Written by: Esther Vemberly
Editor: Ghafi Reyhan
Illustrator: Pricharia Via
What comes to your mind after posting on social media? How many likes you’d get? Or how many comments left? So be it latter or even both, I’m sure that’s what the majority of us think of. Most of us regard ‘likes’ and complimentary ‘comments’ on our social media platforms as the embodiment of affirmation and validation. This is because ‘positive’ comment is a form of “words of affirmation”–one of the five love languages (Gary Chapman, 2020). Although people have distinct types of love language that they are dominant of, we cannot deny the fact that being praised and acknowledged by others is an unavoidable desire we all have.
It is within human nature to seek validation from others. It comes in different forms: seeking approval from teachers; dressing up to be complimented by others; providing love and support to receive a word of “thank you” from the loved ones; and many more. However, such actions became more tangible during the pandemic, when our interactions are limited to text messages and social media. Consequently, online comments like “how pretty!”, “aesthetic!”, “love you!” has become a powerful “coping mechanism” for those who “continuously” seek validation, especially for teenagers as their identity is in part “based on relationships and feedback from others” (Williams, 2018). Though many of us might wonder, how exactly does it affect us?
How do words of affirmation work?
The power of words of affirmation might be bigger than we all think: it has the power to change the very fabric of human brains. This is because compliments incite the occurrence of a cycle in our brain that releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter produced by our brains’ hypothalamus, ventral striatum, and medial prefrontal cortex: the engine of motivation and productivity mechanism (Huda, 2018).
As teenagers have higher activation of ‘dopamine release’ than adults (National Institutes of Health, 2007), it makes us more prone to seek validation and sense embarrassment (Cahalan, 2018). Moreover, teens are more likely to act on emotional impulses and be influenced by external factors as their frontal cortex (responsible for controlling risk-taking) has not fully developed yet (AACAP, 2016).
Words of affirmation in our daily life
Words of affirmation like “It’s ok, you can do better next time” or “You are a hard worker” activates our dopamine reward circuit hence increasing our focus and performance on the task at hand (Cooper, 2014). To acquire the same sensation, we are encouraged to produce the same or better outcome in the future hence reassuring us that we possess the capability to perform better. These factors became the underlying reason why words of affirmation have a significant role in improving performance.
The positive impacts of words of affirmation would double when uttered by the people we trust such as when children’s self esteem is increased by their parents’ positive comments. When said by the people we trust, words of affirmation will also prompt us to have a better response to events in our life. Nevertheless, when words of affirmation between loved ones are just thrown around without sincerity, it will instead erode the existing trust between them.
The lack of sincerity in words of affirmation has become even more visible after the advent of social media. The negative impacts from this phenomenon arose when social media users start to compare the amount of likes and positive comments that they receive (Cuncic, 2020) which can potentially urge them to engage in negative behavior such as by sadfishing–making exaggerated emotional posts to gain sympathy and photo manipulations to gain social media popularity and flattery. Ironically, their recently acquired flattery would just undermine any positive effects they might feel from being praised (Blatchford, 2017). Assumptions, such as, “Is there any ulterior motives behind these flattering words?” or “Is this person being sarcastic?” will dominate their thoughts and will result in a low self-esteem (Hou, 2019).
Maintaining a healthy dose of words of affirmation
To avoid the negative impacts of words of affirmation, we need to differentiate sincere compliments with insincere ones. Sincere compliments tend to highlight specific positive actions while insincere compliments are nonspecific and offer no direction for improvement. For example, compliments like “Your work has improved from before” contain a clear point of comparison than saying “I think it’s already the best.” Furthermore, sincere compliments are given by people who are confident, an inspiration for others, and enjoy self-growth while insincere compliments come from flatterers who feed on other’s ego as they tend to adulate everyone (Khurana, 2019).
Alternately, criticisms can also be an antidote to the negative impacts of words of affirmation. Although criticism can remain longer in our minds due to negativity bias (Jaworski, 2020) and outweigh the benefits of positive comments, they can bring greater good when responded by steps for self-improvement and conveyed constructively. Constructive criticism can be differentiated from destructive criticism in terms of scope and purpose. Constructive criticism aims to help someone grow while destructive criticism intends to hurt someone. This difference in intention is carried over to the object of criticism. For example, a constructive criticism on a writer would focus on the quality of the writer’s work and bring up possible points of improvement. Meanwhile, a destructive criticism will solely focus on the writer’s character and personal features without offering a viable solution.
Retrospecting on the impacts of words of affirmation
In conclusion, the love language, “words of affirmation” is crucial for self growth and the improvement of one’s behavior and performance, especially among teenagers. Even more, when said by a significant other, words of affirmation can build deeper trust in the relationship. However, seeking words of affirmation excessively in the wrong platform through the wrong method such as “begging” for flattery in social media has proven to be harmful. In short, words of affirmation still need to be balanced with constructive criticisms and not all methods are viable to acquire words of affirmation.
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