Five Questions with Howard Kerner: Reflecting on 25 Years of Teaching Interpersonal Relationships

Posted on by Polk Newsroom


A quarter century ago, Polk State English Professor Howard Kerner quietly launched Interpersonal Relationships, hopeful that a dozen or so students might register for a course about communication, trust, and ultimately, love.

Kerner filled that first section, and he’s filled every section since, helping more than 2,500 students, by his estimate, to improve their relationships with both themselves and others.

One of the most recent students to experience the life-changing difference of the course: Trayvon Gibbs, who took Interpersonal Relationships this spring, the first semester it was offered at the Polk State JD Alexander Center in Lake Wales.

Gibbs took Kerner’s class to learn how to be more open with new people. During the spring semester, he worked to overcome his social reticence by starting a book club, which now has five members.

“I’ve found ways to self-evaluate and better myself,” Gibbs said. “Professor Kerner helped me to work on trusting and being friendlier with people I don’t know, to participate in more things, to talk to my teachers and other students more, and to be more outgoing.”

In 25 years of teaching Interpersonal Relationships, Kerner has seen the advent of social media and, not coincidentally, the erosion of self-esteem and human connection. Here, he reflects on all the ways the world, and his course, have changed since 1991, but also the tenets of Interpersonal Relationships that endure even in this day of Tinder hookups and Snapchat breakups. Namely, as Gibbs learned this semester, that to truly love others, we must truly love ourselves.

How do you think relationships have changed in the last 25 years?

The biggest change is not even the internet, although that is obviously a huge communication mechanism. When I started the course in 1991, I would say that self-esteem was shaky to low. Today, it’s nonexistent. It’s gone from ‘I’m not sure of myself’ to self-loathing, to ‘I want to destroy myself.’ During the past 25 years, I think we’ve seen the continued breakdown of families, which has robbed students of their context to acquire self-esteem. When you’re born, you don’t come out saying, ‘I love myself.’ That’s something you have to learn, and it should be modeled by families.

The internet does reinforce the lack of self-esteem, however. I have to practically surgically remove students’ phones from their hands. Online, they’re getting the cyber bullying and the shaming. They get the sense that the world, as represented on the internet, is turning on them.

In your course, you repeatedly remind students that they have to first love themselves in order to truly love or be loved by anyone else. During a recent lecture you told your students, “Everyone is going to leave you, your parents, your friends, your significant other. The only person who is not going to leave you is you, so you better like yourself a lot.” What specific steps do you suggest people take to learn to love themselves?

First, you have to identify where the negativity is inside you, what terrible things are in your head, and who put them there. You can’t go forward without going backward. My students will tell me that no one ever cared about them, or that their parents told them they were worthless. I try to explain that sometimes, you have to give yourself what you most need; you can’t wait for someone else to give it to you.

The meaning of love has gotten so twisted that people don’t understand that they don’t have to be perfect to love themselves. A lot of times, I sit with students and we do people building. I ask them, ‘What do you have?’ And they’re usually stumped. So I ask them, ‘Are you an evil person? Do you sit around thinking of ways to actively hurt others?’ And when they say no, I say, ‘So you’re a good person.’ Then I ask them, ‘What do you do well?’ They’ll say something like, ‘Well, I’m pretty good at soccer.’ And my response is, ‘So you’re a good person who is good at soccer.’ Then I ask them, ‘Do you have any friends?’ They’ll say, ‘One or two. We have fun and laugh together.’ So then they’re a good person who is good at soccer who has friends.

Many times, the relationship we have the most trouble with is the relationship with ourselves. It’s important to learn to love yourself even when others don’t. Healthy people are like reservoirs because they keep the love inside. Sick people are like colanders. They need constant attention and reinforcement because the love they get goes right through them. People are going to leave you, but how you react to that is up to you. Do you choose to feel bad about yourself when someone leaves you? If someone doesn’t like you, let them pick someone else. The worst thing you can do is change yourself to be what someone else wants. Because then they’ll want you to change again. Then they’ll leave you anyway and you won’t know who you are. If you lose yourself, you have nothing in this life.

How do you think modern communication has impacted interpersonal relationships?

The quantity of communication has increased exponentially since 1991, but the quality has gotten so much worse. People are mistaking text and tweets, which are just brief and fleeting forms of contact, for genuine love and appreciation. They’re mistaking quantity for quality. People are arranging hookups and breakups on text message. I had a student who got a text from her boyfriend of a year that said, ‘We’re through.’ That’s not something we should do to someone we’ve known for five minutes. Maybe we don’t intend to hurt each other, but so much of this instant communication is hurtful. It’s superficial. People are yearning for depth that is not being met by communication. They’re communicating, but they’re still lonely. Modern communication is like a bag of pennies; there is a lot of it and it feels heavy and like it means something, but then you take it to the bank and all you have is $10. There is nothing as fulfilling as sitting opposite someone you care about and talking with them face-to-face.

How do you think social media has affected the most important relationship — the relationship we have with ourselves?

Social media has created a sense of narcissism. It’s all about ‘me, me, me,’ which counteracts our well-being. What we really need is meaningful human interaction. It also intrudes on our self-time. We need time by ourselves for personal growth, and that can’t happen when we’re constantly checking our email or Facebook accounts to see what new sandwich has been posted. Social media turns everything outward when what’s waiting deep inside is going unrealized. It’s important to get away from the machines and ask important questions, like ‘Where am I in life and where do I want to be?’ and ‘What do I need to change and accept about myself?’ None of the answers are on the internet. They have to come from inside you.

It seems like you’re up against the world. You can tell your students to love themselves, but every time they do check social media, they’re inundated with photos of people who are thinner, richer, or more successful. What do you tell students to help them maintain their sense of self-esteem, even on days when everything seems so much better in everyone else’s lives?

It’s true that there are so many more stressors in life. Not only do we have the face-to-face putdowns that we’ve always had, but now we have cyber shaming and all these virtual insults. In addition, our sense of self-worth is being measured in how many ‘likes’ we get on our Facebook posts. If you have an off day, when you’re not thinking too highly of yourself, you have to tell yourself that you are entitled to make a mistake. Then you get up and try to do better the next day. That’s why it’s important to have balance and boundaries. You’re out of balance if you have too much virtual communication and not enough in person. Your self-esteem is not going to come to you over the internet.

The most important theme of the course, and one I cannot reiterate enough, is that if you don’t love yourself, you’ll never love anyone or feel loved by anyone — and therefore you’ll never be fully alive.

Interpersonal Relationships appears in course listings under SLS 1250. It is an elective for all curricula. Kerner will be offering sections of Interpersonal Relationships in the fall. For more information, contact him at