Cheering Up A Friend With Low Self-Esteem Is Not Always What They Want
June 25, 2014

Negative Nancy Often Needs Negative Validation, Not Cheering Up

Alan McStravick for - Your Universe Online

A friendship is usually built upon a mutual respect for one another and a willingness to offer advice and display empathy when one person or the other is going through a hard time. However, if you have formed a friendship with someone who suffers from low self-esteem, much of your empathy and advice for how to cheer up may likely be falling on deaf ears.

According to a new study out of the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada, researchers were able to determine that those with low self-esteem see themselves in a particularly negative light and will resist attempts to change that perception. Low self-esteem will become especially apparent after the individual has received critical feedback, experienced a romantic rejection or an unsuccessful job application and interview. Each of these occurrences will feel as a remarkably personal judgment against the individual and has the potential to sink them into a sour mood.

"People with low self-esteem want their loved ones to see them as they see themselves. As such, they are often resistant to their friends’ reminders of how positively they see them and reject what we call positive reframing–expressions of optimism and encouragement for bettering their situation," said Professor Denise Marigold, from Renison University College at Waterloo, and lead author of the study.

This idea of perception reinforcement often makes the low self-esteem individual seek out negative validation that agrees with their image of themselves. Therefore, when a friend steps in and tries to extract them from their gloom, the act of introducing cheer feels neither reasonable nor appropriate to the situation at hand. Instead, the study recommends a friend refrain from actively drawing them out of their negative view and instead express understanding about the difficulty of the situation while, at the same time, validating the expression of negative emotion as being both appropriate and understandable.

Nobody likes to see a friend in pain or distress and our natural inclination toward empathy is to be expected. However, a friend with low self-esteem may be benefited more by a person to vent to or a shoulder to cry on than being offered a happy distraction. In fact, the study shows that there was no evidence to suggest that a positive re-framing of the situation helped the participants with low self-esteem. Additionally, the supportive friend often walked away from the encounter feeling worse about themselves after their attempts at cheering up their friend was rebuffed.

This last point led supportive friends to report that maintaining their friendship with a low self-esteem individual was often frustrating and tiring. The use of positive re-framing instead of negative validation was shown to cause the supportive friend to believe the interaction went poorly. The failure of the positive re-framing was believed to have been the reason for this perceived outcome.

"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 Professor Marigold.

The findings appear in the new issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.