03/10/2014 05:15 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Meaning of Self-Respect

"To have that sense of one's intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything." -Joan Didion

Something inside of me is about to shift. I can feel it. The energy of this shift has already taken hold. Early contractions in what is likely to be an arduous and drawn-out labor. But before I get ahead of myself, I will begin with a photograph.

I am not in the habit of liking photographs of myself. But every now and then, a picture of me emerges that I do take a strong liking to. There is one specific photograph that comes to mind as I write this. It was taken when I was much younger, about a year after my high school graduation. I remember having it pinned to a bulletin board, among a dozen or so other photos and odd mementos, in the bedroom of my first apartment.

But what I am thinking about today is not the actual photograph itself. I am thinking about how it ended up in the hands of someone else. Or, more specifically, how I allowed it to end up in the hands of someone else, this picture of me that meant something. Because one day a sweet boy with a cleft chin and a face speckled with acne asked me if he could have it, and I responded without the least hesitation, "Go ahead, take it."

As I have said, the photograph is not what is important here. Nor is the boy with the acne, the cleft chin and the sweet demeanor. The boy is long gone and the girl in the photograph still exists clear enough in my head. Her cherry-stained lips, her hair braided in two halves, her cloth Mary Janes with the embroidered dragon at the toe, all these elements are fully intact and, for the moment anyway, reconciled. For now, it's the other thing, those four words, Go ahead, take it, that I can't put away.

Here is something odd. I really, truly, don't think of myself as a generous person. Kind, yes. Big-hearted, that too. Generous, however, is not a word I would use to describe myself, and it never has been. I can be terribly stingy, a total miser -- about sharing food, my portion of the bed, the two pillows I must sleep with every night or else. I am not generous with the dust particles of life, all the day in and day out details that rest there on the surface and can be easily swept away by the brush of a hand. These I grip until my fingers are white. But it is also true -- and here is what's odd -- that over the years, I haven't had the slightest issue with giving away not the dust, but the framework, the planks that, hammered together, allow everything else to stand upright. "What was that? You want my self-worth? My peace of mind? Go ahead, take it!"

It isn't anger or remorse that I feel when I think about how much I've given away. It's something more like distant sadness. My heart goes out to my younger self, and I wonder on occasion what my life would look like today if she'd had the wherewithal to make different choices. If she hadn't felt it necessary to carve herself up like a cake and hand out the pieces with a smile on her face. One for you, and for you, and don't forget that tormented soul there in the corner, an extra-large piece for him. If she'd had the audacity to stand her ground and say, "No, you can't have it. It's mine."

To walk around, even on those days when you feel incapable of holding your head up high -- indeed, even more so on these days -- with the awareness of a self that is worth protecting and going to battle for, this is self-respect. And this might very well be the great work of my life.

So here I find myself where I first began, on the verge of something new, some new behavior. Small signs they are, but visible nonetheless. This is what I've noticed:

I am more likely to consider my own feelings in, for instance, an argument, as opposed to pushing them into a corner like some neglected house plant and rushing off to rescue of the other person's feelings. I can't, off the top of my head, think of anything that stirs the pool of vulnerability more violently than having another person upset with me, especially when that other person happens to be someone I care for deeply. And in the past, I have gone to great lengths to avoid this upset. While all along, of course, I've been shooting myself in the foot. One can never really care for another at the expense of denying her own feelings. This tactic may work for a while, but ultimately, the denied self becomes a breeding ground for resentment and the dagger in any relationship.

I am also less inclined to be swept into the lure of the bright and shiny -- fame, recognition, rungs on the ladder, all measures of success in the worldly sense of the word. Putting too much stock in these things is another indication that self-respect is lacking. Because though they are potentially wonderful, they are also weightless, a beautiful, iridescent bubble floating purple and gold on the wind. They are fleeting, quick to pop. They appeal to me still, for their hooks are embedded deep in my flesh, but I am increasingly skeptical of them. Now more than ever, when their sultry voices call out to me, I find myself backing away and shaking a stern finger.

What interests me more these days is that which resides at the very heart of self-respect: quiet fulfillment. Making a nice dinner for my family. Creating something beautiful out of words. Helping my daughter work through a conflict with her friend. Petals on an award-winning rose these actions are not. They are, rather, seeds strewn in a plot of the richest earth. They have, as Joan Didion writes, "nothing to do with the face of things, but [concern] instead a separate peace, a private reconciliation." Anyway, this, I suppose, is the direction I am headed.

This post originally appeared on Jessica's blog, Nourished Mom