Affirmation: Crippling or healing?

Making the art of affirmation honest and effective.

Julia Vernon is an elder at the Salt Lake City Central Church and the Chaplain and Bereavement Coordinator at South David Hospice in Grantsville, Utah.

Affirmation is an essential tool of pastoral care. But its overuse led a colleague to refer to therapists as a profession that should be hyphenated: "the-rapist." We intrude into someone's worst nightmares and all too often affirm things that shouldn't be. When we do, we rape away their best chance at a healthy life.

Affirmation was the big watchword when I was trained. We were taught to engage the other person, listen for their feelings and issues, and affirm them. A great tool, but it can go to extremes. Our instructors occasionally modeled what they taught us about affirmation—a little over-enthusiastically at times.

The extreme use of affirmation

One day the bus I was on broke down. I was late for a supervisory session with one of my instructors. When the instructor expressed displeasure at my tardiness, I apologized and explained what had happened.

His response was, "I'm really pretty angry and a little bit hurt because you're late."

I asked, " It sounds like you're still upset. How come?"

"Are you saying I have no right to be hurt and angry with you because you were late? I think I have every right to be upset," he answered.

"Yes, that's what I'm saying. I understand that you were hurt and angry when you thought I was late because of my own carelessness. Now that you know I made every effort, but failed because my bus broke down two miles from here, I don't think its appropriate for you to keep being angry with me."

"Wrong," he scolded. "You need to affirm my feelings. You need to let me know I have a right to feel the way I do and that it's OK for me to feel that way. If you can't learn when to affirm, you won't do well in pastoral care."

"I don't think those feelings should be affirmed," I told him. "It isn't appropriate for you to keep on being upset under the circumstances. It's just not good pastoral care to affirm behaviors that are inappropriate." The supervisory session went downhill from there.

When affirmation is inappropriate

There are times and circumstances where affirmation is ludicrous. There are also times when it affirms the irrational and feeds pathology.

I came into the pastoral care scene with some deep pain rooted in a background of child abuse. My supervisors and instructors modeled the healing techniques we were to learn by using them on me. There were times, however, that I doubted they knew what they were doing. I seemed to be weaker and sicker after their care. Sometimes, I came away feeling more stuck and hopeless than ever.

Then, I began to listen to find out what part of their care connected with those feelings. Often enough, it was when they made inappropriate use of affirmation. I grew less and felt more hopeless when I was "affirmed where I was at." It actually worked the opposite of healing.

On the other hand, when affirmation was confined to the role of an active listening tool, and someone honestly confronted my issues and feelings, real growth and healing happened.

What makes it inappropriate?

What was going on? I found an answer as I was browsing in the pastoral care library at work. In an old article, I found a statement that said that while some people with lots of higher education and lots of time on their hands respond well to tools like affirmation and leading questions that direct them to a gradual self-knowledge and discovery of their own cure, many more people do not.

People in a lot of pain, people with a heavy workload, and people from middle class and poor backgrounds, the article said, responded better to direct interventions that included identifying problem areas, confronting them, and suggesting remedial steps.

When I first read the article, I laughed. It was completely outdated. I'd been taught better. Now, I'm not laughing. I've seen more of what the universe of pastoral care offers and know it wasn't outdated.

Two key concepts

When do we affirm and when do we confront? Two Christian concepts hold the key—honesty and free choice.

Jesus is "the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world" (John 1:9). No matter how wrecked a life might be, there is some light. There are windows of opportunity and bits of knowledge that offer potential healing for spiritual sickness.

A person may have inappropriate outlooks and behavior patterns as a result of emotional abuse. He or she may have substance abuse problems whose roots are in trauma. No matter what the deficit, however, each one has some knowledge of right and wrong, and some spiritual light. Each person can be honest. Each has distinct windows of opportunity through which they can choose to look for that light.

Part of spiritual pathology is choosing not to act honestly on that limited supply of light. I have never met an abusive parent who did not know that child abuse was illegal and socially unacceptable. That knowledge is why they hide their activities. I have never seen an addict or alcoholic who did not know on some level that something was wrong with their lifestyle. That knowledge is why they make excuses and cultivate enablers. I have met many who choose not to confront that knowledge honestly—who hide behind the idea that since they are damaged souls, they cannot help what they do. Affirmation in the wrong places helps to entrench that idea.

When is it wrong to affirm?

What is the wrong time for affirmation? Anytime it conflicts with honesty or hampers free choice is the wrong time. Our ultimate model for pastoral care is Jesus, "who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth" (1 Peter 2:22). When affirmation turns into guile, it has crossed the line from pastoral care into rape.

Affirmation used as a manipulative tool to obtain a desired result from a counselee rapes their chance to have a model of honesty. Affirmation of a counselee's "right" to think, feel, and act in inappropriate ways rapes their chance to choose between right and wrong.

Let's look at examples of those two misuses of affirmation. A parish counselor was having a difficult time get ting a troubled parishioner to return for a follow-up visit because she expected to be confronted with the wrongness of her behaviors. Trying to gain compliance, he told her, "I hear you saying you feel I might put you down for some of the things you've confided to me. But, you know, you have a right to feel the way you do." The counselee heard this pastoral "white lie" as pastoral permission to continue those harmful behaviors.

A more honest way to secure compliance might have been, "I hear you saying that you feel I might put you down for some of the things you've confided to me. I'll be honest with you, I don't approve of some of what you're doing. But I'm not here to judge you. I'm here to listen and help. This is a safe place for you to come and talk. Can we make an appointment to meet next week?"

At a Christian counseling center, a client from an abusive background, who behaved in a hostile way toward co-workers was told, "It's understand able for you to react that way. You have lived your whole life around people who threatened your well being. It's understandable that you protect yourself now by warning people off." True, it was understandable. But the client heard the unqualified affirmation as, "You can't help behaving the way you do because life has damaged you."

A better approach might have been to both affirm the person and confront the behavior. "It's understandable that you've learned to react that way as a defense against being hurt by people. But I also hear you saying that you know it isn't the best way to deal with it." That way, the client would be affirmed as a person who has genuine feelings; while at the same time being encouraged to seek growth in what he knows is right.

A right time to affirm

What is the right time to affirm? Any time it strengthens a positive item, lets the other person know you really hear them, or to establish that you are taking their needs and issues seriously.

When a counselee says, "I know I need to stop beating my kids," affirm it as a positive step. "You're moving in the right direction. Can we talk about some things that can help you reach that goal?"

When someone tells you they are having trouble with alcohol because of a chronic pain problem, affirm it with active listening feedback. "So what you're saying is that, because of the pain from your accident, you began drinking to manage the pain."

When someone says, "My spouse is confined to a nursing home, so I've been meeting my sexual needs with someone else," affirm that you under stand that they have a real heartache, including the heartache of sin. "It sounds like you've gone through a lot of grief—losing your spouse in such a tragic way. Meeting your needs in a way that is at odds with your faith makes it even more painful."

Affirmation is a tool. Like most tools, it isn't good or bad by itself. How and when we use it makes the difference between crippling and healing results. If we affirm inappropriate or harmful behaviors and mindsets, we may cause harm by depriving people of the knowledge that they need to change. If we use affirmation as a way out of confronting the inappropriateness of others, our dishonesty gives permission for wrongdoing. If we affirm the truth and confront in love we preserve the right of our counselees to be told the truth, grow, change, and find real healing.

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Julia Vernon is an elder at the Salt Lake City Central Church and the Chaplain and Bereavement Coordinator at South David Hospice in Grantsville, Utah.

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