Feb 28, 2024, 06:24AM

In Defense of Affirmation

What is affirmation? What does affirmation do? Lack of affirmation is a serious problem in modern culture, and a more complex issue than people think.

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There’s a wonderful scene in the 1999 film The Thomas Crown Affair in which a woman, played by Renee Russo, is moved by the compassion of a detective, played by Denis Leary. She walks up to Leary, and says a simple line: “You are a good man.”

The scene is a beautiful example of affirmation. The lack of affirmation is a serious problem in modern culture, and a more complex issue than people think. The lack of affirmation may explain why society suffers from depression, emotional immaturity, resentment, and hair-trigger rage that spills into politics and internet flame wars. People are so hunkered down for battle that they’re shocked when you affirm them.

Affirmation is different than coddling. This is made clear in the book Born Only Once: The Miracle of Affirmation. The author, Conrad Baars (1919-1981), was a Dutch-born American psychiatrist. He was educated at Oxford, served in the anti-Nazi underground in Belgium during World War II, was captured, a spent over a year in the Buchenwald concentration camp. He came to America after the liberation. This man wasn’t a snowflake.

When he became a psychiatrist in the 1950s, Baars formed a theory that people’s neurosis was often not based on repression, which is the Freudian model, but on the fact that they hadn’t received enough affirmation, particularly as children. He called this problem Emotional Deprivation Disorder. A breakthrough came when Baars treated a woman for months and she wasn’t responding to therapy, which was based on the Freudian idea of neurosis being caused by repression. Finally the woman turned to Baars and told him that while he was trying his best to treat her with psychoanalytic theory, he wasn’t affirming her as a person. Baars wasn’t doing the simple task of telling her that she was good, and strong, and brave for confronting her problems.

People who aren’t affirmed, Baars would conclude, have a range of emotional and psychological problems. They “maintain relationships for their practical usefulness, not because they have an inner desire and need to be with another person.” They feel inferior and inadequate, and are overly friendly and solicitous to people to preemptively avoid possible rejection. A female sufferer would look at boyfriends and husbands “as father figures with whom she can find safety and protection.”  Baars says that people with lack of affirmation can have depression, drug addiction, even schizophrenia.

It’s important to be precise about what’s meant by affirmation. Affirmation has to come from another person. Abuse and withholding emotional support is obviously not affirmation. But neither is what we have today, which is excessive, gushing, and ridiculous over-affirmation, or what one writer called TMPR—Too Much Positive Reinforcement. Everyone gets a trophy and every child is extra special. Leftists demand affirmation for sexual preference or race. Compare that to how previous generations enthusiastically affirmed the true, the good and the beautiful. Things were “marvelous,” “lovely,” “resplendent.” You got respect not because you were black or female or Irish. If you did something notable or dressed well you got affirmed. Even minor things were called “swell.”

Affirmation has to be grounded in human reason yet connected to transcendent values. You don’t throw a party because your kid made it to first base in pee wee league. You do, however, let him cry when he loses, tell him that he’s good to have tried, and that as a child of God he has intrinsic value whether he plays or not. A lot of the patient profiles Baars explores in both Born Only Once and it’s follow-up, Healing the Unaffirmed: Recognizing Emotional Deprivation Disorder, are simply examples of adults letting children be children. That is, they don’t tell boys not to cry, and they don’t tell girls to put on more makeup. There’s also a crucial component of the spiritual—of seeing other people as touched with the spark of the divine, which is good and worthy of praise simply because they exist, and God exists in them.

As Baars explains it, an affirming person is:
 • aware of your goodness, separate from and prior to any worthwhile thing you may or can do.
 • moved by and delights in your goodness and worth.
 • reveals that he or she is moved and lets it show via tenderness, facial expression, and, if appropriate, touch.

These seem like three small things, but think about it. How many blog posts, cable shows, and Twitter comments are expressions of delight in the worth of an actor or politicians, as opposed to just gleeful kneecapping or hyperbolic praise? How many parents tell their child that those children are good, even if they can’t run fast, or are sensitive enough to cry at a movie, or are young girls who need support going through awkward teenage years, support that affirms the Mileys and the Britneys as talented people who don’t need to cheapen themselves to express their art?

It can be small things. I love Indian food, and recently went to a great Indian lunch buffet near my house. There were steaming hot dishes lined up, beautifully prepared and presented. I noticed the cook standing nearby, and approached him. “This is really something,” I said. “You must be proud.” His change in demeanor was remarkable. He broke into a smile, shook my hand, and then spent a few seconds kind of shocked and delighted at my statement of the obvious—that he’d done wonderful work. “Yes, yes, I am proud,” he repeated, almost like he was absorbing surprising breaking news. “I am proud.”  My guess is no one had affirmed his cooking in a long time.

I have a friend who’s a talented young filmmaker. It’s a brutal business full of disappointments, hack producers who can’t recognize talent, and jealousy. He calls sometimes just to check in about the business and the latest challenges. The other day he was down because a great low-budget movie he made, although highly praised (certified fresh), wasn’t breaking through to a big mainstream audience. He was discouraged. “Well, don’t give up,” I told him. “Unlike most people in Hollywood you have actual talent.”

There was a silence. He was stunned. Then he said it: “Thank you.” He sounded like a different person.

  • Nice article Mark - always look forward to your pieces, have read you since the acculturated.com days. This one inspired me to register on the site so I could make this comment!

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  • Good, thoughtful, article. Keep up the fine work. That being said, "...profiles Baars explores in both Born Only Once and it’s follow-up...". Please learn the difference between "it's" and "its", or hire an editor to do it for you. How embarrassing.

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