As much as I tried to look away, I could not help but be drawn to the heated interaction at our local public pool. I didn’t want to embarrass the woman by staring, but it quickly became apparent that she didn’t seem to care who was watching her berate a crying kid. I suspect the grandma thought she was “encouraging” her terrified grandson who—despite donning a life vest in a foot of water—did not want to leave the side of the pool. Looking back, I’m unsure if the three-year-old was more petrified of the water or the grandma. She completely ignored the boy’s plea to let him safely sit on the side of the pool because “THERE’S NOTHING TO BE AFRAID OF! DON’T BE A BABY. STOP CRYING! STOP CRYYINNGG!!” The look on the kid’s face was heartbreaking. 

The torture of this child finally ended when the disgusted grandma dumped him back at the side of the pool with these parting words, “YOU SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF YOURSELF.” Ashamed indeed. Seeing the little boy with downcast eyes sitting alone in his shame broke my heart. 

a young boy sitting on top of a large rock

A few minutes later, I walked by the young boy. He was sitting on the pool’s edge, aimlessly kicking his feet in the water, his eyes still downcast. 

I bent down to encourage him: “I love how you’re kicking the water like that! You are really brave!”

The boy looked up with an unsure look, so I continued.

“You could have given up and walked away, but here you are, still in the water! I’m really proud of you.” (Okay, so it was only his feet in the water, but still…).

The boy’s face brightened, and he began to kick the water more vigorously. 

“Oh wow! Look at you go! That’s so cool you can kick so fast! What’s your name?” 

The little boy jumped into the shin-deep water and proudly announced, “My name is Billy (not his real name).” 

“Well, Billy, it’s very nice to meet you. You are such a courageous boy. Look at you stand in the water!” 

That was all this little boy needed to come back to life. He then showed me how he could splash his hands in the water and jump up and down. With each new display of courage, I affirmed his effort. Billy then followed me across the pool and put his little hand in mine to cement our new friendship. He beamed at me, seemingly thankful to have someone who believed in him. 

Billy’s older sister walked over and marveled at her brother’s transformation. “He never has fun at the pool. He only ever screams,” she said. 

“Not anymore, sissy. Your brother is a very brave boy.” 

Although it might be tempting to villainize Billy’s grandma at this point in the story, my heart went out to her. I sensed that she was only replicating what was done to her as a little girl. When I later spoke to the grandma, I tried to encourage her by expressing what a sweet grandson she had; I saw her visibly soften. “I like taking all my grandkids and great-grandkids here. I’m a swimmer and want them to swim too.” Bless her. I got the impression she was doing the best she could.

Sadly, our conversation got cut short because she needed to dry off and get to work. She grabbed the disappointed Billy and started to walk away, but not before stopping to yell over her shoulder: “If you ever go to Domino’s Pizza on Monroe, look me up. That’s where I work. Just ask for Sharon (also not her real name)”. Oh. I guess we’re friends now. 

Giving someone identity can have that effect on a person. 

man in knit cap and scarf in grayscale photography

So, what do I mean by giving someone identity? According to the authors of The Connection Codes: The Blueprint and Tools for Creating the Relationships You Crave, we receive identity when we get positive answers to the following questions: 

-Do I exist to you?

-Do I matter to you?

-Do I have value and significance to you?

-Am I good enough for you?

If we don’t get yes answers to these questions, we lose identity. Identity is the need to know “I matter.” According to therapist and author Dr. Glenn Hill, this need is coded within us from birth. We connect with people from whom we receive identity. We’re coded to move toward those people. (Remember how Billy followed me across the pool and grabbed my hand?)

We don’t connect with people from whom we don’t receive identity (or those who cause us to lose identity). We are coded to move away from those people. If this doesn’t make sense to you, imagine how you would feel if you went up to a stranger at a party to introduce yourself, and they responded by saying, “Oh, sorry. I have someone else I want to talk to right now,” and they walked away from you. (I’m cringing as I type those words. I’d want the floor to open so I could disappear!) A loss of identity can cause you to feel like that. 

person covering face with hands outdoors

It’s important to note that we never outgrow the need for identity…much like we never outgrow the need for food or water. Although there are many obvious ways that we lose identity—like Billy’s grandma telling him he should be ashamed of himself—there are other, more subtle ways that chip away at our feelings of significance. 

One common way we do this is when we disregard the experience of another person; when we disregard a person’s experience, we effectively disregard the person. This is a surefire way to cause someone to lose identity. For example, if a wife tells her husband that she felt belittled by her boss at work and the husband says, “Oh, I’m sure he didn’t mean it the way you took it,” this would likely result in a loss of identity for the wife. The husband has disregarded his wife’s experience.

Another thing that causes someone to lose identity is to give someone a “still face.” A “still face” means looking at someone with no emotion or feedback. In a famous experiment by Dr. Edward Tronick, a baby is seated facing her mother while the mother talks, smiles, and makes eye contact with her child. The infant responds by vocalizing, smiling back, and pointing at things in the room. At one point, the mother turns away and then resumes looking at the baby; this time, the infant sees her mother’s still, unsmiling face. The baby goes into overdrive to reengage her mother—trying everything that previously got her attention, but the mother’s face remains still. Although the mom is physically in front of the baby, she has completely disengaged relationally. Heartbreakingly, the baby becomes more and more distressed until the mom starts to reengage. (If you have two minutes, you can see the entire interaction here.)

The truth is, the loss of identity (remember, “Do I matter to you?”) from receiving a still face is not limited to babies; it is a human experience that affects all of us, regardless of age. We all have been there: It’s that moment when your heart sinks because you feel like you don’t matter to the other person. It’s the worst.

Most people don’t try to cause another person to lose identity. Still, every time we bury our faces in our phones with someone in front of us, it is the equivalent of giving them a still face, and a loss of identity results. I know that has been the case for me! I want to disappear when someone picks up their phone while talking with me. Our kids feel that same way, too. 

Dr. Gabor Maté is one of many professionals who advocate minimizing the screen time parents spend in front of their children. He has said that frequently phoning, emailing, and texting in front of your kids gives them the message that they don’t matter. I wonder how many of us have unintentionally caused someone else to lose identity because of our phone habits. I believe that most of us have room to improve in this area.

By committing to give other people identity, we will help them know they matter and have significance. Think back to the words I spoke to Billy; they were simple, yet they greatly impacted him. Below are a few suggestions that could help others gain identity.

  • Commit to reducing the time on your phone in front of others. Refuse to look at your phone while you’re talking to your children.
  • If you spend time on social media, commit to leaving at least one encouraging comment to someone you follow every time you scroll.
  • Tell your child and significant other that you appreciate them regularly.
  • Instead of constantly telling your child what they are doing wrong, try to catch them doing something right:
  1. “I appreciate how you helped your brother put on his backpack.”
  2. “I love that you told me that story!”
  3. “Thank you for letting me know you were going to be late.”
  4. “You did such a good job figuring out that puzzle!”
  • Make eye contact and smile at strangers out in public.
  • Validate the experience of other people by telling them that you hear them. You don’t have to agree with them to acknowledge their experience. Remember, it’s their experience!
  • If it’s not possible to fully commit to listening to someone when they want to talk, suggest another time to speak to them when you can give them your full attention.

Let me finish by thanking you all for being such a supportive and faithful group of readers. I love hearing from each one of you when you reach out! (I hope you received identity in that comment!)

If you want to learn more about connecting emotionally, I would be delighted to be your guide!

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