When working with clients, talking to my wife, or examining my own life’s ups and downs, things become much clearer when I stop looking at particular incidents and begin looking at foundational levels.
When I recognize that my behaviors and emotional responses are just the tip of the iceberg, I can start to move toward something good--a good need.
These good needs are what I like to call “core needs.”
These needs are universal.
I would like to talk about one need in particular today:
The need to be affirmed.
Affirmation is a tricky subject. For clarity, when I talk about affirmation, I mean a sense that we are overwhelmingly approved of.
People tend to receive affirmation for many things, and while this affirmation may be received, it can take a while for that affirmation received to become rooted. I’ll give an example from my life to help flesh this out…
I remember times in gym class when we I played whiffle ball. Mind you, this is when I was in high school, and many of the people in my class were competitive. When we all lined up for the team captains to pick their players, my expectation was that I would be chosen somewhere in the middle of the pack. I wasn’t first; I wasn’t last… just somewhere in the middle. One day that all changed…
In the final stages of the game before the bell rang with my team up a few runs, a hitter stepped to the plate and hit a line drive in my direction. I ended up making a fairly spectacular diving catch to end the inning. My team won.
There was a lot of commotion and cheering from my team. I was clapped on the back. I was the king of the moment… and the next day when we were all lined up again, I was picked second. It felt great. Affirmation received.
It all lasted until the next time I missed a catch or didn’t hit well, at which point I fell back into the middle—back into obscurity.
Now, this is a small moment, but this is how we relate to each other: We affirm specific things we like in each other, and when we hear this specific, performance-driven affirmations, we take them to be global affirmations of us. “I did well at whiffle ball. I was chosen in the beginning by important people. Therefore, I am important. I matter. I have value.” The level of affirmation we receive in moments like these directly relates to how we feel about ourselves at other moments. “I do good. I am good.”.
We hear these phrases not just in high school, but throughout growing up. (I hear myself say them to my kids!) “Good job. You did great.” But what it teaches us is we need to achieve to be noticed. Get the best grades, dress the nicest, run the fastest, make the most money, then you are the best, nicest, and most valuable.
But if our affirmation is based on the latest success we’ve experienced, we always chase the next thing. We will never truly be affirmed as we are.
Lasting affirmation that seeps into our personhood comes when we do not deserve the affirmation—when we receive “overwhelming approval” that was completely unearned.
When looking at the story of creation we can gloss over the fact that every day God affirms his creation… It is good… and after the sixth day this affirmation went into the superlative… it is very good. Humanity had done nothing, no great acts, no incredible accomplishments, to deserve the affirmation that they received. They simply were.
Jesus takes this same undeserved, affirmation-offering posture with many, including with the woman caught in adultery. A woman is caught in the act of adultery, and according to law, she deserved death. Yet, in this most vulnerable moment, Jesus, gets down on her level and offers no condemnation, but rather salvation.
Jesus does this over and over, choosing the ones who had not earned high status in society--fishermen, tax collectors, women, and those who would not have high standing in society.
Jesus’ response to one of his disciple’s three-time denial of Jesus is another example. Peter, the one called a “rock” earlier by Jesus, and told he would build the church, showed himself to be unable to fulfill this calling. He was weak. He denied. He failed. But Jesus affirms him.
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.”
Jesus reaffirms the standing and calling he had given him earlier. Not a standing and calling he had earned.
However, Jesus also called out the three-time mistake Peter made, by inviting him to three-times reaffirm his love for Jesus.
This is the nature of true affirmation: that we receive overwhelming approval in the times when we don’t deserve it. If we have earned it, we are not affirmed, only our behavior is.
If we are only affirmed when our behavior is good, we will chase performance. We will chase perfectionism. Knowing we are never going to live up to the high standards of performance and perfectionism of the world, in this chase we will likely live in anxiety and depression.
How can we instead receive the undeserved grace and affirmation from God, do the good works he has called us to do, and pass on the same holistic, not-performance-based affirmation onto others?