Compliment: an expression of praise, commendation or admiration
Affirmation: an expression of support by giving approval, recognition or encouragement
Part of my healing process over the last seven years has been a reflection on how I receive positive feedback. A therapist I worked with after my heart surgery, who validated and stood with me as I recounted painful episodes in my personal history, listened to me numerous times as I remembered the praise I received, and how difficult it was for me to hear that given even now. She shared a wise statement that I have not forgotten: there is a difference between praise and affirmation. To receive praise is one thing; to be affirmed is quite another.
I grew up in a household where praise was given. I was the oldest, I was a smart kid, obedient, and I followed the rules. I heard a lot of, “You did a great job on that book report,”or “I’m proud of you for winning that spelling bee.” “Thank you for obeying the babysitter,” or “You did the ironing very well.” Praise to me implied a compliment was given in relation to a behavior or accomplishment. To receive praise, I had to do something. It was conditional, and I had to earn it. I saw it as a reward to be strived for, and not something inherent. I tailored my life and relationships to earn what I yearned for so much, which was positive reinforcement. I gave and gave and pushed and continually went over and above the call of a healthy friend in order to receive the praise, which was momentarily lovely, but would not hold.
We give praise easily. “Great job scoring that goal!” “You got into a terrific college!” “I’m proud of you for cooking a delicious dinner for the family!” It is easy to find the words to say to compliment someone on an achievement or good deed. Do we look deeper, though? Do we hand out empty words? Do we think about what the person on the other end of the compliment is hearing?
What I did not hear, and now can see that I needed to receive much more, was affirmation. Affirmation is the confirmation, support, or encouragement of someone based on an inherent attribute possessed by the person. Affirmation does not require a condition to be given. Affirmation looks at the innate value and worth of someone and honors it. “You have a beautiful heart.” “Your kindness is admirable.” “You are a wonderful son/daughter.” Affirmation is approval, solace, and reassurance. Affirmation builds a foundation of belief and confidence, and sees the worth in someone simply because they are.
When a child grows up hearing praise, but not affirmation, the child learns to equate praise with validation. The problem with this is that this type of validation has to be earned, so a child begins to think that they must accomplish or achieve something in order to be validated. Inherent security and confidence are not built. The belief grows that praise is the only form of compliment or encouragement that will be heard, so the striving begins to hear that praise.
This was how my beliefs were cemented, that I could not be inherently valued or worthy, but had to earn worth. And I was an overachiever, so I went for it full throttle. I prided myself on anticipating needs, being overly generous, being the first to arrive and the last to leave, and helping put on events in the background while never wanting to be the center of attention. I searched for the perfect gift, the one that would be remembered, to know that I was needed. I equated value in a friendship or a career with going above and beyond what was healthy. I worked up to 80 hours a week in addition to being on the leadership team for a girl’s camp, and planning and leading mission trips. I loved the service, but I know that in addition to that, I craved the reinforcement that came with the compliments I received for a job well done or the accomplishment of a massive task.
After I came back from Haiti, I hit an emotional breaking point. For a myriad of reasons, it was a perfect storm. But the foremost thoughts in my mind were that I had no attributes of worth, and I was tired of striving for praise. An incident with a friend brought up all of the lies I had believed about myself and destroyed the house of cards that was so weakly stacked in my mind. With no ability to achieve tasks in friendship or in work that earned me praise, I had nothing. I felt like nothing. I was nothing.
I had to re-learn what the truth was (or, even to learn the truth for the first time). I had to choose to see myself the way that God sees me, to choose to believe that I am loved by Him first and that He made me in His image. I had to believe in my own value and find contentment in myself before I could believe what anyone else told me about myself. And I learned that what I needed to hear was affirmation – positive encouragement about my inherent virtue and attributes that did not require “doing something” in order to be true.
Just the other day, I was asked by a colleague to take on an extra task. When I responded that I could help in that way, her first words were, “Thank you for helping out! I love you.” What does that imply to me? It implies that I am loved because I took on another task. The cycle happens constantly in our lives. We get rewarded with a compliment or praise because of something we are willing to do that is extra, or an addition to who we are.
Think about how you honor someone when speaking with them. Do you honor a task or accomplishment? Or do you honor an attribute or an aspect of their character? There is nothing wrong with praising an accomplishment or goal reached or life event. But don’t let that be the only thing we recognize. Instead of, “I’’m proud of you for _____________,” how about saying, “I’m proud of you.” Or instead of saying, “I love you because you did ___________,” how about “I love you for the person you are,” or “I love your heart.”