Respect is one of those vital abilities we can start learning in our childhood. It’s obviously not binary (“yes I’ve learned it” or “no I haven’t”). It’s on a continuum and we can always keep improving.

Some groundwork:

There’s a term called complementarity in systems theory. When people say “opposites attract,” they’re talking about complementarity. If one partner loves the pizza portion and the other partner loves the crusts, that’s complementarity.  It’s like puzzle pieces: if the one piece is caved in, it will fit perfectly with a piece that sticks out.  Symmetry is where the puzzle pieces go together because they have the exact same straight lines.  In symmetry, both partners simply love pizza, period.

Complementarity is where there’s a perfect opposite-ness.  Symmetry is where there’s a perfect same-ness.

They are the reasons we fit together as we move through the world.  They create a certain balance in a relationship (not necessarily a healthy or sustainable balance, but a balance nonetheless).

Back to respect.

Respect is one of the lines around our personalities that determine the shape of our puzzle piece and what kind of people we fit best with.

Since it’s an ability (like everything else) it’s not a static line.  It’s a skill.  The line can be moved.  In addition, it potentially aims in both directions:  an “inward” respect (self-respect) and an “outward” respect (towards other people, laws of nature, etc).

A quick and rough template to make the respect-skill visible:

Regarding adults: it can be summed up by being ok with difference – not being offended if someone has a different view – not trying to conquer the other person’s view to make it more like your own – not feeling an automatic need to change/hide your own view if it meets opposition.

Regarding parenting: it’s not trying to control your child. You still want to shape your child, yes, but you shape them best by controlling what’s in *your* control. You don’t try to over-power them. You leave them a sense of choice with a clear description of things *you* will do (or not do) depending on what choices they make. This teaches them respect. It teaches them worth: the worth of others, relationships, decisions, and self-worth. It teaches them creativity and responsibility: how their choices create results. It teaches them to look for feedback loops, many of which come from nature. It makes them thoughtful and full of care. If you use your power to over-power your child, you create a funky shaped puzzle piece; a shape that has a hard time learning the skill of respect.

Please notice how, in both examples – the adulthood one and the parenting one, it’s about the use of power.  Respect, power, and violence are a part of the same package.

Done with groundwork.  The main point I’d like to illustrate:

If we didn’t learn a large dose of respect in childhood, we have some work to do in order to re-balance. We’re probably either too “respectful” of other people (letting people harm us) or we’re too “respectful” of ourselves (doing harm to others).

They’re both in quotes because it’s not a balanced, healthy picture.

There’s harm!

In ultimate respectfulness, when our respect-ability is pulsing vitally in both directions, we are careful (1) not to harm others and (2) not to be harmed.  If our puzzle-piece-shape is one of the two versions in quotes (even though it kind of looks like “respect”) there’s too much harm happening.  Those are shapes that leave us lonely, confused, and/or hurt because we can’t nestle up comfortably in the puzzle.  One of our primary needs isn’t met: a sense of belonging.

The point of these words is to show how deceptive those two versions are.  They look like respect… but they aren’t whole.  They aren’t balanced. And we can really mess ourselves up by leaving the respect-skill underdeveloped (leaning heavily in one direction) because it’s a skill that goes right down into one of our primary needs.



About Kip Watkins, MSEd, NCC, LPC

Kip is a Nationally Certified Counselor and Licensed Professional Counselor in Midtown, Harrisburg. He earned his Bachelor's Degree from Saint Vincent College and his Master's Degree from Duquesne University. Passionate about existential and systemic modes of therapy, he completed the post-graduate program at the Gestalt Institute of Pittsburgh. He deeply enjoys his work with his clients and he also loves helping other clinicians have more meaning and joy in their work.