“You’re amazing!” Those were the exact words spoken to me. I’d just informed the person in the lane beside me that I was about to pass through her area to exit the pool. That two-word response was her reply. I was fairly certain she wasn’t referring to my swim stroke, and so far as I could recall we had never met so she wouldn’t have known me well enough to make that evaluation. I answered, “Well thank you. I appreciate your confidence and will try to live up to it.” Affirmation, even when unearned, can make a person feel better and walk taller. I wasn’t ready to swim another half mile as a result of her comments, but her words did energize me just a bit. It was a short-lived rush. She burst my bubble when she said, “Oh, sorry. I wasn’t thinking. I’m a mom and that’s what I tell my son all the time.” Oh, well. Easy come, easy go. At least she still let me pass.
The incident reminded me of a trip to a drive-through at a local fast-food restaurant a while ago. From the intercom speaker I heard these words: “Welcome to XXXX. Order when you’re ready. I love you.” The employees at this particular location were typically friendly but this was above and beyond their usual reception. I swallowed hard and paused a second. Not wanting to offend, I replied, “Well, thank you but I just want two Diet Cokes. Plus, my wife is with me here in the car and she says I can’t have of any of that.” The worker asked, “W-h-h-h-a-at? I answered, “You told me you loved me, and while I’m touched, I just want two soft drinks. It’s nothing personal.” She protested, “No, I wasn’t talking to you. I was ending a phone call.” She seemed a little put out by the misunderstanding. Accidentally confessing your love over a public transmission is not quite as bad as leaving the lapel mic on while in the restroom, but it’s heading in that direction. Even though I wasn’t in the market for love, I felt a little jilted by her response. What is the world coming to when you can’t trust your friendly fast-food restaurant to have your best interests at heart?
Those incidents remind me that there is something about affirmation that warms our hearts. On some level we crave it, whether through bits of positive feedback, or pep talks, or a quiet embrace. I still remember a day when a friend thanked me for inspiring him to achieve things he’d never thought were possible. I don’t know to exactly what he was referring, but to this day, those words influence how I think about possibilities and potentiality within personal interactions. Affirmation has that kind power.
I must not be the only one who thinks that is the case. A few days ago, Judi and I were meandering through a posh store in downtown Asheville, NC and came upon a display of something called “affirmation candles.” How a “hand poured” and “ethically made” candle is supposed to encourage affirmation and empowerment simply by burning is beyond me; but I must confess I haven’t tried them. These were small in size, perhaps 3 inches tall. Standing in front of them while thinking about their purpose a memorable scene from the movie, The Help, played in my mind. It is the one when the nanny does her best to counteract the negative messages the mother regularly conveys to her daughter, Mae Mobley, by frequently saying to the child, “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” I said those words aloud as I turned over an affirmation candle to discover its price tag. Right on cue, Judi chimed in, “You is $14 poorer.” What can I say? We make our own fun together. And who knows? If the candles work as advertised, that could be a bargain!
We all need a little help to ward off a host of negative messages from time to time. I recall the day a colleague whom I respect a great deal hung his head in exasperation after a few difficult weeks at work and said, “You know, just once in a while it would be nice to hear someone say “Attaboy! (That a boy).” Whether it is a repertoire of put downs or criticisms we’ve collected along the path of life, or effects of the worst of our parent’s feedback as they gave in to their own life stresses, or childhood banter that crossed the line and criticized in just the right way to leave a lasting mark, there are many reasons that affirmation is a “thing” these days.
One popular form is self-talk, the premise being that the repetition of positive statements can alter self-esteem and behavior. In a twist on the “seeing is believing” philosophy, hearing supposedly makes believing easier to accomplish. Affirmations help by shifting an individual’s focus from failures and inadequacies toward strengths. Add in some visualization and practice, and a person may find themselves on the path to significant improvement. That is no small thing. The field of neuroscience suggests this is more than just wishful thinking. It is the result of the brain’s neuroplasticity as it forges new connections and behaviors due to new information and stimulation.
If we lived alone in a world of one, self-affirmation would be the best we could hope for. Living shoulder to shoulder with a few billion others gives us ample opportunity to receive input from numerous sources. Do you ever walk through a parking lot and realize you’re humming the song that was playing in the store even though you didn’t consciously acknowledge the tune while shopping? Going a step further, do you notice a difference in your state of mind if the music was classical versus heavy metal versus country or hip hop? Even if we are strong-hearted individualists who rarely seek the opinions of others, the music in the background influences us. It is no wonder affirmation from others is so powerful. It can play for hours or even days in the recesses of our mind, quietly influencing how we proceed through the day.
Some have suggested that social media posts are largely an attempt to receive affirmation. I enjoy keeping up with friends and family through their sharing, but that statement caused me to pause and consider the purpose of a post before sending it. I’ve never been a heavy user, but my sharing declined a bit as a result of that consideration. Still, it is nice to know if ever I feel alone or isolated, with the right post a few affirming “likes” are just a couple of clicks away.
It can get out of hand, though. Occasionally, I overhear employees lament that no one shows them any appreciation for the work they do. If they are being paid a fair wage for their work and the sum of their efforts is simply fulfilling the duties of the job they were hired and paid to do, I’m not sure why they might think they’re due a few kind words—except that we all like to think that we are valued and appreciated, whether we’ve earned it or not. That is not suggest that a positive work environment should be optional or that good leadership doesn’t have a responsibility to establish a supportive culture. If my view is skewed, maybe it is because I grew up before the “everyone gets a trophy” era. A person had to accomplish something above the norm in order to receive special recognition. No doubt that influences my reaction. I think there is a delicate balance between benefiting from affirmation and depending upon external validation for our sense of self-worth.
Even accounting for that reservation, count me among those who believe that affirmation can have value. Never underestimate the effect of the messages we give ourselves. An overhaul of our own self-perceptions would benefit many of us. Self-affirmation alone won’t calm the waves in the ocean, but it may well make you a stronger swimmer. That in itself is a significant advantage even if it isn’t a total solution.
If you think about your movement in the world, be kind, encouraging, and truthful with ourselves. If you are in a position of influence (and who isn’t, to some degree) the same principle applies. Some of the best advice I ever received with regard to leadership was to be warm, kind, and firm. I can’t think of a single day where that didn’t serve me well. Even better, it was beneficial to those with whom I worked, too.
When it comes to the power of affirmation, the unexpected ones hold a special place in my heart. Unexpected. Unsolicited. Uncoerced. They enthuse the moment with light and joy, and linger like the fragrance of hyacinth in Spring. Of course, it is better if it is genuine (like my friend’s comment) rather than misdirected (like the drive-thru) or absent-minded (like the swimmer). If all else fails, there’s always Facebook!