Dale Carnegie recognized a simple fact: that people like to hear their name spoken. Why is that? Is it only an ego-satisfying thing?
I’ve had encounters with salespeople who used my first name to influence me toward making a purchase. Instead, their efforts produced the opposite effect. Why was I turned off? Because they invoked familiarity when it didn’t exist.
I believe the impact of speaking one’s name touches on a much deeper need within us: the desire to be known.
Is affirmation the answer?
During my high school and college years, I participated in several programs where the members of a small group would take turns sharing the positive characteristics they saw in each other. This affirmation exercise, a technique borrowed from the encounter movement, was thought to strengthen the self-esteem of its participants.
Indeed, the process often evoked powerful emotions. But I noticed a curious thing occurred over time. Attempts to arouse the original effect seemed to fall short, with each subsequent effort at affirmation producing less and less of a response.
The reason is that affirmation, and its presumed benefit, an increase in one’s self-esteem, have a ceiling effect. This means that repeated attempts at building someone up would result in diminishing returns, and in some circumstances, could even lead to an unhealthy response. Why does this happen?
First, we don’t gain benefit by going beyond the truth; by trying to affirm something that’s false. Whether through statements of affirmation or love, the words must be accurate to carry weight. Sure, we can be fooled into accepting false assessments that tickle our ego, but day-to-day living has a way of readjusting our view.
Second, the truth about ourselves also includes a lot of negativity. We are imperfect, sin-damaged people who carry with us varying degrees of pain and darkness. Affirmation tries to step around these, but deep down, we know the truth.
Third, we form a self-concept in reference to feedback we receive from those we encounter. When our experience is generally positive, we feel more secure. On the other hand, if our milieu is mostly negative, we’ll reap the opposite reaction. Our subconscious tries to negotiate the difference between our self-concept and these outside messages. But disregarding the world and its opinions is no better, for what do we use as a reference point? Imagining things about ourselves without basis in reality leads to fantasy, unrealistic expectations, and narcissism.
Finally, once you’ve accepted the affirmations, what’s next? If you’ve been deprived of positive regard or continue to be put down by others, the benefits may linger. But there will come the point where you will say, “So what?”
Being known vs. remaining hidden
What we really want more than affirmation is to be known, but only if someone will love, care for, and value us for who we are and as we are. This happens when our friend enjoys our company and wants to know us and be near us despite acknowledging our many flaws. Becoming known to others comes with some risk—the pain of rejection.
Whether we are conscious of them or not, we see our deeper wounds and brokenness. Harboring fear, and perhaps guilt, we compromise the desire to be known by adopting an opposite strategy— to remain hidden—an approach that goes back to Adam and Eve.
We create online personas and cast images of ourselves of who we want to be, or we think others will like. We can hide from ourselves so long, that we don’t even recognize who we are.
God gives us another option. He created us in His image. Can a favorable view of oneself get any better than that?
At the same time, we are also broken and sinful people. Trying to ignore that fact won’t make it go away.
God is both perfect Truth and Love. Even at our worst—and He knows every jot of our faults—He still loves us. He demonstrated this love through His Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus is the one Person who can meet what our heart truly desires—to be known and loved as we really are.
A new approach
Having come to know and be known by our Lord and Savior, we can take what we have received and share it with the world. We can move beyond merely speaking someone’s name and become an instrument of God’s love—a sacrament—to everyone we encounter, helping them to meet their most profound need to be known. This means:
- We seek the divine image in each person.
Once we discover it, we reflect what we see back to the other person through our words and actions.
- We recognize this image in the midst of its human and sin-stained trappings.
We need not be blind to others’ faults nor allow ourselves to be blinded by them.
- Even when we are turned off or repulsed by what we find, we go ahead and choose to love anyway.
Let us be a sign of God’s love when there’s nothing else in it for us. Let’s strive to help others know Jesus, for he alone can fully meet our need to be known.