Why you should care
Because for some people, “cheer up” might actually be the worst advice.
Most of us know at least one Eeyore: that perennially down-in-the-dumps friend, moping about everything from her clunker car to yet another dateless, Netflix night in.
People with low self-esteem want their loved ones to see them as they see themselves.
While it might be tempting to utter the classic “At least you have a car” or “There’s always next Saturday night,” a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology last month found that pick-me-ups might do, well, exactly the opposite. “Positive reframing,” or putting a sunny spin on negative circumstances, doesn’t resonate with people with low self-esteem. Instead, they respond to “negative validation” — efforts to communicate that their negative feelings are normal and understandable.
“If your attempt to point out the silver lining is met with a sullen reminder of the prevailing dark cloud, you might do best to just acknowledge the dark cloud and sympathize,” said Denise Marigold, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo and the study’s lead author.
Marigold and her colleagues at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University ran six experiments. One involved 45 female volunteers who first responded to a survey to measure their self-esteem and then shared a failure from their lives with a research assistant, who was randomly assigned to either positively reframe or negatively validate each of their experiences.
To point out the bright side through positive reframing, the assistant was to told to “cheer the participants up and turn their negative experience into a positive one” with comments like, “That’s not so bad” and “At least you learned something.” To negatively validate participants’ failures, the assistant was instructed to “go along with anything negative they have to say … for example, ‘That really sucks,’ [or] ‘I’d feel pretty bad if that happened to me, too.’”
The assistant, participants and three observers rated each interaction. The result? When the assistant tried to put a happier spin on the experiences of those with low self-esteem, it went significantly worse than when she negatively validated them. People with low self-esteem “clearly had some resistance” to positive reframing and seemed less engaged, while those with high self-esteem responded to both forms of support. The other experiments showed similar patterns.
Why might encouraging words fall flat? “People with low self-esteem want their loved ones to see them as they see themselves,” Marigold explained. “As such, they are often resistant to their friends’ reminders of how positively they see them.” They might also view positive reframing as “dismissing or trivializing” their emotions, implying that they’re behaving unacceptably and need to change — a message sure to dampen anyone’s spirits, regardless of their self-esteem level.
And in fact, positive reframing might hurt not only woebegone friends, but it can also sap the comforters, too. Study participants who encouraged friends with low self-esteem felt worse about the interaction, themselves and their friendship than those who supported friends who had high self-esteem — perhaps because their efforts had failed. In the real word, they might react negatively to their friends’ lack of responsiveness, spurring a vicious cycle that could strain their relationship.
When it comes to consolation, one size doesn’t fit all. “Unfortunately, the provider’s good intentions are not sufficient to ensure sensitive and effective support,” the researchers wrote. “It seems to matter more that support fits well with what recipients perceive as their needs.” That means pessimistic pals would benefit more from a “Yeah, I feel you,” than the chirpy, “Just laugh it off.” Sometimes, it might be wiser to skip the pat on the back and lend your shoulder instead.