A while ago I read the quote, “self-discipline is self-respect.”  This stayed in my mind for two reasons.  The first is that I think that it’s true.  The second is that at first I didn’t like it.

All of the things that I do to protect the asset of my health require, to some extent, what we think of as self-discipline.  Getting up to watch the sunrise means I have to be disciplined about when I go to bed.  Training in the gym everyday means I must be disciplined about scheduling time for that.  Eating foods that promote good health requires discipline in setting aside time to grocery shop and cook.  I do these things because they make me feel good, they allow me to be highly productive and do work that I love and believe is important and they insure my physical and mental health.

Know that when my alarm goes off at six a.m. my first thought is, “fuck you;” most days going to the gym is just one more thing on my to-do list; grocery shopping and cooking and eating salad probably isn’t as much fun as ordering whatever I want while I binge watch Netflix.  That would lead a lot of people to believe that I must be disciplined to do those things.

I’m not really a big believer in discipline.  I think habit and consistency are much more powerful than discipline, but I guess at the end of the day you can call it whatever you want.  It doesn’t matter what it’s called.  It matters if the important actions get done.  But, for me, they get done because I have set up systems and habits that insure that they get done.  For me, relying on discipline is the same as gambling.

Discipline can come and go, but ask any smoker standing outside in -5 degrees about the power of habit.

The original reason that I formed these habits was because I understood the outcome they would create.  I wanted good health, I wanted a body that didn’t ache from sedentary behavior and could be strong on demand, I wanted to feel inspired and awake and hungry for my day.  The reason I set about these habits is because I respect my body, my life and the time I have been given on this earth as sacred gifts.  That was not always the case, but it is now, and so my behaviors have changed to match this self-respect.  And this self-respect has created more of the mindset that begets it.

I’ve already made clear one of the reasons I don’t like the maxim, “self-discipline is self-respect,”   that the image of Herculean effort that the word discipline conjures up is not a real driver of change.  The other reason is that I think the word discipline is hard for most of us to swallow.  Me especially; me, Mr. No-gods-no-masters especially.  When I think of discipline I think of authority and punishment and a bunch of outdated ways to control other people.

I’m willing to be wrong, to give up my opinions, so I went and googled discipline, and it turns out that authority and control are in there, but there’s also this:  “controlled behavior resulting from discipline.”  I have outcome goals and I have reached them and continue to reach them because I focus on the behaviors I know will get me there, so I know that’s true.

What really changed my mind, was this definition:  “a branch of knowledge.”  If discipline is not just about force, control, authority but is also about knowing then can self-discipline also mean self-knowing?

Viewed in this context, that jagged little phrase is born into something new.  Self-discipline (the branch of knowledge that has to do with knowing the self) is self-respect.  I feel a rush of power and recognition in my veins when I consider this.  I know myself, I know who I am and how I am.  I know that I need to wake up early, train my body and feed myself well in order to be at my best.  I set in motion actions that insure that those needs are met.  This is my discipline, my knowledge and the appropriate actions taken because I have taken the time to acquire that knowledge of myself.  The investment of time to learn about myself, and to care for myself, comes from self-respect.  And the more I know, the more I come to respect myself.

“When we love ourselves, we recognize our own dignity as unique and irreplaceable human beings.”  —Shelly Pruitt Johnson

(Check out Shelly’s insightful and thought-provoking writing on love here.)

Lastly, I made a shift in my thinking about discipline because of the quote above.  “Recogniz[ing] our own dignity as unique and irreplaceable human beings” sounds as much like love to me as it does respect.

I thought of how we might behave toward a child we are parenting or caring for.  How we would go about protecting that child:  by yelling at it to not run in the street, admonishing it to not swim less than 30 minutes after eating, slapping its hand away from a hot stove.  We discipline our children because we respect and want to protect their “unique and irreplaceable nature.”  We do our best to keep them from harm and to encourage behaviors that we believe will enhance their lives.

Seen in this light discipline is respect.  And that begs the question, in what ways can we respect ourselves and our lives as if they were beloved children?  How can we protect and guide ourselves?  Through discipline.  As an act of self-knowing, as controlled behavior and as a recognition of our own dignity.

Elias Gross