There’s a deep well of encouraging phrases most people turn to when trying to cheer up a friend or loved one: “You’ll do better next time.” Or “It’s not really that bad, is it?” Or the relatively straightforward “Come on—cheer up!” All of these pick-you-ups are delivered with good intentions, but psychological researchers have known for a while that when they’re offered to certain people, they’re not very helpful. A new paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology examines this within the context of the listener’s self-esteem, and offers some very useful tips for how to comfort people going through difficult times.
The researchers, from the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University, ran a bunch of experiments involving how to best support people with different levels of self-esteem. They found that so-called “positive reframing,” which, as the name suggests, is an attempt to put negative events in their “proper” perspective, not only doesn’t resonate with people with low self-esteem, but can actually fully backfire and make the comforter feel worse about themselves because their comforting is not working, potentially damaging their relationship with the person they’re trying to comfort.
“Negative validation”—that is, “support behaviors that communicate that the feelings, actions, or responses of the recipient are normal and appropriate to the situation”—did resonate with people with low self-esteem, on the other hand. (People with high self-esteem tended to respond well to either positive reframing or negative validation.)
So why don’t people with low self-esteem respond to positive reframing? Taking the example of someone positively reframing their partner’s anxiety about a job interview, the researchers write that positive reframing “may suggest to some … that their anxiety about the upcoming event is unfounded and that their relationship partner does not truly understand or accept their feelings.” The comforter may then react negatively to the comfortee’s lack of responsiveness, leading to a negative cycle.
None of this is to say the cheer-uppers are bad friends or partners, or that they lack empathy. The authors point out that it’s simply hard for people who have high self-esteem to slip into a properly empathetic mode when dealing with people who lack it—they even cite research showing that people who know when to steer clear of positive reframing have a tendency to slip into it nonetheless. It can be exhausting dealing with someone who appears to simply refuse to feel better. Even if you’re well versed on mental-health issues and know this not a helpful response, at a certain point it’s extremely tempting to say, “Get over it! The sun will rise tomorrow. Let’s go get a beer.”
In fact, this is a big component of training to work on a suicide hotline: What the Samaritans call “befriending” is not about telling callers that they should go for a walk around the block (which they may be too depressed to do), or that things will get better (which they may not). It’s about validating their feelings, about simply being present and offering consolation to the best extent you can.
So, to take a practical example: If you’re trying to console someone with low self-esteem who is convinced a bad grade on a grad-school paper is a disaster that highlights how lazy and stupid they are, you’ll likely be a lot more successful with a line like “That must really suck to feel so down about your grade,” as opposed to reassuring them they’ll do better next time.