Joan Didion's essay “On Self-Respect” begins with an anecdote. At the age of nineteen, the author failed to earn a place in the Phi Beta Kappa honor society. At the time, it seemed like the end of the world, but over time, Didion realized that her negative reaction to the failure was the result of a “misplaced self-respect.” The incident showed her that her self-worth did not depend upon getting everything she wanted.
Self-deception, Didion continues, is difficult to overcome, but one must do so to find true self-respect. We must come to know ourselves as we really are, not merely as others see us. When we can do that, we will find it much easier to cope with our failures and mistakes, both large and small. We will take a more balanced view of them and learn how to put them behind us and move on.
Self-respect, however, is not some magical charm that makes everything right in life, but it does provide internal peace. Self-respect allows us to accept the consequences of our actions. It makes us tough enough to take responsibility for what we do and what we fail to do.
Previous generations, Didion notes, “knew all about” self-respect. They practiced a discipline that took charge of life, did what needed to be done even in the face of “fears and doubts,” faced difficulties and dangers head on, and sacrificed immediate gratification for something better yet to come.
Self-respect makes us realize that “anything worth having has its price,” and it makes us willing to pay that price. To do so involves discipline and training the mind and body to respond properly in any situation. The author provides herself as an example; to stop her habit of crying (and being dramatic about it), she put her head in a paper bag. She notes,
it is difficult in the extreme to continue fancying oneself Cathy in Wuthering Heights with one's head in a Food Fair bag.
These little disciplines, however, must represent larger disciplines that train us to cope with the more serious events of our lives.
Didion concludes that a strong sense of self-respect leads to other valuable character traits, like the ability to determine when to immerse oneself in a relationship or event and when to “remain indifferent.” Self-respect allows us to step outside of ourselves and gain a certain control over our emotions. In doing so, we become free and actually find ourselves.