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Words of Affirmation and Parts

May 1, 2024

Dear Souls and Hearts Members,

Bishop Oscar Romero highlighted the need for affirmation when he wrote: “I don’t want to be an anti, against anybody. I simply want to be the builder of a great affirmation: the affirmation of God, who loves us and who wants to save us.

And words of affirmation are the second love language in Gary Chapman and Ross Cambell’s book The 5 Love Languages of Children:  The Secret to Loving Children Effectively.  We are continuing our series on love language, but enriching and expanding on these by bringing in parts and systems thinking.

Before the words…

It’s puzzling to me that these authors included “words” in this love language, given that they emphasize how much communication of affirmation is non-verbal or preverbal.  They write that “Long before they can understand the meanings of words, children receive emotional messages. The tone of voice, the gentleness of mood, the sense of caring all communicate emotional warmth and love.” [p. 45].

We all sense that these nonverbal cues are so important, often much more important than the actual message of the words. Chapman and Campbell address this.

Multiple channels, mixed messages

What the authors miss is how the multiple channels of communication from the parent can lead to mixed messages to the child.  Why?  Because we have parts.

These parts of us feel like separate, independently operating personalities within us, each part with its own unique prominent needs, roles in our lives, emotions, body sensations, guiding beliefs and assumptions, typical thoughts, intentions, desires, attitudes, impulses, interpersonal style, and world view.  Each part of a father or mother who is not in right relationship with the innermost self will have a separate and different perspective of the child — and a different position toward the child. 

Different parts of a father can communicate very different messages to his son at the same time. When he is trying to affirm him – his words might be affirming, just based on their plain meaning – but his tone of voice, facial expressions, body language, or lack of emotional resonance and congruence may all communicate entirely different messages all at the same time.

For example, imagine a father, with parts who are overinvested in his son’s baseball prospects, telling his boy after a difficult loss on the little league field, “Well, you did the best you could, Jimmy; I’m proud of you – it tears me up to see you drop fly balls like that, but you’ll get the hang of it someday.  It would help if your coach took the game more seriously, put some fire in your belly.” And this confuses his little son, who wonders “Is Dad proud of me or not?  Did I do a good enough job?  What does he mean by fire in my belly?”

Or a mother who tells her 10-year-old daughter, “You are such a beautiful girl with such a beautiful face.  One day the men will be lining up at our doorstep for you as long as you stop overeating and stop gaining weight.”

Different parts of parents communicate through different channels – and this includes parts that are not in conscious awareness.  A part need not be in consciousness to exert a powerful influence on behavior.  We’ve all experienced relating with someone who claims not to feel anger and seems sincerely unaware of anger inside, but who is nonverbally expressing a high level of indignation, frustration, or annoyance with us at the same time.

That’s one major reason why our interior integration is so important.  Internal fragmentation within a parent allows for the communication of contradictory messages from different parts through different channels simultaneously, and this is confusing to children, undermining attempts to affirm and to love.

And parts of a parent react differently to parts of the child

And it gets even more complex.  Children have parts too.  And different parts of a mother will react in various ways to different parts of the child.  The mother’s primary managers often find particular parts of the child much more gratifying and likable while finding other parts of the child frustrating and undesirable.  So the mother’s conditional love is focused not on the whole being of her daughter, but rather on certain parts, with other parts left out.

The gratifying parts of the child push to the front, in order to get the conditional love that the mother offers, while the other parts remain deprived of maternal love.  This increases fragmentation within the child.

Being rather than doing

Chapman and Campbell make an important distinction between affirmation and praise, which correspond to being and doing, respectively.  They write:

Affection and love mean expressing appreciation for the entire being of a child, for those characteristics and abilities that are part of the total package of the person. In contrast, we express praise for what the child does, either in achievements or behavior or conscious attitudes. Praise, as we are using it here, is for something over which the child has a degree of control. [p. 47].

When we affirm, we are communicating and resonating with the child’s ontological goodness – the fact that he is made in the image of likeness of God and is a beloved little son of God and is worth loving apart from anything he does or doesn’t do.

When we praise, we are conveying recognition and approval of the good actions of a child.

Children need both affirmation and praise – with only praise, they learn that their value is functional, based only on what they do, not who they are.  Some parents try to affirm through praise and that won’t work.  The authors write that “Children know when praise is given for justified reasons and when it is given simply to make them feel good, and they may interpret the latter as insincere.” [p. 47].

Catholic psychiatrist Conrad Baars captures this when he writes in Feeling and Healing Your Emotions that “…unaffirmed people I have met often have an utter sense of helplessness because they believe there is nothing they themselves can do.”  These individuals often have experienced praise, but praise only validates their doing, not their being; and there is no amount of doing good that will make up for a lack of a sense of being good.

On the Baars Institute website, which promotes Conrad Baars’ Affirmation Therapy, we read an excellent summary of the process and effects of affirmation in the article What is Affirmation?

A person’s ability to love is unlocked when that person experiences himself or herself as good, worthwhile, and lovable. According to Christian psychiatrists Conrad W. Baars and Anna A. Terruwe, this process is called “affirmation.” Affirmation is a three-step process which occurs when one person is the source of unconditional love and emotional strengthening for another person. These three steps are: the person is open and receptive to the goodness and lovableness of the other; over time, the person allows himself to be moved with affection, love, delight, etc., by the other person; and third, the person reveals these feelings to the other primarily through his countenance, tone of voice, gentle touch, etc.

Note how what’s required here on the part of the affirmed is noting more than an openness and receptivity to affirmation; the affirmation is not “earned” by the person’s efforts and good works.

Approaches that take into consideration parts and systems thinking add the additional element of considering affirmation part by part.  To be wholly affirmed, a child needs to have each part affirmed, even the parts that parents find “difficult” or “troublesome.”

The greatest impediment to affirmation

I disagree with Chapman and Campbell about the greatest barrier to affirmation.  They argue that anger most impedes affirmation:

The greatest enemy of encouraging our children is anger. The more anger the parent harbors, the more anger the parent will dump on the children. The result will be children who are both anti-authority and anti-parent. This naturally means that a thoughtful parent will do all in his or her power to assuage anger—to keep it to a minimum and to handle it maturely. [p. 49-50].

I don’t think so.  Anger is an easy villain to identify because of its intensity and the immediate clarity of the harm. Other reactions such as parental avoidance and disconnection can cause more profound harm.  When a parent is angry with a child, at least the child knows that the she is registering in the parent’s consciousness, that she matters in some way.  With parental distancing and disconnection, even that cold comfort goes missing.  That’s why parental neglect can be even more damaging than abuse (though the two may be hard to separate in practice).

But I think both of these – anger and avoidance/disconnection — are reactions to something else, something deeper.   Parents are so highly motivated to avoid their own shame.  I firmly believe that parents are highly motivated to avoid having their unresolved shame activated by their children.

Anger, disconnection, overcontrol, and so many other negative parental responses are fueled by unconscious motivations to avoid confronting their own shame – which stems, in large part, from having been unaffirmed themselves.

As I laid out in my Interior Integration for Catholics series on shame in episodes 37 to 49 (see this downloadable PDF for episode links and descriptions), when we trace so many of our problematic behaviors back to their natural origins, way upstream and get to primary causes, unresolved shame figures prominently.  So many times, parents get angry with their children or disconnect from them because the parents are protecting themselves against experiencing their own intense shame.

If we work through and heal from that shame, we solve so many downstream problems, including anger, which are symptoms of the unresolved shame.  Rather than snipping the leaves of the weed of the problem, we’re digging it out by the roots.

Ideas for words of affirmation

As in the last chapter, Chapman and Campbell take a skills-based approach to resolving shame, providing examples and scripts of words of affirmation.  For those with specific deficits in expressive language, these may be helpful.  Other longer lists abound on the internet, such as 99 Encouraging Affirmations for Motivating Others  by Sarah Kristenson or 279 Encouragement Affirmations For Others by Karla Hanson.

But I don’t think when a parent has difficulty affirming a child, that it’s primarily due to communications difficulties.  As the axiom from the Middle Ages goes, “You can’t give what you don’t have.”  A deeper approach is to work through any ways that the parent might have not been affirmed.  And how do we do that?

Traditional approaches include therapy, counseling, coaching, spiritual direction, and other forms of accompaniment.  But it’s also important to learn how to love yourself.  For you to be able to affirm yourself, not in some cheesy Stuart Smalley way, but to appreciate and embrace how you are ontologically good, good in your essence.

This requires heart, not just head.

This requires experiences, not just knowledge.

So to that end, I offer you this 19-minute experiential exercise to help you connect with your parts, their roles and burdens around affirmation, so that you can love your parts more fully – thus opening the door to loving other more fully.

Next week…

Next week, we’ll be getting into Chapman and Campbell’s third love language of children, quality time, in Chapter 4 of their book.  Read on with me, and let’s continue this exploration together.


One month away…

We are only one month away from when the Resilient Catholics Community reopens for new applications.  We have more than 260 on our interest list already – and we’re gearing up to bring in our largest cohort ever.

If you are a Catholic who believes all that the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, if you are seeking to flourish in love and for love, if you want to overcome your deficits in your human formation and shore up your natural foundation for loving God, your neighbor, and yourself, and if you resonate with working at depth, with your parts in your heart, all in a way that is firmly grounded in a Catholic understanding of the human person, consider joining us in the RCC!

Find out so much more at our RCC landing page.  Also join RCC Lead Navigator and me for a live presentation and lots of Q&A about the RCC in our Zoom meeting on Tuesday, May 21 from 8:00 PM to 9:00 PM Eastern Time.  If you can make it live, that would be great – here is the link to register.  If you can’t, we will post the recording of the meeting on our landing page.

If you’re considering the RCC and have questions for me, consider calling me on my cell at 317.567.9594 any Tuesday or Thursday from 4:30 PM to 5:30 PM Eastern Time during my conversation hours for a private one-on-one talk.

Pray for us

Please keep Souls and Hearts, all our members and our staff, and Dr, Gerry and me in your prayers.  Every good thing we do is supported by prayer.  We are praying for you.  Thank you.

In Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

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