When we talk of “true love” most of us have an ideal in our minds of what that means…someone who will love us unconditionally for who we really are- not for our looks or what we can do for them or for who we know or for our accomplishments. We want to be loved for us, plain and simple, warts and all.

And yet, our world seems to militate against this kind of true and authentic love. It constantly presents to us idols in show business, among the rich and famous, in politics. It is enamored beyond measure with money, degrees and titles of importance. The serial monogamy of Hollywood relationships, and the transient nature of commitment to which we’ve become accustomed belies the very concept of true love. Sadly, so many have followed suit substituting the appearance of love and commitment with material and temporal benefits that can never meet that deep inner yearning. Our addiction epidemic is a sad symptom of a society that has lost all sense of its own goodness. The tenuous nature of the “love” that too many have received in childhood has left them weakened against a world bent on its own destruction…and theirs.

Affirmation: Love Applied Effectively

“The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.” – St. Teresa of Calcutta

Mother Teresa described the poverty of the West as a poverty of love. A more accurate term to describe this inner need of the heart is affirmation, which I would define as love applied effectively. The late Drs. Anna Terruwe and Conrad Baars pioneered what is now known as affirmation therapy which highlights and addresses this need for receiving authentic love in a way that strengthens the individual and enables his healthy growth to maturity.

So what exactly is affirmation? Dr. Baars would describe it this way: when someone is present to another with all of their being, they allow themselves to be moved in their hearts by the goodness of the other and they reflect it back to them in a way that the other can feel.

Now stop and let that sink in slowly. What does it mean to be present to another?  It means you’re attending to them fully, not distracted by other things, not divided within your heart. You’re simply there and able to receive the other in their being. One of the reasons that breastfeeding an infant is so important is that it facilitates a bonding between mother and baby. The physical closeness and warmth, the eye contact, the caresses all communicate to that child that mama is present and that he exists. Her smiles and soft voice let the child know that someone sees him and his existence is good for that other. Something similar can happen with bottle feeding when the mother is unable to breastfeed if there is the same intimate interaction.  Propping a child up with a bottle in the crib however loses this crucially important emotional nourishment that contributes to the child’s healthy development.

As a child grows this need for presence takes different forms but remains imperative. Crouching down, smiling, tickling and playing peek-a-boo effectively communicates to a toddler “I see you. You’re good. I delight in you.” This is critical for every child in order to be affirmed- i.e. made firm– in his own goodness and come to fully possess himself as worthy of love.

This need for affirmation continues, with different emphases through the adolescent years. This period can be especially challenging for parents as children rebel and seek to individuate from mom and dad. If the parents are not adequately affirmed themselves, this phase can be particularly trying and lead to significant conflict and alienation and disruption in the affirming process that is still incomplete.

Lack of affirmation is an epidemic in the world today. In it’s most severe form it is known as Emotional Deprivation Disorder. It is that poverty of the west to which St. Teresa of Calcutta referred. So let’s look more deeply at how that develops and in part two we’ll look at what can be done to remedy it.

The Lack of Affirmation

When adults have not received the gift of themselves from another, it leaves them with a psychological deficit.

This busy and highly technological world can militate against living the affirming life that facilitates true affirmation. Parents, distracted by work or financial stress, marital discord, addictions or their own inner conflicts, are often unable to be fully present to their children. Many parents are unaffirmed themselves and simply cannot give what they have not adequately received growing up. Their willed gestures of love that do not come from a heart that is attentive to the other fail to move the heart of the child who can sense their lack of emotional authenticity and connection. The child is left frustrated in the vital need to be seen, accepted and loved.

Sometimes circumstances are to blame. A traumatic experience or loss, extreme financial stress or caring for a critically ill child or elderly parent can demand so much time and attention, (understandably so), that there may not be adequate time and energy for the children. No one is at fault but the results can be the same. I often think of the scene from “It’s a Wonderful Life” when George Bailey returns home after discovering the loss of the $8,000. Distressed and distracted, he can’t be present to his children or his wife, so preoccupied as he was with his problem. For many children today, such a distressed parent is the norm.

When adults have not received the gift of themselves from another, it leaves them with a psychological deficit. Unsure of themselves on an emotional level, they have grown to adulthood physically and intellectually but still feel like children inside. Until they understand what’s missing and the way to truly find healing, many fall into behaviors that only increase their frustration.

Coming Next: What to Do When You’re Unaffirmed

We’ll take a look in part two at these common mistakes and at what you can do to remedy Emotional Deprivation Disorder and find lasting happiness.