June 25, 2014 at 3:59 PM ET
So, your friend is wailing about the miseries of her bush league job, failed romance, clunker of a car, and all-around lousy life. Instead of trying to cheer her up by saying something positive like “things will get better,” you might be better off agreeing that right now her life does indeed stink.
Surprisingly, being a Debbie Downer might save you some angst, too, according to new research published in the July issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
In a series of six scenarios involving some 1,000 participants ages 18-30, researchers found that people with low self-esteem don’t want to hear your platitudes, and would prefer friends and loved ones see them as they see themselves. “Those with low self-esteem actually reject the so-called ‘positive reframing,’ or expressions of optimism and encouragement, most of us offer to them,” says lead author Dr. Denise Marigold, an assistant professor at Renison University College at Waterloo.
Despite good intentions designed to boost spirits, people with low self-esteem “are simply more comfortable wallowing” in their misery, she adds. “What we think is well-intentioned support is really alienating for them. They feel as if people don’t understand their issues and don’t accept their feelings. It almost demonstrates a lack of caring.”
The study showed that low self-esteem individuals would actually prefer “negative” validation, or an acknowledgement that their feelings are normal, reasonable and appropriate to whatever situation has them feeling down. The researchers do want to be clear that validating negative thoughts and feelings doesn’t mean you are free to say, “Yeah, you are a loser,” to a friend who is feeling poorly about a situation. Rather, it’s a more productive to simply acknowledge the person is upset.
Although individuals with depression and anxiety may always score low on self-esteem, none of us are immune to bouts of feeling unworthy — even psychologists. When Marigold’s children were infants she recalls being exhausted from lack of sleep. She told someone how tired she was and instead of that person acknowledging her exhaustion, Marigold was told that babies were precious and this time would be over quickly.
“I felt terrible after I heard that,” she says. “I know that person meant well, but it was invalidating and dismissive.”
The researchers also found that since positive reframing doesn’t really help people with low self-esteem, those providing positive support often wind up feeling lousy about themselves when their efforts to cheer up a friend fail. But despite feeling lousy, it seems that people will keep trying the same positive tactics to cheer up their pals. “It’s a huge disconnect since we know it doesn’t really work, but we do it anyway,” says Marigold.
The study results are making some folks reassess how they deal with some situations. “I was actually impressed the study was done in such a well-designed manner and it really does make you think about how you interact with people,” says Dr. Niranjan Karnik, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Rush University Medical Center.
But he does wonder if there is a price to pay for wallowing in a friend’s misery.
“The question remains as to whether you will be pulled into a negative space, too,” says Karnik, though he does agree that putting too positive a spin on things doesn’t help anyone. “Sometimes things really do suck for people, and it’s okay to acknowledge that."