Self-confidence and self-respect are indispensable qualities in human life. Without them life seems dull, oppressive, or threatening; and we lack the initiative and enthusiasm to fulfill our potential. Although different, these two qualities are inextricably linked.
To understand self-respect we can first consider the question of why we respect others. Respect is a feeling of admiration for someone whose qualities, attitudes, and behaviors exemplify a given set of values. Values are centrally-held beliefs about oneself, the world, and the principles that govern life. Every individual is constituted of a range of values, existing in several domains: material, physical/sensual, emotional, intellectual/cognitive, moral, spiritual/ religious/ transcendent.
Our values inform us of "worthy objectives upon which to concentrate"1 in life, as well as how lasting satisfaction can be attained. They therefore guide attitudes, choices, and actions in life. Like any belief, the values we hold may be partially or wholly inaccurate, leading us to adopt attitudes and pursue choices that are counterproductive to desired outcomes. Thus we can rank values according to the degree to which they accurately reflect the reality of life. For example, one may believe that the most direct way to life-satisfaction is to make more money now and in the future; another may believe that money has a limited and diminishing effect on life-satisfaction. Each person's value for money determines their attitudes and choices with regard to study, work, career, and money itself. By investigating and concluding which of these values more accurately reflects the truth, we can determine their relative ranking. Those that are more reflective of the reality are considered higher values.
When it comes to those whom we respect, the values that we see exemplified must necessarily be one that we share. For example, if we meet a person who deeply respects the life and person of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we can immediately infer (in general) her attitudes towards race, racism, racial equality, etc. Whereas, a person holding antithetical values, who considers racism a reasonable attitude and segregation sound policy, could not respect Dr. King in the same way: he would respect those standing up for racist and segregationist attitudes. Thus, we respect those people whom we see as embodying our own values.
Self-respect can be seen as functioning in the same way. Respect for oneself arises from living in accordance with one's own higher values: the higher the values we live up to, the greater the self-respect. To put it another way, we lose self-respect when we fail to live up to our own higher values, thereby experiencing regret, guilt, shame. This may leave life seeming uninspired and mundane; we may experience a pervading anxiety over discovery and reprisal; we experience disappointment in ourselves, which can devolve into toxic shame or self-hatred. These emotions become a wall erected between ourselves and others. Even family and friends are psychologically pushed away, thus creating isolation and loneliness.
How to Lose Self-respect
Guilt or regret arises in the personality when we perform an action that does not conform to our own moral code, to our sense of right/wrong. As contemporary Indian philosopher A. Parthasarathy states:
When you act in the world against your own conscience your mind becomes disturbed. The action rebounds and hurts you. You feel sorry for having acted thus. In reaction to your own action you suffer regret and remorse. An action creating such a response is termed a sin. Sin therefore is not in the action but in the reaction.2 (p.206)
Correctly understanding this requires first an understanding of the anatomy of an action. Action is executed by the body, but the body cannot act by itself. Action is propelled by the desires of the mind, the reasoning of the intellect, or a combination of the two. This motivator of action is intention. The nature of the mind is indiscriminate: it has no capacity for self-understanding or self-governance; its desires are not based in logic, and bear no necessary correlation to our continued well-being or sense of right/wrong. The intellect's nature is discriminate: it functions on reason and logic, and questions everything.
Sin refers to the mental disturbance experienced after performing a certain type of action, and not to the action itself. No action is sinful per se: it is the intention behind the action that determines sin. Intention is the cause, mental disturbance (i.e. sin) the effect. Conscience refers to the moral compass that every human being possesses. It recognizes our highest, most selfless value and calls on us to follow It. Even the most heinous criminal possesses a conscience, directing him towards the morally correct action. The question then is, why would one act against one's own conscience, thereby inviting guilt or remorse, and thus diminishing self-respect?
When the mind's desires are not aligned with the conscience, they guide us towards experiences that we would otherwise not consider worthy objectives. Such desires may be termed 'lower' desires. Those that are in alignment with our conscience may be termed 'higher.' Thus the intellect must be developed and applied to question the nature of the desires, and thereby guide the mind effectively. However, when the intellect is undeveloped and unapplied to life, the lower desires remain unquestioned, unexamined. In the absence of scrutiny, we do not recognize the lower desires for what the are, only the immediate gratification that they can deliver. They exert their influence on our choices, we act according to their dictates, violate the conscience, and suffer guilt and loss of self-respect.
We lose self-respect when we act against our own conscience. We act thus when we live an unexamined life: when the intellect fails to question the desires and intentions that propel us into action. Therefore, intellectual development and application is essential for harmonious living.
How to Gain Self-respect
The function of intellect is to discriminate. When it comes to exercising our choice of action, the role of the intellect is to determine whether the action itself is in line with our higher values. We need to question two aspects of action here: the values within that are demanding expression as action; and whether these values are worthwhile holding on to (for more on this, see here and here). Thus we can ask ourselves before engaging in an activity,
What am I considering doing? Why, what am I getting out of it?
For whom am I acting? Is the action selfish/unselfish/selfless? What are the consequences to this action, and for whom? What is my obligation in this situation?
What aspect of my personality am I expressing? Is the attitude healthy/unhealthy? Is this the person I want to be? Who do I want to be?
What value or belief am I adhering to? Is this underlying belief true/false? On what basis do I say it is true/false?
This investigation is carried out by the intellect, and therefore the most important activity in life is the development of one's intellect. We can then apply our critical thinking skills to the choices we make moment-to-moment, and to the general course that we chart through life.
We can begin to understand self-confidence by investigating its opposite. To lack self-confidence is to be doubtful or uncertain of one's ability to attain or live up to certain goals, and to consequently experience a pervading anxiety that can range in degree from mild to crippling. This anxiety may be compounded with suppression as we naturally continue to entertain desires, yet avoid activities and environments that demand effort for their attainment. Where we do act, the mental agitation inhibits our ability to think and concentrate, making assessments of people and situations inaccurate, plans and strategies flawed, actions poorly-executed. Thus the desired outcome is rarely achieved, and our lack of self-confidence becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Having goals per se cannot cause disruption to our mental peace. Life cannot be lived effectively without a range of goals to achieve. However, goals become a burden to self-confidence when we relate to them wrongly, i.e. when we develop a personal attachment to achieving them, become dependent upon the outcome. For example, consider a casual tennis player, enjoying the game as an occasional way to exercise, relax and share the company of friends. While she intends to maximize each stroke towards winning, there is no pressure, anxiety or feeling of vulnerability at the prospect of failing. Now consider a professional tennis player with a slim lead in the final set of an international tournament. His loved ones and fans line the court; cameras are poised to beam his every move to millions of viewers; his reputation and millions of dollars in prize money and endorsements are on the line. He too wishes to maximize each stroke towards the win, yet may feel a weight of expectation that is too great to bear, experiencing an unsettling lack of confidence in his ability. The swirl of mental agitation makes the whole experience unpleasant, and contributes to the possibility of choking under the pressure.
Note that in both cases the uncertainty over the outcome remains: indeed it can never be removed. The difference lies in the attitude each one has towards the outcome. The amateur knows that the outcome of play is of no serious consequence; the pro believes that there is no matter of greater importance. The amateur is emotionally free from the result; the pro is attached to and dependent upon the result. It is attachment to results that cripples our self-confidence. Attachment is a purely internal phenomenon, and thus each of us is responsible for the attachments we hold. Although we may be striving to satisfy external expectations (e.g. those of parents or family, schools, religions, political affiliations, peer groups, advertising & media, etc), ultimately we are responsible for our attitude in the activity.
Genuine self-confidence is untouched by circumstances, it does not change with time. Consider for a moment: if our pro ranks number 1, and his confidence in life relies on his skill and prowess on the court, what happens when an injury ends his career? What happens when time catches up, and he is no longer the most agile, powerful, and accurate? As the skill diminishes, so does his confidence. Genuine confidence cannot be assailed by life's inevitable changes. Thus it is not gained by embodying or possessing particular qualities or attributes, nor by achieving particular results, but by eliminating the dependency upon doing so. Thus we directly eliminate the cause of anxiety. The process of eliminating attachment in life is self-development, the growth of the personality into greater maturity and stability (summarized in more detail here).
How to Gain Self-confidence
The primary emphasis for our effort to build self-confidence should be in developing the intellect to gain deeper insight into the principles that govern life and living. To return to the example: the amateur's emotional freedom and absence of anxiety arises from her knowledge: that winning or losing is not ultimately important in life; it's just a game; there are much more important things in life. It is the insight into the true value of sporting prowess ('nice to have, but not important') that liberates her from the attachment to it. Imagine combining the professional's skill and years of training with the amateur's relaxed attitude and emotional serenity.
Self-confidence then is not the certain knowledge of what we can achieve. It is the certain knowledge of what really matters in life; and that we will be unmoved by the outcome. Win or lose, we retain this insight. Thus, when we identify with higher values we drop our attachment to outcomes. We then engage in the range of life's activities and duties with freedom and alacrity. When self-confidence is gained in this way, we naturally accept our own nature, living in harmony with our tendencies and inclinations, strengths and weaknesses. We continue to push our boundaries, growing and improving in all aspects of life, but without feeling incomplete and awkward at any stage. As A. Parthasarathy states,
... learn to accept yourself as you are. Everyone has a distinct place and purpose in this world. None is big or small. Important or unimportant. Understand that. Live by it. You will then be free from the menace of complexes.3 (p.110)
The common factor in self-respect and self-confidence is insight into the higher values of life. Therefore intellectual development through enquiry into the truths that govern life and living is an essential part of human development. It must not be neglected, and cannot be delegated – it is each one's own responsibility. It is not the mere acquisition of information, but the strengthening of an internal 'muscle.'
The learner is not allowed to sit passively while the instructor reviews the main thrust of the learning experience for him. … the learner is his own teacher.4 (p.90)
This process is liberal education, and was viewed by John Henry (Cardinal) Newman as the role of education:
Liberal education, viewed in itself, is simply the cultivation of the intellect, as such, and its object is nothing more or less than intellectual excellence.5 (p.92)
2.^ Parthasarathy, A. (1992). Srimad Bhagavad Gita. Vol. I. A. Parthasarathy. Mumbai
3.^ Parthasarathy, A. (2008). The Fall of the Human Intellect. 3ed. A. Parthasarathy. Mumbai
4.^ Bibens, R.F. (1980). “Using Inquiry Effectively.” Theory into Practice. 19(2). 87-92
5.^ Newman, J.H. (1986). The Idea of a University. University of Notre Dame Press. IN, USA