The gift of affirmation

Helen Keller has been admired by the entire world. Yet she was not always an attractive example. Born blind and deaf, and full of energy, she vented her frustrations in fits of anger and of rage. With or without provocations, she would turn physically violent and strike out at the nearest object or person. Whatever her hands could find became the object of her terror. She would kick, bite, and hit if she didn’t get her own way. Her mother tried being close and sympathetic. Her father tried shouting (as if she could hear), and even hinted that she should be sent away to a home for the insane. One author described her early childhood as that of “an uncontrollable wild animal.”

But when Helen turned 6, someone new entered her life. Someone with tenderness and caring. Someone who believed in Helen and saw through those deaf ears and blind eyes. Someone who knew Helen had tremendous potential locked with in her innermost soul. Someone who knew the miracle of affirmation.

Ann Sullivan was not a miracle worker. Herself an early victim of handicaps, she had overcome them, and she knew that she could pass on that helping touch by being gentle and warm. She knew how to administer discipline and direction, but she also knew how to do so with care and concern. During those first days, Helen would kick and bite her new teacher, throw things at her, and show in every possible way her defiance and disobedience. But Ann was made of sterner stuff. Every act of Helen’s anger brought a gentle and firm reminder from Ann that such acts are unacceptable. She would gently slap her, deny her food except as she was willing to eat with proper manners, but always rewarded Helen with a hug or a loving pat in response to the slightest sign of Helen’s obedience.

Years later, recalling their first meeting, Helen wrote, “I felt approaching footsteps and I stretched out my hand, as I supposed, to my mother. Someone took it, and I was caught up into her arms and held close to her. She had come to reveal all things to me and more than everything else, to love me.” That love opened for Helen the beautiful world around her. She grasped Ann Sullivan as someone who could change her life, who could give vision without eyes, hearing without the ability to hear, and life in all its fullness.

How did it happen? Ann Sullivan believed in Helen. She was an affirmer—one who knew that affirmation can bring out all the hidden possibilities even in a helpless child.

What is affirmation?

The word affirm means to “make firm” or “to give strength to another.” Psychologists tell us that we tend to define who we are in the context of how others feel about us. We all crave affirmation and encouragement from others. Such affirmation gives us a sense of belonging and identity.

When we encourage someone with positive comments, we, in fact, give them strength to acknowledge their own giftedness and the contribution that they make to life. Without such affirmation, it is hard to battle the problems we confront in life, and difficult to survive in a community, school, or workplace where competition is the rule of the day. Indeed, without the warmth and the care that accompany affirmation, we are likely to become alienated.

Affirming another person is perhaps the most tender healing touch of one human being to another—a touch that encourages one to realize one’s God-given potential. In all my years as a counselor I have come to realize that there is no personal growth without affirmation. As someone has said, “the greatest good that we do to others is not to give them our wealth, but to show them their own wealth.” Or as Solomon stated, “Do not withhold good from those who deserve it, when it is in your power to act;” “A generous man will prosper; he who refreshes others, will himself be refreshed” (Proverbs 3:27; 11:25, NIV).*

In the absence of affirmation

If people don’t receive encouragement and affirmation from those around them, they feel a sense of insecurity and inadequacy. That in turn can lead them to act strangely just to get the feeling that they are accepted, approved, and appreciated by others. Some become “people pleasers” and hope that others will affirm them for the good they do. They might even allow people to “walk all over them” in order to receive affirmation for being “nice” or “helpful.” Others may become workaholics, hoping that their performance will dazzle and attract the affirmation of others. Others may become perfectionists, striving hard to do their work perfectly or insisting on always having the right answers to the problems that they confront. All of this perfectionistic behavior is driven by the hope that “if I do it right” or “if I have the right answer” I’ll get to be respected and appreciated by others. Still others take on the role of a “martyr,” hoping that by their suffering they will be appreciated as a “saint,” while others adopt controlling behaviors in the hope that as they control situations and people they will be valued for their skill and respected for their ability. Whatever the behavior is, people try to prove their worth and solicit the affirmation that they need to carry on the tasks that they perform for others in community.

Jesus and affirmation

Jesus knew the value of affirmation. Everything He said and did was designed to encourage and build others. His words carried a great healing power. His gentle affirming touch healed the wounded, restored the brokenhearted, and comforted the anxious. His affirmation encouraged individuals to rise above their frustrations and to realize their full potential. He empowered people.

Jesus affirmed the repentant thief on the cross when He promised that the thief would be with Him in paradise. Jesus affirmed Zacchaeus. He told him that whatever others thought of him, He considered him as a citizen of His kingdom. “‘Salvation,’” Jesus said, “‘has come to this house’” (Luke 19:9).

Jesus affirmed the little children. The disciples wanted to get rid of them, but not Jesus. He believed in the possibility of such children becoming part of His kingdom. “‘Let the little children come to me,’” He said in a memorable assertion, “‘and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these’” (Luke 18:16).

Consider the widow who came to the temple with an offering of just two mites. The temple leaders had no time or use for her. But Jesus recognized in her a total commitment to God’s cause: “‘She, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on’” (Mark 12:44). That’s affirmation.

Observe also how Jesus affirmed the woman caught in adultery. Her accusers were ready with the law and the stones. They wanted justice. They smelled blood. But Jesus saw not the sin, but the sinner in need of grace. He offered her forgiveness, and counseled her, “Go, and sin no more” (John 8:11, KJV). That’s affirmation: to believe that a woman, sinner though she was, could reach out and grasp God’s grace and forgiveness—and live the purposes for which the Creator made her.

Such affirmation builds people. It empowers them to lead a new life. It challenges them to see the new self within.

The challenge to build up

Perhaps it’s time to remember the words of the apostle: “Encourage one another and build each other up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). The apostle believed that we ought to “be devoted to one another in brotherly love” and “honor one another” (Romans 12:10). And we should “spur one another on toward love and good deeds,…and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24, 25).

But how do we affirm? Here are three suggestions:

1. Just do it! Don’t assume that others know how you feel, and how much you appreciate them. Tell them. An intention to affirm is only good when you act upon it.

2. Do it frequently. Most of us are like a slow leak in a tire: we need to be “pumped up” often. We need to receive encouragement and affirmation from each other. So not only should we affirm, but we should do it frequently.

3. Don’t be put off by those who have difficulty accepting your affirmation. Some find it hard to receive encouragement. They may respond by saying, “Oh, you didn’t need to do that!” But remember that the best way to receive affirmation is to give it. The more you give, the more there is to go around.

Remember what Solomon said: “He who refreshes others will himself be refreshed” (Proverbs 11:25).

Bryan Craig is a marriage counselor and director of Family Ministries for the South Pacific Division. His address: Locked Bag 2014; Wahroonga, NSW 2076; Australia. E-mail:

*Except as otherwise noted, all Scripture passages in this article are quoted from the New International Version.