Some of us may be better at hiding it than others, but we all need a pick-me-up from time to time. An encouraging word. A smile from a stranger. Maybe just someone to tell you that everything’s OK. In a word, we all need support. It’s a basic human necessity. In fact, I would argue that it’s something every person deserves, and it’s the last aspect of humanization we’re going to talk about in this little series: affirmation.
To affirm someone means at its core to be for them. To be on their side. To support them and build them up so that they can be all that they’re capable of. This manifests itself in different ways.
Affirmation means affirming who a person is—their identity. People need to know that they’re loved, cared for, and enough just the way they are. Our world is plagued by forces that leave us ridiculed with feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. But we can overcome those feelings by reminding each other of our innate worth as human beings and of the fact that we are each loved more than we could ever know.
It also means affirming their journey towards fulfillment. We each have our own path, and these paths take twists and turns that we’d never expect. But the best thing we can do for each other as we try to navigate life is find ways to encourage one another and help each other find what we’re looking for. Maybe it’s as simple as telling someone you believe in them, or going so far as to make a personal sacrifice to help someone else get ahead. It looks different for different people, but we all have opportunities to affirm others as they seek their ultimate goal.
I think it’s worth noting that affirming someone doesn’t necessarily mean that you agree with everything they do. Many of us know what it’s like to support a person while not being able to condone their actions. A couple of things to keep in mind in these situations: The fact that someone is doing things differently than you would doesn’t necessarily mean they’re wrong. And even if they are wrong, it’s still perfectly possible to support and care for them even in the midst of that. Sometimes, affirmation might even come in the form of loving correction or a call for someone to live up to what you know them to be.
And possibly the most overlooked element of affirmation is the affirmation of a person’s experience. Far too often, when someone expresses that they experienced something that we don’t like or agree with, our first reaction is to say, “That didn’t happen,” or, “You’re wrong for feeling that way.” This is extremely incompassionate and dehumanizing. Attacking someone’s experience is akin to attacking their reality itself, and that can be downright traumatizing.
We don’t get to tell someone else that their experiences or feelings aren’t real. We aren’t in their shoes. We don’t see things from their perspective. Who are we to say that what’s they’re expressing isn’t true? In the vast majority of cases, people aren’t lying to get attention. Whether it be calling out racism in our culture, reporting someone for sexual violence, or simply sharing how one feels about an everyday situation, the vulnerability involved is a huge risk, and we would do well to meet that risk with care and affirmation.
People need to know that they’re heard. People need to know that they’re loved. People need to know that they matter. We can offer them all of those things through affirmation.
We can’t affirm everyone in the exact same way. Obviously, this principle should be applied differently to different situations. In close relationships, affirmation can be deep and lasting. But we can also affirm random strangers through simple kindness and encouragement. It doesn’t take much to be an overflowing source of affirmation to those around you.
When we support and encourage others, we’re affirming their personhood. We’re giving them the opportunity to be all that they can be. We’re letting them know that we’re for them. And if we’re going to practice humanizing everyone, getting to a place where we’re for everyone seems like a fitting goal. It’s possible for each and every one of us, so let’s make it happen. Let’s affirm the identities, journeys, and experiences of others today and every day.