EMOTIONAL HEALTH
July 7, 2014

How Not to Cheer up a Friend

People with low self-esteem don’t always want to be cheered up. Choose your words wisely.

When your friends are down — whether they are berating themselves about a past event or dreading a future one — it’s natural to want to cheer them up. But how you choose to boost their mood matters, a new study suggests.

People with high self-regard need a different kind of cheering up from those whose self esteem is more fragile. For those with low self-esteem, it’s better simply to validate their bad mood rather than try to talk them out of it.

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.

Certain people can be awfully hard to cheer up. Everyone has a friend who gets feeling down about him- or her-self, and there seems to be nothing you can say to bring him or her out of it or help them see the situation for what it really is.

People with low self-esteem can often be the hardest to cheer up, and attempts from friends can sometimes have the unwanted effect of making them feel worse instead of better.

“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,” lead author Denise Marigold said in a statement.

To determine what cheering-up methods are more and less helpful, the researchers looked at how people reacted to different types of responses.

In one experiment, the team had a group of people imagine three different social situations — a rejection from a romantic partner, a generally bad day, or doing poorly on a big test. They asked the subjects to rate how effective they felt certain statements from friends would be in helping them feel better about things.

One method used was “positive reframing” which is essentially like saying “Cheer up, it’s not so bad!” A positive reframing response to doing poorly on an exam might be, “Don’t worry about it too much, it’s just one test. I’m sure you’ll do better next time.”

The “negative validation” technique to such a scenario might be, “That’s an awful feeling isn’t it? It’s happened to me before too.”

People more inclined to think poorly of themselves rated the negative validation method as much more helpful than the positive reframing, than did people with higher self-esteem. This was also true when the researchers had “confederates” (people the researchers had trained to respond a certain way) offer either positive reframing or negative validation to actual experiences the participants were asked to recount.

It may sound a little counterintuitive that some people would prefer not to be cheered up, but it really does make sense. Since people with low self-esteem tend to see events (especially negative ones) as reflections of their self-worth, then a friend saying “hey, it’s not that bad” may actually seem like a criticism of their own perceptions or feelings. Doing a little commiserating instead can make the person feel validated and a little better about things; it reaffirms that they’re normal.

Marigold explains it nicely: “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.”

So when a friend with delicate self-esteem is having a rough day, avoid telling him or her that things aren’t so bad — instead, say you understand his or her feelings because you’ve been there, too. And, on the contrary, if you’re the one who’d rather not be bucked up, try to gently explain to your friends that what you really need is some sympathy and confirmation through a rough patch, rather than even well-intentioned attempts to counteract it.

The study was carried out by a team at University of Waterloo, and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
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