Recovering the value of valuing people: Validating affirmation as the source of a meaningful existence

Recovering the Value of Valuing People: Validating Affirmation as the Source of a Meaningful ExistenceWhen I think about the most important and influential moments or experiences in my life I realize that most if not all share a core, underlying feature in terms of either an absence or presence of perceived value. The moments in which I have felt most fully alive are those in which I have directly and powerfully sensed my personal value and worth; the moments in which I have felt less alive are those in which this sense has been lacking or absent. When I experience myself as valuable I feel electrified, as if fire is coursing through my veins and I can accomplish anything; I feel a profound sense of meaningful fulfillment. When I don’t experience myself as valuable, I feel empty and gutted, like a ghost drifting through an expansive void, invisible and powerless; I feel a profound sense of meaninglessness, of being unfulfilled.

I believe that self-value/worth is an essential aspect of our existence as human beings and that as such it is absolutely critical to our physical, psychological, social, and spiritual health. We have a vital, driving need to experience ourselves as valuable and worthy, for our lives and existences to be validated and affirmed. To the extent that they are, we grow and contribute to healing, to the extent that they are not, we self-destruct and take others down with us. A glaringly evident and alarming, although chronically repressed and ignored, characteristic of our present American cultural value system is the apparently great value we place on not valuing people. I would suggest that we have an extremely urgent cause for serious concern here.

How do we know that we are valuable? People know that they are valuable when they are valued, that is, as their value is intentionally communicated to them by another. But, one may rightfully ask, isn’t it possible for a person to initiate his or her own self-valuing process, to directly value him/herself without confirmation from an external source? Certainly…in fact, I would assert that there is a way in which a person’s psychological health can depend on a capacity for and ability to self-value, rather than excessively relying on others to provide such validation (i.e., “needy” dependency). Isn’t the life of an individual person innately valuable regardless of validation from someone else? Yes. If I were the only living human being, wouldn’t my existence still be inherently valuable even with no other human beings to value it? Yes. However, I believe it is also quite evident that as human beings, we learn how to experience our own value, and indeed, that we are valuable, as we develop within relational systems and contexts. There is a very real way in which we do not fully know and experience our own value until it is revealed to us through the validating affirmation of another…and we have the tragic misfortune of existing within a cultural value system that is committed to not valuing people. This is our bizarre dilemma.

I am certainly not asserting that the value of valuing people is not present at all within our American society. What I am claiming is that a value of not valuing people appears to be a much stronger presence and that our cultural health and well-being depend on changing this condition of our value system. Consider how often people are directly acknowledged for valuable services that they provide, whether in a professional or personal context, for helpful acts and sacrificial things they do for others. It’s not that we don’t care or genuinely appreciate these acts of service; indeed, I’m sure that we often politely say “thank you” and at times are truly grateful. Yet, we should also consider the disturbing extent to which we perhaps more often don’t even notice and are profoundly unaware of things that people do for us, their accomplishments, growth, and interpersonal behavior changes. Every day people perform well, at times superbly, in their professional or job roles, further realize their unique potentialities and demonstrate remarkable achievements, loved ones make sacrificial changes in our relational interactions, the value and worth of which we don’t meaningfully communicate to them. We merely expect such behaviors or assume that those exhibiting them don’t need validation or affirmation from us…but they do. Surely they know that we appreciate them and that they matter to us, right? Wrong. We shouldn’t have to directly communicate our gratitude, and hence, their value, right? Wrong again. They don’t just “know” without being told or shown and assuming they should be able to read our minds is a ridiculously unfair expectation to place on them.

I want to advocate for directly and intentionally communicating people’s value to them. When someone delivers exceptional service for you as a customer tell them how well they did, fill out a comment card or speak to a manager/supervisor. When an employee or supervisor performs their job duties well tell them and communicate it explicitly in a formal review. When a spouse/partner, family member, friend, or roommate alters behavior that you have asked them to change in your relationship openly acknowledge their sacrifice and how much it means to you. Conversely, when people don’t perform at a legitimately expected standard, when they make mistakes and fail, when they don’t live up to their given potential, when they disappoint and let us down, instead of shaming or condemning them, let’s seize the opportunity to validate their worth and affirm their value by communicating our belief in them, that we care about them and will support them in attempts to do and be better, to become their best selves. May our communication be direct, intentional, unambiguous, and heartfelt; rather than mumbling a vague and generic statement in the midst of busyness and distraction stop, look the person in the eye (or clearly write a note) and intentionally communicate to them that you care, that they matter to you, and that you value them.

Statements like “You did that so well,” “We value your accomplishments,” “Thank you for your service,” and “I am grateful for what you did for me” translate experientially into “Someone cares about me,” and “I am valuable,” which then translate into “I matter,” and “My life/existence is meaningful.” If a meaningful existence is grounded in the experience of self-value, as I believe it is, then we absolutely must become a culture that actively and seriously values the valuing of its members.

— Scott Kiser

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