The tall, fit military officer wearing a crisp formal uniform with shining insignias atop his shoulders and an array of colorful ribbons on his chest walks into a room when another person calls out “Attention!” Everyone immediately stops what they’re doing and stands erect. How would it feel to experience that kind of behavior from others? Even if they didn’t like you, they’d have to stand and respect your authority.
A number of studies show that people treat people differently based on certain external trappings—skin color, clothing, height, neighborhood, type of car driven, wealth, social acceptance of others (popularity), and other external components like job status and rank. Perhaps that is why so many people, especially in the U.S. culture, seek out public displays of materialism (aka conspicuous consumption). They want power and respect. Gang members take it one step further and arm themselves with excessive weaponry in order to secure social standing and earn respect.
This post, however, is not about any of these material trappings. It’s about the inside—adjusting the ‘core self’ so that respect from others becomes automatic and genuine based on who you are and not what you have or look like.
Another famous word for ‘core self’ that gets some confusion is ego. The Greek word for ego actually means “I” and simply refers to a person’s core self. Freud added the concepts of id and superego to address the continuum extremes on each side of the ego that act like a child (id) or a highly functioning parent (superego). Many people think the ego is a bad thing and refer to dysfunctional behaviors as the ego. Many Spiritual teachers discuss rising above the ego. Perhaps what they are really trying to articulate in psychological terminology is to rise above the detriments brought on from a weak ego and to actually cultivate a healthy ego.
Lack of respect resides in a weak ego. This is because people with weak egos often compensate with major ego defenses (denial, distortion, compensation, projection, rationalization, acting out, etc.). They also tend to confront more ego defensive behaviors from others, so it becomes a vicious feedback loop of defensive behaviors.
Let’s take a look at some common consequences of weak ego-strength:
• Living defensively tends to put people in a fight/flight/freeze mode and the brain cannot learn new things or emotionally reflect in this physiological aroused state
• Difficulty concentrating
• Solutions to problems seem insurmountable, so escape becomes the only solution (either through addiction, dissociation, etc.)
• Thinking becomes all or nothing as it is mired in fear and anxiety
• Fear of others becomes heightened
• Demands for respect and desires of grandiosity increase
• Feelings of worthlessness, futility and hopelessness take over
• Expectations become unrealistic
The reaction to these behaviors is often to smash the ego, yet the ego is already smashed. It’s like a fish flopping on the beach that needs healing and to be gently placed back into the ocean. Thus, any self-flagellation only serves to increase the ego-defenses. Healing happens when the ego (self) can be seen and heard. When feelings can flow. When self-care can occur. When self-acceptance can be achieved. When self-love becomes the norm.
Here’s what a healthy ego looks like:
• Loving and empathetic
• Doesn’t take things personally
• Can see their part and contributions to problems
• Genuine joy with self (radical self-acceptance)
• Open to new ideas and solutions; always learning
• Can fully listen to others while also being able to communicate
• Differentiates needs from wants
• Pursues goals while easily delaying gratification
• Communicates clearly (not passively or aggressively)
• Can confront conflict with patience and understanding of other point of views in order to repair
• Has an inner sense of personal power and autonomy
If your ego could use some healing and repair, start by finding and talking to someone safe where you can be safe to be the vulnerable you. Give birth to your core self and try to recognize when you are telling yourself to be different in order to fit in. Journal. Feel your feelings. Love yourself. If you have a host of troubled memories, don’t stuff them. Write about them. Paint your feelings. Honor your tears instead of trying to hide them (some cultures have little tear jars to collect the tears of grief as a way to heal and honor the loss). Love yourself one day at a time. The more you feel, the more you heal…and the more you become your real self. The healthy you. The one—that paradoxically—will earn more genuine respect from others. (Yet you won’t care then because you won’t be focused on what others think; you’ll just be happy being you. The same thing applies to love. Once you stop looking for it and start truly loving yourself, a healthy and respectful loving relationship will emerge.)