Being Recognized and RememberedBeing Recognized and Remembered

In this article, we will use affect theory to help enhance our understanding of the needs of human beings to be recognized and remembered. We will begin with everyday examples, then discuss the self and affect theory.

How are we to understand human needs for recognition and being remembered? The wish to be important, to make an impact, to gain notoriety? To be thought of, talked about, idealized and adored? Is it innate to human beings as the result of an evolutionary process, necessary as part of the parent-infant attachment for survival?

Geologic Time

Stephen Jay Gould

Stephen Jay Gould

There is one important issue we need to consider as we launch this discussion. It involves a mixture of cognitive and emotional factors. This is the notion of geologic time. Geologic time is a system of chronologic dating that relates geologic strata to time. It is used by geologists, paleontologists, and other earth scientists to describe the timing and relationships of events that have occurred during the earth’s history.

Humans seem to have cognitive and emotional difficulty appreciating geologic time—the huge number of years of the earth’s existence as studied by geologists and paleontologists. The sun is about 4.6 billion years old. Our solar system is about 4.57 billion years old. The earth? About 4,543,000,000 years old (4.543 billion).

In 100-200 years from now, how many people will be readily remembered from the 21st century? How about 500 years from now…maybe 10-20, perhaps more by historians and specialists in various fields? How about 10,000 years from now? 100,000 years? Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould (1993) noted that over 99% of all species known on earth are now extinct.

So—whom are we kidding when we speak of legacy, being remembered, and the like?  This reality and the vagaries of life can overwhelm us, leading to magical thinking, cognitive disorders, or disavowal (Gedo, 2005). The sense of non-existence is not a comfortable feeling, as Donald Winnicott so eloquently described (1965). Might the intensity and prevalence of the need to be remembered and recognized benefit from further explorations into early development and affect theory?


Some common ideas and everyday lives can address these issues—fear of death, non-existence, being forgotten, one’s self and self-esteem. These issues and questions pervade our art, history, fiction, non-fiction, politics, and more.

One example comes from John Adams, the second President of the United States. He noted the ‘passion for distinction’ in men and women:

“—whether they be old or young, rich or poor, high or low, wise or foolish, ignorant or learned, every individual is seen to be strongly actuated by a desire to be seen, heard, talked of, approved and respected” (McCullough, p. 421).

He elaborated:

“I am often astonished at the boldness with which persons make their pretensions. A man must be his own trumpeter—he must write or dictate paragraphs of praise in the newspapers; he must dress, have a retinue and equipage; he must ostentatiously publish to the world his own writings with his name…He must get his picture drawn, his statue made, and must hire all the artists in his turn to set about works to spread his name, make the mob stare and gape, and perpetuate his fame” (McCullough, p. 207-8).

Journalist Heidi Stevens presented a poignant episode between mother and child which expands the discussion about being recognized and remembered.

“I watched a toddler sitting near me catch his mom’s eye across the pool. She was in a  mom-and-baby swim session a few lanes down from my son, maybe with the toddler’s younger sibling and the toddler watched them intently, waiting for his mom to look through the foggy glass and notice him.

When she did, he went wild. “Mama!” he yelled and waved. “Mama! Hi mama!”

She couldn’t hear him. But she smiled and waved. He waved some more and yelled Mama some more.

I cried. Of course, I cried. I cried typing this. You watch a toddler utterly filled with joy as the simple sight of his mom’s wave and keep a dry eye”
(Stevens, Chicago Tribune, 11/11/18).

The Self

Donald Winnicott

Donald Winnicott

Virtually all psychological theories of motivation and behavior make an effort to grapple with the problem of the self. The concept of self has a long and current complicated history with a large literature. A comprehensive review is beyond our scope, but some trends should be noted. The focus here is on in-depth psychological studies, with neurobiological studies being summarized elsewhere (eg, Gedo, 2005; Demos, 2019: Panksepp & Bevin, 2012).

There are a variety of well-known psychoanalytic efforts to deal with the self and its development. Freud’s models, Winnicott’s True and False Self (1960), Erikson’s eight stages, motivational systems such as Lichtenberg proposed, Daniel Stern’s developmental model (emergent, core, subjective, narrative self), Gedo & Goldberg’s hierarchical model of development (1973), Gedo (2005), and others are examples. Virginia Demos (2019) suggested that self-organization is primarily based on two issues: coherence/organization; and being an active agent. Goldberg (2015) highlighted the need to distinguish between the brain, mind, and self:

“One is a vital organ composed of neurons, synapses and computer-like activity. One covers the vast area of meaning and offers us an entry into interpretive science, which stands apart from empirical science. And one is the seat of agency, which defines our individuality. It is necessary that the three are never reduced to the one or the other, despite the lure of reductionism.” (p.14)

Heinz Kohut

Heinz Kohut

Heinz Kohut’s work increased the focus on the self and self-pathology (1966, 1971, 1984). Kohut defined the self as the independent center of initiative. Kohut, along with the developmentalists, systematically considered the effects of others on the self. Galatzer-Levy and Cohler expanded this integration in their book The Essential Other (1993), highlighting the internal-external integration throughout life.

These studies increasingly seemed to make explicit not only the differences between the intrinsic aspects of the self and the extrinsic influences on development, but also the integration of the two. Greenspan’s notion of Floortime (1992, 1997) suggests providing psychological functions and assistance for the child—eliciting the child’s self rather than imposing. Winnicott also highlights this issue with his ideas about impingement, True and False Self, and the like (1960, 1965). These ideas on self-development focus on the integration between extrinsic and intrinsic perspectives—between the value of validation and attunement from the extrinsic world (eg, Stern, 1985), and the value of competence and initiative as achieved internally (White, 1959; Basch, 1988; Gedo, 2005). As Winnicott noted, the “theory behind this is that suitable environmental provision facilitates the internal motivational process” (1965, p.194).

The need for support and environmental provision (be it psychological oxygen, recognition, interest, whatever) also appears to be important throughout development. Individuals may have different needs at different points in life, due to life’s challenges and/or their own goals and capacities.

Affect Theory

Silvan Tomkins

Silvan Tomkins

We turn now to Tomkins and current affect theory. Recall that for Tomkins, the primary motivators are the innate affects (interest, enjoyment, surprise, distress, anger, fear, shame, disgust, and dissmell (1981, 1991). These affects are conveyed via the face, vocalizations, and movements. Affects represent a stimulus-response system, and they are triggered by stimulus increase, stimulus level, and stimulus decrease.

These affects can be readily seen in infancy. With age and further development of the cerebral cortex, the affects remain, but humans can alter the expressions. The face and eyes are important—the notion of “the gleam in the eye” and being seen. As Darwin noted. the gleam in the eye is not just a metaphor—with joy often comes secretion, and sometime tears, from the lacrimal glands (1872).

In addition, infants appear programmed to focus most on the eyes and the mouth (Stern, 1985). This makes sense, given that the eyes and mouth have most of the small muscles in the face, enhancing communication of affect. Infants can initiate and terminate interpersonal contact through their eyes (Stern, 1985; Demos, 2019). As Adam Phillips notes about Winnicott’s ideas, “Not to be seen by the mother, at least at the moment of the spontaneous gesture, is not to exist” (1988, p. 130).

Tomkins emphasizes the importance of the eyes in intimate relationships as well as in development. The significance of the eyes shows up in art as well. Bob Dylan described the profound impact when he, as a youth, made eye contact with Buddy Holly at one of Buddy’s concerts (Chronicles, 2004).  Dylan’s song, “The Levee’s Gonna Break,” also conveys the power of the eyes:

“Well, I look in your eyes, I see nobody other than me.

I look in your eyes, I see nobody other than me.

I see all that I am and all that I hope to be.”

Tomkins conceived of script theory to account for the role of affect in the development of the self and character structure.

“In script theory, I define the scene as the basic element in life as it is lived…{It} includes at least one affect and at least one object of that affect” (1991, p. 74).

Connecting one affect-laden scene with another affect-laden scene involves the formation of scripts. The script deals with the individual’s rules for predicting, interpreting, responding to and controlling a set of scenes. In this model, eliciting positive affects of interest and enjoyment is the gateway to an authentic sense of self, whereas the negative affects of fear, shame, and disgust are inhibitors.

This raises the issue of what underlies aspects of self-esteem and the need for recognition. The importance of attachment in the development of the child’s sense of self and need for recognition has frequently been discussed. René Spitz showed years ago the damage that lack of emotional attention and attachment could cause (1945, 1965). Affect theory aids in understanding various aspects of attachment and self-development.

Affect theory currently reframes the ideas of J. Bowlby, P. Fonagy, and other attachment theorists regarding a specific attachment drive. Rather, affects are seen to underlie aspects of attachment, and attachment is mediated by affects. As Demos (1989) stated.

…attachment theory as representated in the works of Bowlby (1969), Ainsworth et al. (1978); Sroufe and Waters (1977)…argues that there is a preorganized behavioral, emotional perceptual system specialized for attachment which has been inherited from our primate ancestors and is designed to decrease the physical distance between the infant and the caregiver in time of danger. By contrast, the view presented here [that is, Tomkins and colleagues] speaks of highly organized and coordinated systems that the infant has inherited from evolutionary processes but conceptualizes these systems at a more basic and general level, for example, the perceptual, cognitive, affective, motor, and homeostatic systems, which are designed to function equally well in the inanimate world, and in safe as well as dangerous moments (p. 293).

Child Showing InterestInterest and Enjoyment

This would suggest that the affect of interest plays a crucial role in the formation of the self. This seems to involve two aspects.

  1. Interest in the infant for him/herself.
  2. Interest in the child’s interests—that is, what the child seems innately interested in.

Caregivers may or may not be interested in the child per se, and may or may not be interested in what the child responds to. Enjoyment, as a decrease in tension, is also related to a sense of being of interest, being recognized —this brings us back to caregivers having fun with the child, playing with the child. In terms of affect theory, the positive affects of interest and enjoyment may be a useful way to conceptualize issues of development of a sense of self, self-esteem, and need for recognition both early in life and throughout the later years.

How about those with an impaired sense of self? How does that come about? From infant research and clinical work with children and adults, we learn that the lack of interest from the caregivers, as well as the negative affects of distress, anger, fear, shame, and disgust, can significantly impair development and one’s sense of self.

In addition, enhancing the infant’s own affect of interest (curiosity) is crucial to his/her self-development, with respect to augmented curiosity, exploration, learning about oneself, self-reflection, cognition, and so on. The negative affects of fear, shame, etc., can profoundly inhibit the interest of the child.

Do these dynamics lead to a greater need for recognition and adoration from the outside world? From an evolutionary perspective, if mother is not interested in the baby, and vice versa, would the species have a viable future?


One way to consider these issues involves extrinsic and intrinsic perspectives and the relationships between the two. Infants appear to need some level of interaction, recognition and interest, psychological oxygen, validation, encouragement of their efforts, and so on. There is also an intrinsic perspective: The sense of interest, joy, and competence in being able to accomplish something (e.g., White (1959), Harlow (Pink, 2009), and Basch (1988). Thus one needs to consider both intrinsic and extrinsic sources and their interactions when grappling with the development of self-esteem and need for recognition.



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