Self-Respect is a product of being granted rights like anybody else. Self-respect is understood here as the ability to perceive oneself as a morally responsible individual whose actions are respected by others. Recognition through the granting of rights by legal systems is thus the second form of recognition that is vital for the development of one’s positive self-relations and identity.

Without being granted rights self-respect can not develop. This is easy to see in examples of domestic violence for example, where one partner (usually the male) dominates the other (usually the female) through force and through wielding fear. Most victims of domestic violence will testify that they struggle to have a sense of self-respect.

Legal recognition is the recognition of the universal rights of human beings. Civil rights such as liberty, political rights such as the right to vote, or social rights that guarantee basic welfare and a fair distribution of social resources signal to the individual that they share the same rights as other members of one’s community. People can legitimately raise and defend these claims because they participate with equal rights in the institutional order as full-fledged members of a community.

Having rights enables us to stand up like men, to look others in the eye, and to feel in some fundamental way the equal of anyone. To think of oneself as the holder of rights is not to be unduly but properly proud, to have minimal self-respect that is necessary to be worthy of the love and esteem of others. Indeed, respect for persons … may simply be respect for their rights, so that there cannot be the one without the other. And what is called ‘human dignity’ may simply be the recognisable capacity to assert claims (Feinberg quoted in Honneth, 1995b, p.120).

Self-respect involves that people are no longer defined by their (inherited) social status but are considered to be free and treated as equals, independent from gender, race, or class. It involves freedom of each individual and a dissolving of laws and standards that favour one-sidedly a particular group of people and keeps another group in a state of inequality.

However, it’s not enough for legal systems to grant rights. Marginalized groups need to have the means and be given the opportunities to be able to attain existing rights. To give an example, in order to attain their right for treatment funding survivors with a history of sexual abuse need to be given the opportunity to access services that provide treatment. This might mean, for example, that information about availability of treatment funding is readily accessible to them and that services are available that provide such treatment.

Thus legal rights reassure people of their equality, autonomy, and generally of their entitlement to be respected as people capable of thinking for themselves, making sensible decisions, and taking responsibility for their actions. They can respect themselves because they are respected by others.

The current financial crisis in the US is an interesting example of one group of people becoming very vocal about the inequality they experience. Great upset is caused because when the ‘little people’ were in financial strive and encountered hardship by the thousands, the government did not become overly involved. Yet when Wall Street struggled and ‘rich finance groups and businesses’ are hit by hardship, the government considers a multi billion dollar bail-out.

Every animal is equal, but some animals are more equal than others. Being excluded from the rights given to big businesses may actually detrimentally affect individual’s self-respect. The harm lies not only in the denial of rights or social exclusion, but also in the implicit message that one is not equal to others and is not being granted equal moral rights.

So how can you build self-respect?
As self-respect has everything to do with being equal to other people, it’s important that you take every opportunity to assert you rights and stand up for what you believe you can legitimately claim. If it is too hard to do so by yourself, get an advocate, a support person, or a group of people who struggle with a similar issue, and rally together. All for one, one for All – (The Three Musketeers).

For more reading go to:
Axel Honneth, 1995, The Struggle for Recognition (MIT Press)

Author's Bio: 

Dr. Gudrun Frerichs is a trainer, psychotherapist, and researcher who has investigated for the last 20 years how people recover from the impact of abuse. For more information go to Are you interested in the field of DID (formerly multiple personalities)? Then go to her website .
Gudrun has dedicated herself to assisting survivors of sexual abuse to grow strong and fulfil their potential and their dreams. For information about the recovery from sexual abuse and about courses for healing, self-awareness, effective communication, and successful relationships go to