by Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed.

Author, Attorney, Podcaster, Media Commentator, Motivational Speaker, and Creator of the World's Most Successful Breakup Program. 

  • Getting Past Your Breakup: How To Turn A Devastating Loss Into The Best Thing That Ever Happened To You (Hachette Book Group 2009)
  • Getting Back Out There: Secrets to Successful Dating and Finding Real Love After the Big Breakup (Hachette Book Group 2015)
  • Getting Past Your Past Workbook: The Definitive Workbook to Emotional Healing, Health and Happiness (La Bella Vita Publishing 2012)
  • GPYP Power! Affirmations (La Bella Vita Publishing 2019) 

Requested repost. I go into more detail about all of this in the workbook and in the Power! Affirmations booklet. 

Becoming a Person of Dignity

Once we believe in ourselves we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight or any experience that reveals the human spirit. ~ e.e. cummings

I’ve done a lot of strange things in my life due to my screwy upbringing, low self-esteem, relationship dependency/addiction, chaos in my life, confusion and reacting etc.

One of the most helpful things that anyone ever said to me was: “You are a woman of grace and dignity. Act like it.”


I didn’t know that. No one had ever said that to me before. My family liked to say things like I was clumsy, dopey, crazy, strange etc. No one ever used words like grace and dignity to describe me.

My foster/adoptive family never had a nice word to say about me. They said things like I was an accident waiting to happen, I was smart but I had no common sense, I thought I was “special” because I wanted to be educated. Not only were they quick to point out my flaws but they even took compliments and twisted them so that I was painfully aware of what was still wrong with me.

I felt tremendous rejection and abandonment by my birth mother and my inner mantra had been, for years, if your own mother does not want you, how bad is that? The answer: really really bad. A lot of my friends had screwy parents but not one had one that had just walked away. And it wasn’t that my mother JUST gave me up for adoption like other adoptees I knew…most of them had parents who were young and didn’t keep the baby and gave them up to a better life….me? my mother forgot about me, up in foster care the Bronx…like hmmm, where did I leave that child? Forgot about me and making a decision about me for 7 years. That’s all…just 7 years…

Additionally I was raised in the Bronx and you have to be scrappy and street tough especially if you’re small, like me.  I kept those bigger than me guessing. If I was that small and that loud and in their face, maybe I knew martial arts or had a weapon. They backed off (even when I knew they could kill me if they didn’t).  So, I carried myself like I could and would kill you…long past a Bronx adolescence.  It’s worked for me and kept me from being assaulted by strangers. It didn’t work on family members and first husbands. 

When I was 30, I threatened to kick a woman’s ass when her son was threatening my son. I said, “If he beats up my son, I beat up you.”

I also slammed one of the neighborhood bullies (16 and twice my size) against the fence when he had been holding down my 10 year old son for his brother (age 12) to hit.  My kids refer to that day as “the day mom went mental.” I refer to it as “you gotta do what you gotta do….”

When I was 31 I recounted these 2 incidents to a guy I was dating (who had grown up Leave to Beaver style) and he said I was nothing but a “guttersnipe.”  His voice was dripping with disdain. Apparently they don’t beat up people where he grew up. Well, there went any chance of feeling like I deserved any grace and dignity. The sting of “guttersnipe” was massive.

It took a long, long time to even begin to be comfortable with positive self-talk. Every time I would affirm something, the inner “buts” from my family would chime in. I would say to myself, “I matter.” and then I would hear “but not to the people who are supposed to love you.” or “I am smart.” and I would hear “but you have no common sense.” So I had to find new things that could not be invalidated by the abandoned foster child that lived in my head.

When my first husband cheated on me, I was convinced it was because there was something wrong with me. When he abused me I was sure it was because I had a big mouth. I remember my adoptive siblings saying that my adoptive mother wouldn’t go after me if I just learned to SHUT UP. So it was my fault, everything was my fault.

So when someone told me that I had GRACE and DIGNITY, I said “Wait. what?”

I am a woman of grace and dignity” was hard for me to say it but I practiced and eventually it became an affirmation of mine. Over the years whenever I would find myself slipping back into dysfunctional or sloppy behavior I would remind myself that I was a woman of grace and dignity.

But I was not primed to be a woman of grace and dignity. The chaos in my life reflected the chaos inside. The things that people said about me had become the things I said about myself and it needed to stop. I needed to slowly and clearly say positive things about myself.

I was angry a lot during my divorce. I wanted revenge and I wanted them to suffer. Luckily I didn’t carry out my revenge fantasies because I’d probably still be in jail, but I decided to work through it and try to tame it. It’s hard to be dignified when you’re seething. I talked about being angry, I wrote about it, I wrote “I HATE YOU” in huge letters in my journals. I scribbled the words and screamed out loud until I crumpled in a heap of tears. I had to work through the anger in order to be calm enough to life life with dignity.

Living life with dignity takes some discipline and some thought. It comes from doing A LOT of observation and choosing the right thing instead of the thing that might scratch the itch or be really fun in the moment.

I had to learn, again by observation, to sit back and watch what I did and when I did it. And to OWN that. To not be in denial about some of my own less-than-dignified behavior. I had to learn to stop doing things that did not make me feel good about myself.

Whenever I tried to break out of the scapegoat/no good mold that others had cast me in, the outsiders would say “Get back where you belong.” in a thousand different ways.

Whenever we try to change what we project to the world, there are those, who do not have our best interests at heart (no matter what they say), who want us to CHANGE BACK. To be the scapegoat, the loser, the f-up, the screwball, the ne’er do well that they know and tolerate. Whenever we try to be something different their words and/or behaviors try to make us change back.

We also have these “get back where you belong” voice in our own heads. For me, being a woman of grace and dignity was uncomfortable and strange. But I would “act as if” and really do well about 90 percent of the time. Then I would just have some kind of mental or physical breakdown and act out and act out against all that being a woman of grace and dignity would entail.

Back to the drawing board. In recovery there are many trips back to the drawing board. That is WHY you can’t slack off – especially on journaling and affirmations and gratitude lists. If you do, you will spend ALL your time making needless trips to the drawing board. There are enough trips when you’re doing it the way it’s supposed to be done. No need to make it harder. 

I would look at the self-destructive and self-sabotaging behavior and try to get to the root of it. I had trouble getting this rebellious part of me in line. But part of my trouble was that I kept rejecting those parts of me that wanted to act out and often DID act out. The more I rejected them, the louder they became.

Luckily I kept trying and kept working on the parts of me that gave me trouble – those parts that did not comport with being a woman of grace and dignity. I had to love these parts of me and realize they were there, acting out and acting the fool, because of not being loved enough and because they needed attention. I had to welcome the rebellious parts into the new fold and use the rebellion for good…not evil. Not sure which side of the line beating up neighborhood bullies falls on.

But it’s true. As I write about in defense mechanisms in the workbook, many of our less-than-wonderful parts are there for our protection but have grown unwieldy because we’ve needed so much protection. Instead of banishing the parts, moderate them.  The Defense Mechanisms are overdeveloped and need to be brought into balance, not eradicated. 

I still need a rebellious part but I need it to work FOR me and not against me. I need to know when to let it rip and when to keep it in check. Observation. Preparation. Cultivation. Sometimes you just gotta say FU. And that is when I bring out my inner guttersnipe. 🙂 I have gotten in people’s faces when needed, but most of the time I keep it in check.

I think about what I do. I observe what I do and sometimes I have to choose between being a woman of grace and dignity and having a rip roaring good time. It’s not that I don’t have a good time, I do. But I never lose my head and I most certainly never lose my dignity. Anymore.

I don’t call people names…ever. When I disagree with someone, I keep it civil. I never ever ever use the word bitch nor do I allow it to be used around me. People respect that boundary. People like to know what is okay and is not okay. I don’t degrade other women, no matter what…I never use the words ho or whore or slut or anything like that. I absolutely refuse. I am a New Yorker so I am known to mutter “dumb fck” under my breath quite a bit but usually in reference to some bananahead who didn’t park right or who almost ran me over with a car on 42nd street.

I’m not perfect but I do have standards. I started using bananahead as a way to move away from saying dickhead which I seemed to be saying 100 times a day at the time (I was going through a divorce).

I try to make my words and actions line up. I try to not use profanity in public or around children (too much lately I hear the F word coming out of people’s mouths in public in front of children and the elderly…really? decorum anyone? anyone???)  I have a set of rules in my head that I live by and not swearing in public or hoisting swear words on anyone I don’t know is one of those rules.  It’s graceful. It’s dignified and it’s how I live most of the time. It’s the standard I set for myself. 

But it was a process…and it was a process that involved bucking the sentiments of the outside world and parts of me that were, for some reason, pretty fond of the rebellious f-up that I could be a lot of the time. I think it comes from being a teenager who snickered even when mom was on the warpath because I had done something else she was completely unaware of. Sometimes I got into trouble just to annoy my siblings who didn’t want to listen to a night of mom raging at me. Well, screw you guys….but I don’t need that part any longer. It doesn’t need to exist.  It served me at the time (the opposite of being entertained by how much trouble I caused would have been to be suicidal). 

Embrace all your parts and deny none. For the parts of you that are acting less than dignified, love yourself until you do. Tell yourself, “That’s not like me, next time I’ll do better by….[fill it in here].”

By observing your behavior and thinking about the ways in which your less-than-perfect behavior has protected you and by assuring yourself that you don’t need that protection now, you can continue to live your life with dignity and aplomb. 

Thich Nhat Hanh said that whenever animals are wounded, they rest. They look for a quiet place and stay there for their body to heal. He said human beings have lost the capacity to rest and to send loving kindness into the parts that need it the most. 

Whenever we think about the less-than-wonderful parts of ourselves, we send hate and rejection to that part. When we think about our past relationship, we don’t send empathy to the person who endured so much crap (our past selves)…no, we tend to berate ourselves for being SO stupid (what was I thinking???)

We send hate to those parts that didn’t know that we didn’t know. We cut them off as toxic and unworthy. Stop doing that. Instead, we need to get quiet with our hurt parts, the parts that are unhealed, the parts that desperately need our attention. We need to get quiet and send loving kindness into our wacky misadventurous side. We need to welcome it back into the fold where grace and dignity reign supreme. We need to introduce our inner guttersnipes to our outer glamour kings and queens. We need to hang out the welcome mat, and then, like all things GPYB, we need to balance it. 





This ugly dude is a Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly as a caterpillar


This is what it turns into…one of the most beautiful butterflies on the planet:

Believe in transformation!!!!

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