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respect

February 4, 2012

Lately I’ve been trying to imagine a better way to relate to everyone around me. I’d like to treat everyone with respect, but that’s a mostly theoretical idea. There is that old standby, “treat others as you would like them to treat you”. But that assumes you know how you’d like to be treated, and I’m not sure I do know that.

Say I want, hypothetically, Spouse to respect me more than he does. First I have to figure out in which situations I perceive a lack of respect. What might be some reasons for that? What can I do to influence or modify his behavior in those situations? (Or, can I influence his behavior then?) Will talking to him directly do any good, or will it lead to an argument?

Spouse is occasionally willing to modify his behavior so that I’m more comfortable. But many people I’ve had close relationships with are not. There have been instances where the behavior of other people that I spent a lot of time with was not just upsetting, but constantly triggering, if not re-traumatizing me. So I would explain to them what the problem was, and what I needed them to stop doing, or just do something different. And all of them chose to ignore everything I said, and/or argue with me about how oversensitive I was. That isn’t respect. But what would respect have looked or felt like? I can only guess.

There is someone else that we see occasionally. I’ve rarely been able to converse with this person, because they are not interested in anything I have to say. They talk at me. When I respond, if I stray off script by talking about something from my own life or personal history, this person looks at the ceiling or the walls. Sometimes they turn their entire body away. Sometimes they have started talking at other people while I’m talking. They never respond to anything that I’ve said. When I’m done, they just start talking again. It seems pretty clear to me that their idea is that I exist to be an audience only; that nothing I say is of any interest whatsoever, so they don’t even need to be minimally polite. That was bad enough. But more recently, this person is under a lot of stress. So occasionally they will ambush me when I’m alone, so they can dump on me all of their emotional distress. And then they will allow me to soothe them. I will feel a warm happy glow and wonder if  maybe our relationship is finally going somewhere that I might enjoy. And then the very next time I see them, maybe just an hour later, they are right back to being dismissive and disinterested.

None of that is respect. But since I’ve never seen that person respect anybody, I don’t know if they’re even capable of respect. What should I be expecting of them?

Respect, to me, is a very nebulous concept. I’m much more familiar with a lack of respect, in a variety of flavors. So much so that when someone does respect me, it takes me a while to figure out that’s what it is.

I want to treat everyone as my equal. But to a lot of people I know, someone who is equal to me is at the very bottom of the social hierarchy, and therefore can be safely ignored or mistreated. What I really want is for everyone to be the equal of everyone else. But for that to happen, other people’s attitudes and behaviors would have to change, drastically. In my experience, people change their behavior generally for one of two reasons: (1) they are forced to, by threats of violence or punishment; or (2) they are persuaded, (2a) sometimes by strength of argument, (2b) sometimes by an appeal to empathy. Most people in my family of origin prefer option 1. My father is also susceptible to option 2a. Unfortunately for me, I’m most skillful with option 2b. Which can only be successful if the other people have any empathy, and also care about you.

Since I grew up among people who were not fond of me, and not only thought but regularly said that I should be grateful that they didn’t throw me into the street, I can’t really make an argument like, “we should respect everyone, because it’s the right thing to do! Because everyone matters!” I mean I can, but I don’t expect that anyone is listening, believes me, or cares at all what I have to say.

I’ve experimented with all sorts of behaviors when interacting with the person I talked about earlier. Nothing I’ve done has had any impact on what they do when they are with me. So I just don’t want to be around that person anymore. It’s not good for me. I think respecting myself could mean I limit my interactions with people whose behavior I find toxic.

But that’s reactionary. Surely respect also entails positive, proactive actions. When Gandhi said, “be the change you wish to see in the world”, maybe he was addressing not only how difficult it is for any change to occur, but also how lasting change comes from within.

I can’t demand respect, because I have no experience with having a right to demand anything. But I don’t think demands belong in the kind of relationships I want to have. To me, a demand means that the person making it matters more than the person receiving it. A demand is not conducive to negotiating or working something out that everybody’s happy with. A demand seems to be all about “I should get what I want, because I deserve that! Your needs/wants/preferences are irrelevant.”

Each interaction I have cannot meet the needs/wants/preferences of everyone involved, but what I can (try to) do is respect the dignity and worth of everyone I interact with. I can avoid demeaning anyone.

Maybe this is something else I need to learn as I go, by feel, like an earthworm.

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