way to go among religious and new age spiritual communities. Forgiveness has its place of course. But as a go-to default strategy I don’t trust it. To be precise, my take is that forgiveness has its place at the end of an intentional process of working through the insult with the insulter. Afterwards, we may or may not choose forgiveness. But too often it’s a premature “flight to transcendence”. It’s an ideal, and like all ideals, forgiveness does not take seriously enough the insult, the insulted, or even the insulter.  As such it’s little more than our personal collusion in our own mistreatment.

Another strategy is to instinctively rationalize the mistreatment or our first impulse is to try to understand the motivations of the person or community who have mistreated us. You know, “guess he was having a bad day”, or “she didn’t mean to, I’m sure”.

But where did we learn to capitulate, take the high road, fly off to the land of ideals, swallow our anger, or enact premature forgiveness?

I wonder if these strategies are little more than childhood survival tactics transposed to adult situations. When we were helpless and dependent, in the face of mistreatment we have limited options, but all of them were in the service of survival. Initially, we would have protested by crying and making a serious fuss. This is the natural response. But when we discover that this is futile, or worse, provokes more mistreatment, Plan B kicks in.

One of the first things we do is travel north, away from our feelings and into our thoughts. This happens automatically or instinctively. We need to control the instinct in our body to lash out, the throat wants to scream, the hips and legs want to get, the arms want to flail.  We cannot tolerate the experience or the idea that the ones who are supposed to be taking care of us are negligent. We cannot be motherless or fatherless in other words.

So, we form a belief that they aren’t doing something wrong. It’s “me” that is the problem. I am bad. This belief gets formed at the deepest layer of our unconscious, and then gets acted out in all kinds of ways, in our adult life.

When we are mistreated as adults, this belief ensures that our first thought when we’ve been mistreated is: “I must have done something to deserve it”. Otherwise life is unbearably unpredictable, fickle, cruel. We “grin and bear it”. In doing so we are reenacting an early childhood strategy that brought order to a chaotic existence. Your badness, your “deserving it” is the solution to intolerable chaos and cruelty. Over time, it is possible that we simply do not feel the insult to our integrity and self-worth when it occurs at work, at home, or with friends.

It’s sobering the day we realize that we actually participate in the construction of situations in which we’ll be mistreated. Freud called it “repetition compulsion”. My theory on repetition compulsion is that it’s not merely neurotic. It has a redemptive purpose. We do it so that one day we might actually see ourselves doing it, and wake up out of the trance of the survivor.

In the meantime, all the rage, all the hatred, all the resentment doesn’t just disappear. It goes underground. It is repressed. But this is not merely a psychic, or mental process. The repression is held in our body. My own set of repressed feelings went into my hips and ass. It took almost six decades for the tightness to start to interfere with my functioning. But it can just as easily show up in any of our internal organs. We get sick. But if we take this to a conventional doctor, s/he won’t even touch the source, only the symptoms. All these repressed feelings need to come out if we are going to regain health.

Standing up and “doing bloody battle” (as Andrew Feldmar puts it) on behalf of oneself is a sign of the recovery of the true self. With the boss, with siblings, with friends, with mother, with father, with anybody who crosses the line.

My own feeling is that most of us gloss over our mistreatment because this is the way we were forced to deal it when we were very young. If I’m accustomed to being put down, ignored, avoided, beaten up, or used in some fashion or another, then it’s quite possible that I’ve actually lost the capacity to feel offended or disrespected. At first we felt it, and then repressed it. Then developed an unconscious defence system to guard against it happening again. Eventually we deny that it ever happened. We are “grateful” for being given life. As a result, I might not even feel it as an adult, because I learned very early that feeling it only exacerbates the problem. If I actually felt it and fought for myself, say by getting angry or protesting in some fashion, I learned that this either made it worse, or had zero impact. And if I feel it as an adult, then what do I do with my offenders?

Over time, my anger, and more importantly my capacity to trust that I’ve actually been offended is lost to me. This ability to trust the feeling that “oh, I am actually being wronged in this moment. It’s happening now. I can trust my body, my anger, my feelings of shame. If you are feeling shame for example, it is because somebody is making you feel shame. Trust it. There really is something happening to me that requires me to step up and consciously defend myself or take action of some sort to preserve my dignity. Because it’s self-dignity that is at stake, make no mistake. When we lose this, then we become living doormats.

Nobody else is going to stand up for us, and nobody else should be standing up for us. This is our battle to fight.

Contact me for an appointment.


Bruce Sanguin Psychotherapist

Written by Bruce Sanguin

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10 thoughts on “Gaining Self-Respect”

  1. And when the hurt/bullying/slander comes from ‘the Church’ (with a capital ‘c’), one can find one’s self in a state of shock, so that standing up for yourself becomes impossible. The panic attacks and diagnosis of PTSD have set in before the realization of what has transpired is recognized – usually with the assistance of a counsellor.

    • Thanks Bonita, Absolutely, and this was all set up very early in our lives, when we were powerless in the face of mistreatment.

  2. And it’s important HOW we “fight this battle”, I think.
    To retaliate or “seek revenge” is to repay evil with evil. There are positive and restorative ways of dealing with abuse, neglect.. I want to feel good about myself at the end of the war. “When you treat me ….I feel…”. And sometimes it’s probably necessary to get the hell out of there!
    Is this what you’re saying?
    The idea that one’s body holds the tensions turning them in to illness makes sense.
    It sounds like you carried a lot of pain Bruce!

    • Thanks Maria, Yeah, I carried pain, but the thing is I didn’t really know it/feel it, and I suspect that might be true of many. You don’t feel it until you are sick or incapacitated in some way. It isn’t a declaration of war I’m talking about. It’s just getting whomever is mistreating me to back off. So many clergy lack the capacity to say “back off”, “stop”, “I won’t take that from you”. Which is why there are so many dysfunctional and sick clergy, imo.

  3. Surely the end result of this “awakening” to the reality of being a doormat is to find a constructive way to stand up for oneself without resorting to becoming the bullier instead of the bullied. Violence is a great stress-reliever, but really does nothing to resolve the issues. What is the middle ground one needs, and how do we work with it ? Identifying the problem is only Step One in the process. How to reach Step Two etc. without alienating everyone else, and finding positive resolution for ourselves, requires more than just analysis. What are the ACTIONS that can be taken? Also, is it always a We vs They situation? Sometimes we need to admit that we are, indeed, part of the problem, not just a martyr to somebody else. There needs to be a sort of “Doormats Anonymous” or something, maybe.

    • Thanks Bonnie, I like your Doormats Anonymous! No, I’m not talking about bullying. Simply being strong. Responding with strength to one who is mistreating you isn’t bullying.

  4. “Non violent communication” skills developed by Marshsll Rosenberg is a good start.
    I love all that both of you have shared here!
    And Bruce I loved your talk on forgiveness at Unity of Vancouver recently. It does not appear on listen/watch bar but I managed to obtain a cd by admin staff there.
    I’m in awe of the way you expressed this long explored and vital topic. It is especially vital for the baby boomer generation who had parents that believed in “ spare the rid soil the child” and now take the stance that they simply were following the midst of those days. Reminds me of Nuremberg trials and claims of “just following orders”.
    And now Trump leading half a nation that follow in a brainwashed trance of unconsciousness.
    Humanity must move toward higher consciousness.
    But a fool who does not know he’s a fool is far worse and futile than a fool who knows (s)he’s a fool.
    A mere start, and it seems the human species has been
    stuck there for far too long.

  5. Typo in my last post:
    Spare the rod spoil the child, was moral of the day.
    Fyi, corporal punishment is still legal in Canada!
    “The Supreme Court of Canada has upheld a century-old law that allows parents, teachers and caregivers to spank children, but ruled the use of corporal punishment be confined to children between the ages of two and 12.”

    • Thanks Marilyn, it’s still legal because those making the laws have not felt the impact and are in denial. As if two year olds benefit from corporal punishment. Sad and infuriating this still goes on.


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