Earning the Respect You Deserve

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Everyone knows how to show respect, but what about earning respect, even commanding respect?

Young people hear a lot of talk about respect growing up. I know I did. Sometimes it was called “manners” or “etiquette” or maybe even “social skills.” But whatever label it had, most discussions of respect revolved around giving respect. There was almost no time given to how to earn respect or perhaps even command respect. For kids, this isn’t much of a problem. We want our kids to respect us. We love them, so they shouldn’t need any special skills for us to adore them in return.

But when our kids grow up into young adults and leave home, then how they fare in life will depend greatly on how much respect they can command from those around them. The ability to command respect accelerates social status, facilitates romantic relationships, and enables professional advancement. With so much at stake, it’s a shame that commanding respect isn’t taught as thoroughly as giving respect.

As I thought about earning respect in my own life, I identified a couple of thoughts that worked against earning more respect. I suspect I’m not alone in believing that deliberately seeking respect makes one arrogant, stuck up, cocky, or narcissistic. Given the choice between missing out on respect or becoming a self-centered jerk, letting go of respect seems like the high road. But I’ll argue shortly that this is a false dichotomy. People who appear full of themselves are in fact not respected. The road to earning respect is entirely different and requires neither undue bluster nor tearing others down.

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It’s forgivable to believe if we are worthy of respect we will (eventually, in time) get respect in proportion to our merit. While virtue and value are prerequisites to earning respect, however, they are far from sufficient. For every person that commands respect due to their good deeds and good character, there are many more equally worthy people contributing year after year without any recognition at all.

Because virtue is no guarantee of respect, I’ve found it’s possible to go through much of life and experience very little respect. It’s very possible be good at your job but get no recognition, to be a faithful friend and still be either subtly disrespected or simply ignored by people who profess to “like” you. Even a romantic relationship is no guarantee of respect once the initial infatuation fades.

In order to be capable of commanding respect, first you need to have the experience of being respected in order to know what it feels like. For some of us, this is hard to find in our lives. Great customer service is a close analog of respect that can be instructive. If you go to a restaurant and have a great server, you will walk away with the impression that the server liked you, wanted to honor your preferences and desires, and paid attention to you. Good service is so rare that it can come as a shock when you actually see and feel it. If you want a deeper experience of feeling respected, go to a spa, or better yet, go on a cruise.

On a cruise ship, you, the passenger, have an entire staff at your disposal to make sure your meals, your room and your entertainment are all to your liking. So much attention and pampering can feel bizarre at first, but if you follow this advice, it starts to become part of your expectations. Expecting respect subtly changes how you interact with everyone you meet and subliminally communicates that you are a person deserving respect.

I found respect in an unexpected place: the martial arts. Karate and similar fighting styles come hand in hand with rituals that convey respect and dedication to the art and the instructors. What I didn’t foresee was how intensely great instructors return this respect back to their students. Top-flight martial arts teachers show respect by the energy and intensity they give to their teaching, how they verbally address their students, and the depth of thought and individual attention they give to each student. In addition to feeling respected, the martial arts teach that respect isn’t about dominance. The student bows to the sensei and the sensei bows back. You can be respected by those more advanced than you. If you learn to expect this kind of respect, you’ll get it more often.

In order to be respected, it’s important to be very competent at something. Notice I didn’t say “pretty competent at most things.” If you can be truly great in one area that people care about, they’ll respect you for that one thing. Moreover, they are likely to forgive if not fail to perceive weaknesses in many other areas. As I said before, competence isn’t enough. In addition to being competent, you must recognize this competence in yourself not only intellectually, but emotionally. The feeling of competence, otherwise known as confidence, again subtly changes your presentation and primes you to receive respect.

Given that you’re both competent and emoting confidence, the remaining element is attention. You need to get your competence and confidence noticed by people you care about. This sounds like self promotion, and it is. However there’s no need to fear boasting or inflated egos. If you’re competent in something people care about, then you’re almost certainly providing value to someone, somewhere. Focus in on that. Don’t broadcast what you did as much as who you helped and how you helped them. Make it about giving of yourself and the response will not be envy or derision from others, but respect.

If you want respect from others, then it is essential to stop disrespecting yourself. It may seem odd to think about self-disrespect, but it shows up in subtle ways that undermine our respectability in others’ eyes. Humility is a virtue. Knowing your limits and not over-selling or misrepresenting yourself is all to the good. Self-deprecation, on the other hand, is a vice. To under-sell yourself is a lie. It’s a lie we tolerate or confuse for humility, but self-deprecation is poisonous to earning respect. Stay on guard for subtle put-downs in your conversations. Telling someone “Wow…that was great. I could never do that in a million years” sounds like a compliment, but it’s really an insult to the self. Better to stop with the word “great” and leave the rest out.

We communicate our self-esteem through how we care for ourselves and how we carry ourselves. If we wear clothing that is low-status, inappropriate for the situation, or in poor condition, we signal that we don’t think enough of ourselves to do it right. Similarly, hunching over, compacting our body or looking down are all giveaways that we’re not feeling very confident or competent. Other people are likely to take these non-verbal cues as gospel truth and not show us the respect we would otherwise receive.

It’s harder to respect people who seem anxious, uncertain, or error-prone. While everyone suffers anxiety some of the time, not everyone emotes it at the same level. James Bond, the epitome of cool, received this advice from his handler, Q: “never let them see you bleed.” We all make mistakes all the time. When our mistakes affect others, it’s important to take responsibility and make things right. On the other hand, there’s no need to broadcast our victimless failures or our private insecurities. When you spot a harmless mistake, either fix it quietly or ignore it for the time being. If you’re feeling unsure, acknowledge it to yourself, but avoid calling attention to your internal self-doubt.

Reciprocity is an iron law of social interaction. People will most often treat you as you treat them. If you want respect, then give respect, but always without self-deprecation. If you raise others up without bringing yourself down, you will likely get the same in return. But what if you receive overt disrespect instead of respect? In the past, perhaps you would “let it slide.” This kind of forbearance is one last kind of self-deprecation. If you allow disrespect to go unanswered, then you teach all around you that you accept and expect disrespect rather than respect. The key is to respond to disrespect in a way that conveys strength, not weakness. Rather than an angry, direct confrontation or requesting an apology, consider a confused, quizzical glance, as if to say “Really? That’s how you behave?” You can’t control whether others act disrespectfully, but you can choose your own reaction, and your response sets the tone for all future interactions.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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