We all need affirmation

Like many Baby Boomer’s, I grew up in the shadow of an imposing father. His was of a very different generation: no-nonsense, tough and distinctly unaffectionate. Or so it seemed at the time. I thought he was stern and judgmental, but he came by it legitimately. His father was an Episcopalian minister, more of the Victorian Model than of modern times (or so I believed).

I grew up in a demanding environment, at least when my father was around. He was a career soldier who fought in two wars. Often, he seemed an irrelevant concept to family operations (until he made one of his periodic appearances). My mother had organized us to fill in the gaps when he was deployed. However, when he returned home, he was definitely the head of the household, regardless of how disruptive it was to the family dynamics. We had to adapt. Meeting the uncertain expectations was often a game of blind-mans-bluff.

He set high (I often thought…unattainable) standards. He gave “advice” in ways we took as criticism. There is a fine line between “suggestions” and “orders” (in the military they are understood as one-and-the-same). I learned many years later during my own Army career, family members are not “soldiers” and they frequently don’t respond well to “orders” from the “Commander” (nee father).

“Atta-boys” were often accompanied by well-meaning counsel that only served to take the positive edge off the words. The unmistakable impression was that of not quite failure; perhaps “inadequacy” might more appropriate. It inevitably appeared to be yet another example of not quite living up to the standard. What we lacked was “affirmation.” We got it plenty from my mother, but the feeling was never the same feeling from my father.

Oh course, a stronger person might resolve themselves to self-affirmation. (I am strong. I am confident. I am powerful.) Yet, those don’t seem to ring true without outside encouragement. (I suppose a narcissist like Donald Trump doesn’t need such things, but I think we mere mortals find it essential). It is a constant struggle to stay upbeat and optimistic in the face of a (perceived) relentless assault to our self-worth (and perception is reality).

I would liken it to a sail. No amount of “blowing” at it will make the boat go. It requires some external motive force. At full sail, with the wind at your back (we are prepared and confident), we remain vulnerable. Small jabs or a bit of sarcasm can be almost as debilitating as a full-blown critique. It becomes “death by a thousand nicks.” Small holes in the cloth can expand into a large tear even when a fair wind blows.

Sadly, we are more sensitive to the criticism than we are buoyed by accolades. Is that us or them? I have re-read letters from my father written decades ago. They were deflating at the time, but the perspective of maturity (and my own struggles as a father to balance encouragement and reality with my kids) has shed a different light on his words. Yes, he expressed disappointment (sometimes), but he also tried to extract the “lesson learned” (at least the lesson I should have learned).

This may be part the issues that have been raised by the “Great Resignation.” Why have so many workers “quit” and seem unwilling to return to the workforce? Would they be so reticent if they felt they were an integral part of the operation? Have they received the affirmation they need or simply the needling of those they “serve?” I saw a sign at a fast-food joint, “Please be kind to our employees. They actually showed up for work.” Yes they did and yes we should.

In many respects, we are our own worst enemy.

Modern society tends to treat employees more like a supply input rather than as  valued members of the team. Cogs in the machinery inside of a “just-in-time” global economic system. In “The Education of Otis Yeere,” Rudyard Kipling describe it, “There would always be men who are used up, expended in the mere mechanical routine.”

Large corporations are narrowly focused on “Quarterly Earnings.” Miss the numbers-slash costs. Unfortunately cutting personnel is the quickest way to show results.

Even the jobs we create are not worthy of loyalty. When I was growing up working at a fast-food restaurant was primarily a job for school-age kids. That has radically changed. Our society now lives on fast-food. Working there has become a career path and it does not pay a living wage. Additionally, much of what has passed for economic development locally has been recruiting those low-wage retail, food service and hospitality jobs (because they generate taxes).

When “wages” are not the draw, what is the compelling reason to return to the workforces? What gives us the sense of self-worth?

“Affirmation” is the key. And it is not just words. We all need to feel like we are valued members of the “tribe.” In a military unit, the guy that can hump more ammo than anyone else is key in a fire fight. His teammates understand that and treat him so.

We need to feel that what we do matters. Children and employees are not so different in that respect. In fact, one might argue that the failures at the formative times help set the stage for feelings of helplessness and indifference when we are grown.

Are we as supportive and positive as we can be with those around me? Is there something we can do to make people feel they truly matter? I am afraid that I fall short so much of the time, probably more so personally than professionally.

In the end, people matter. When we treat them for the true value they create, it gives us all a reason to be productive and more well-adjusted human beings, be it a family member or an employee.

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1 Response

  1. Beth says:

    Very timely, and yes I do operate better with those atta boys!