A few weeks ago, I was having coffee with a pastor friend of mine who I went to seminary with and also went to UCONN with. We were at Tisane in Hartford, catching up on life and ministry. He has been a source of grace for me during a time when few extend it; he also understands the dynamics of ministry and being a pastor, so that is helpful. I think for this reason we can mutually extend grace, understanding and encouragement. I enjoy our times getting coffee.
Towards the end of our conversation — me in my chef whites, needing to get to class a few blocks away — I shared with him one of the things I have been learning about myself.
If you are familiar with the book “Five Love Languages” by Gary Chapman, you know that he has identified five primary love languages as:
1. Words of Affirmation
2. Quality Time
3. Receiving Gifts
4. Acts of Service
5. Physical Touch
He talks about it primarily in terms of romantic and marriage relationships, but I think the idea of an “affirmation pathway” applies beyond romantic relationships. We are all wired to need/desire different types of affirmation. I have discovered for me that words of affirmation are really important to me.
I have noticed this even working in a kitchen. A passing verbal affirmation from the executive chef actually motivates me to keep going far more than a raise would, a gift or anything else. And the lack of verbal affirmation, drains me more than almost anything. It has taken me a while to understand this about myself.
I need… crave… desire… verbal affirmation.
I don’t know if that is in and of itself a bad thing. It just is. It may be partially how I am wired, but I also think it comes from a deficit as a kid. Strong verbal affirmation was just not part of the deal growing up.
Probably the second affirmation language for me is quality time.
Anyway, when you need something (verbal affirmation) and don’t get, you will do things to produce it. This can be very true in the context of ministry. In ministry, it is really hard to get authentic verbal affirmation. You get lots of platitudes (not the same… and can actually be a bit soul killing) and you get lots of personal attacks (goes with the territory… you wouldn’t believe some of the things people have said to me, written to me, etc — even before 8 months ago, lol). But you get very little authentic verbal affirmation.
And when you do, for me at least, there was always this lingering thought of “IF THEY REALLY KNEW ME, THEY WOULDN’T SAY THAT.” Now apart from the ironic fact that this has turned out to be true, just the thought can be soul-killing in and of itself. It meant that the very thing I needed most, by definition, I could not get. This left me often discouraged, deflated and insecure.
But there were two people who gave me authentic verbal affirmation consistently. My best friend and ministry partner has always been a great encourager to me and for me. And the congregant whom I had a relationship with. He was someone who gave me great feedback, critique and verbal affirmation on a regular basis — after sermons and in other contexts. And he, more than anyone, knew everything about me — my sin, my failures, my self-doubts, my hurts, my disappointments, my struggles. He knew me and still liked me… and so his affirmation counted for a lot.
Anyway, as I was describing all of this to my pastor friend, it instantly became clear — as if the Holy Spirit was shouting in my face — how I had gotten caught up in a vicious cycle and how I had allowed what happened to have happened.
Because this is one of the questions that really haunts me… how did I allow this to happen? How did I allow myself to hurt so many people I deeply cared about? How did I allow myself to cross so many obvious boundaries? How did this happen.
It was a vicious cycle… that eventually spun out of control.
So what now?
I still need verbal affirmation. I think that is part of who I am. Will always be. And is not bad.
But now I am living with no secrets, no hiddenness. And that means a lot of people who thought they liked me before now know that they don’t. But the people who do like me… are friends… and offer affirmations… do so authentically, knowing me.
Also, I think understand the dynamics of emotional need, emotional deficit, and how we try and fill the gap, allows me to be more self-aware and therefore avoid trouble in the future. And an important part of this is my accountability circle — people I talk to about this stuff.
It is hard to have to dig and analyze and try and figure out what happened. A lot of people would say it is not necessary or worthwhile to do. Some, because they think I am such a failure that it doesn’t really matter; others because they think I should just pick up and move on with life, with no worries to the past. Respectfully, both are wrong.
Self-understanding (not, self-focus) is essential to Christ-like living. The only way to fully die to self is to know the self that must die and be raised again. This is not spiritual or emotional masturbation, but part of a healing and growing and discipleship process.
And that process can be really messy and hard and sometimes feel futile.
But if it is a process done hand-in-hand with Jesus, it is a fruitful and necessary one.
I guess all to say, pray for me as I continue this journey…