The Secret of Self-Respect: We Teach Other People How to Treat Us

Well-known TV icon Dr. Phil is revered by many, and repelled by others. Personally, I find that his down-home country “charm” is often marred by a disturbing arrogance that he, at times, spews onto his guests. Although I agree that sometimes only speaking our truth will do, I also believe that doing this compassionately will go a lot farther with most people than a display of abusive entitlement—especially for the sake of TV ratings.

However, that being said, sometimes Dr. Phil comes up with wonderful sayings and slogans, such as his classic “How’s THAT been workin’ for ya?” It’s a great question, designed to keep us on track in our lives—because if the way we’ve been doing something isn’t working, it could very well be time to try another way.

The other Dr. Phil-ism I like and use a lot—in both my personal and professional lives—is this one: We teach other people how to treat us. I absolutely believe this to be true, although there can be a variety of reasons for the ways we choose to do that. I like this saying because, when we can take responsibility for our part in any abuse we’re receiving from others, it takes us out of a ‘victim’ stance and allows us to see what we actually are able to change—ourselves.



I talk about self-respect a lot with my clients. When they ask me what the difference is between self-respect and self-esteem, I am sometimes at a loss as to how to explain that. But I definitely know there is an important difference, and in my experience I believe most people intuitively know that as well.

The best way I know to distinguish between them is as follows:

Self-esteem is that feeling of knowing we can conduct ourselves well out there in the world. For example, we may know that we are good at our job, or that our families are thriving due to our leadership. We may have a good grasp on how to budget our time and/or money, and our relationships with friends and family may be mostly positive and nurturing. Outwardly, we are successful in at least some of the ways our society defines success, and that contributes to our self-esteem.

But I believe that it’s very possible to experience self-esteem while having very little self-respect. To me, self-respect is that deeper, inner feeling we have about ourselves. In the same way that self-esteem is earned, by proving to ourselves that we can achieve positive results in our various life tasks, self-respect is also earned—it’s an ‘inside job’ that nobody can do for us. Self-respect is not something we can buy in the 7-11, nor can another person bestow it upon us. In fact, when other people respect us but we don’t respect ourselves, it’s very difficult to let that positive attention in. It’s not until we truly love and respect ourselves, that we can begin to believe that we are worthy of another person’s love and respect.

The only way to have self-respect is to earn it—by continuing to do the next right thing. Self-respect is perhaps the most important thing we either have or don’t have, because it forms the keystone of how we treat ourselves and how we allow others to treat us. I believe that every decision we make in life—without exception—stems from our level of self-respect, and nothing is more important than that.



The good news is that it’s really not that difficult to develop our self-respect. I believe that when we’re not treating ourselves well, on some level deep inside we know that. Because we can’t heal anything about ourselves that we’re not aware of, we need to be on the look-out for those times when we don’t feel good about ourselves.

Here is an easy gauge to see how well you’re faring in terms of your self-respect. Ask yourself this question, and be willing to look honestly at your answers:

“What do I need to do, and what do I need to NOT do, to be able to really look honestly at myself and be okay with who I see?”

Each time you ask yourself that question, listen for your true answer and actually base your behavior on what you have heard. If you do this regularly, you will build up your self-respect—as well as your self-trust—because this will become the foundation for all of your interactions, whether you are aware of that at the time or not.

This may be a difficult change for you to make, especially if you are used to pleasing others instead of yourself. Your personal challenge may lie in learning how to put yourself first without feeling guilty or “selfish.” But if you continue to put others first while feeling resentful or badly about yourself for doing that, your self-respect will inevitably suffer.


So here is the choice-point—what is more important to you: having other people like you or liking yourself?

When you find yourself involved in situations where you experience some negative feelings about yourself such as guilt, shame, or self-inflicted anger, here are some questions you might ask yourself in order to become more aware of your self-respect level:

  • What behavior of my own may have contributed to my feeling this way about myself?
  • What can I do differently next time, so that I can respect myself more in a similar situation?
  • Is there anyone I need to talk with so that I can resolve or feel better about what happened?
  • Can I be more gentle with myself and understand that I’m going to make mistakes—and hopefully learn from them?



When we fully understand that we teach other people how to treat us—either by how we treat them or how they see us treating ourselves—we can learn to change our own behaviors and obtain different, healthier results.

Because the only things we can change already reside within us—such as our choices, our decisions, our attitudes toward ourselves and life in general—we can come out of our feelings of ‘victim’ by acknowledging that we do actually have control over many aspects of our lives.

So the next time you say yes to someone when you really want to say no, be aware that you may be teaching that person that it’s ok to take you for granted and treat you poorly. The next time you are spoken to in a disrespectful manner and you choose to accept that by staying silent rather than standing up for yourself and speaking your truth, see if you can remind yourself that you can indeed make another choice and teach that person to treat you differently.

Remember—you alone are in control of yourself and of your life choices. And to paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt’s wonderful comment, no one can make you feel badly about yourself without your permission.


  1. Tony Sullivan says

    Great advice… My wife and I live overseas and I’m sure we did not get this saying from Dr. Phil but have come to the same conclusions namely that we treat others how to treat us. I like your clarification that we teach others how to treat us by the way we treat ourselves or the sort of ill treatment we accept without objection or communication that some boundary has been crossed.

  2. Candace Plattor says

    Hi Tony, thanks so much for your comment – I think once we understand this concept and choose to change what we accept without objection (as you so aptly say), our self-respect rises and our lives become infinitely easier.

  3. says


    Wonderful distinctions about self-esteem and self-respect. Amazing how just learning to make distinctions like you offer can lead to so many other healing introspections. And your powerfully disarming questions to ask after what we all experience from time-to-time: Keepers.

    Finally, I love and agree with your assessments about Dr. Phil. It seems as if he truly is just another one of us–on da Bus. Although I have never actually seen the old boy do his thing, his catchy memes seem to get people thinking and feeling.

    Great post to the gentler, kinder…Dr. Candace.

    • Candace says

      Hi Herby – wow, I like it – “Dr. Candace”, lol!

      Thanks so much for your comments – for your assessments of my assessments!

  4. says

    Great advice, Candice, and a wonderful explanation of the distinction between self-esteem and self-respect. When I finally started down the road of my own recovery from secondhand drinking, one of the toughest things I worked on in therapy what learning to put myself first without feeling guilty or “selfish.” As you know – when one is in the family role with a loved one who misuses substances, they eventually loose all sense of “self” and seek verification through approval or validation, which of course requires pleases others and putting their needs first. What you share is is so critical to unraveling all that, for as you write, “When we fully understand that we teach other people how to treat us—either by how we treat them or how they see us treating ourselves—we can learn to change our own behaviors and obtain different, healthier results.” Thanks for a wonderful post.

  5. Candace says

    Hi Lisa, that is such high praise coming from a blogger extraordinaire like you!

    Yes, I am a recovering people-pleaser too, and I had to learn the hard way that the person I had to like most in this world was myself – not in a selfish way, but in a self-caring way. I’m actually grateful for all the hard knocks I had to experience in order to finally understand this – and to be able to help others understand it for themselves.

    Thanks for sharing your experience with us – I’m a firm believer that those of us who are in recovery from any addictive behaviour, including codependency, need to speak out about how we’ve learned to overcome them and become healthier.

  6. says

    Hi Candace, thanks for your great article. I have never heard someone lay out the difference between self-esteem and self-respect before. I like it, and it makes a lot of sense. I truly believe, as you state, that we teach others how to treat us. And very importantly, we have control over that if we chose to use it. Great tips you provide to work toward doing just that! Thanks again…

  7. says

    Great information here, Candace. “We teach other people how to treat us” should be one of those messages that is put where we can see it each day. We do need to love ourselves first and that is reflected in our relationships with others. Thanks for the great reminder!

    • Candace says

      Thanks Cathy – I totally agree. I’m enjoying getting to know each other through our articles and seeing how very much alike we think and feel!

  8. says

    This is exactly the direction I lead my sponsees; you have set this vital skill and truth out in a wonderful manner. It is such a difficult path for many: the “self-respect is that deeper, inner feeling we have about ourselves” starts the journey and the manifestation of this respect is how you take the action and treat yourself. This is the demonstration to others. The final piece is developing boundaries so that you can hold others to those same standards in a loving yet firm way. Thank you for this post!

    • Candace says

      Hi Kyczy, I’m so glad to know there is a sponsor using these tools with sponsees, that’s terrific! It’s so important to learn about boundaries and how/why to set them. Thanks for your comments!

  9. Mary Kathleen says

    Hi, Candace, happened to find your advice most timely and most helpful. Will definitely refer to your words of wisdom frequently, now that the holidays are upon us. This has been a most trying year for me and my immediate family, which has put us into a “survival” mode of sorts. My children have been most supportive. Just recently, their gentle and loving request that I try to respect their boundaries, made me realize that I must set my own boundaries, as well…a foreign concept for a die-hard “people-pleaser”. Only through painful soul searching, silent prayer, and buckets of tears, I know the value of my children’s insight! I respect and honor their courage to express their truth, which enabled me to find mine! The fruit of this effort to take care of myself is abundant! It is worth all the awkward “baby steps”, and it is an actual reprogramming of the “false humility” I learned in childhood. So I thoroughly enjoyed your caring words:-) Thanks a bunch!

  10. Frances Edwards says

    Eye opening article! I googled “why don’t people respect me?” I chose your link from the list and the question posed “what do I need to do and what do I need not to do”…really unlocked something inside of me. I answered the question and felt relieved like I was instantly empowered to make that change. Grateful

    • Candace Plattor says

      Hi Frances, I’m so glad my article has helped you!

      I’ve lived without self-respect and I now live with it on a daily basis. There is no comparison between those two ways of living. This is now non-negotatiable for me — and I hope it will become that way for you too!

  11. maryam says

    Hi Candace,

    This article makes me a lot of lesson in life . I keep quite for everything but when someone disrespect you emotionally and physically is not the best solution if we keep quite and to fight for ourself . I learn it today when i told to them to give me a respect . !


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