Psychologists have known for some time that uplifting encouragement is not always well-received by people with low self esteem. Now, in a paper published in the latest issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers examine why this is, and come away with some counterintuitive suggestions.
[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.
The upshot is that support in the form of encouragement or platitudes, no matter how well-intentioned, is often received by people with low self-esteem as alienating. "They feel as if people don't understand their issues and don't accept their feelings," explained University College at Waterloo's Denise Marigold, lead author of the study, in an interview with Today. "It almost demonstrates a lack of caring."
Negative validation, on the other hand, "communicate[s] that the feelings, actions, or responses of the recipient are normal and appropriate to the situation," and "express[es] appreciation for the recipient's predicament or for the difficulty of the situation," according to Marigold and her colleagues.
Complicating things further for those who would provide support is the observation that people with high self-esteem tend to resort to positive forms of validation even when they've been warned not to. This, the researchers say, only perpetuates the negative cycle that's fueled by the comforter's good intentions and the comfortee's lack of responsiveness. In such a scenario, the researchers posit, the best thing for the person offering support may actually be to allow their friend the space to process his feelings on his own.