Well-Intended Social Support Often Rejected


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How can you help someone who needs support? Image by taliesin

Denise Marigold, a researcher at the University of Waterloo in Canada, learned through personal experience that it’s not always easy to cheer up friends who are feeling down. She and her colleagues launched six experiments to learn why.

The results, which were published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, showed that people with low self-esteem responded differently to social support than high self-esteem individuals.

Negative Validation, Not Positive Reframing

When people with low self-esteem were feeling upset about a situation, such as a romantic breakup, they bristled if friends tried to “positively reframe” their experiences.

Positive reframing refers to looking at a situation from a different, more upbeat perspective, such as by saying, “That guy wasn’t right for you anyway. You will find someone better right away.”

Individuals with low self-esteem seemed to prefer to have friends empathize with their bad feelings when they were feeling down. They appreciated negative validation, which means their friends agreed with their feelings, such as by saying, “That really stinks. He shouldn’t have broken up with you.”

The research also showed that the people trying to offer the social support were usually upset by the interactions. When individuals with low self-esteem were less accepting of their support, the support providers felt worse about the interaction, about themselves, and more broadly, about their friendship.

Interview with Dr. Marigold

Decoded Science interviewed Dr. Marigold about her research, to learn more. We asked Dr. Marigold what made her interested in this topic, and she explained,

Mainly, my own experiences with people with low self-esteem. I noticed that I started avoiding a friend’s phone calls, because it was so frustrating to try to support her. Also, I realized that the way we automatically want to support people doesn’t always work. My friend’s daughter died of cancer, and I couldn’t say anything to make my friend feel better. It’s so hard to just sit there and let the negativity stand. You have to come up with a new way of dealing with .”

Decoded Science: Numerous articles have been written about your findings. Why do you think this study resonates with so many people?

Dr. Marigold: “It’s because the findings are both intuitive and counterintuitive. On the one hand, when people think about it, they agree, “Yes, it is hard to give support to some people when they are upset.” On the other hand, they say, “Oh, yeah, that’s true, the type of help I think I should give doesn’t actually work.”

These ideas are new for a lot of people. People on the receiving end tend to agree; they want their friends to agree with how they feel, not reframe the situation. The findings are more surprising to the positive people!

The research also strikes a chord because there’s been a push for positive thinking, like in the book, “The Secret.” People are disproportionately optimistic. However, there’s no proof that positive thinking helps people raise their self-esteem, though.”

Decoded Science: According to research by Rosenberg and Owen, people with low self-esteem are more sensitive to criticism, and they are more likely to perceive non-critical remarks as critical. Do you think that explains why people with low self-esteem dislike positive reframing?

Dr. Marigold: “People with low self-esteem don’t like positive reframing because it sends a message that something is wrong. They don’t interpret the message properly; they think it means they are not accepted. People with low self-esteem misread people’s messages: they think that people don’t like them.”

Decoded Science: Do you think that there’s a negative cycle here – people reject positive reframing, and that further lowers their self-esteem?

Dr. Marigold: “It’s important to listen to people’s cues. If they are not embracing your help, take a different approach. Look toward the future – at some point, they might be receptive to your optimism. Maybe they need to be validated first, and then you can suggest ways of looking at the situation differently.”

Decoded Science: Thank you for your insights. Do you have anything else you would like to add?

Dr. Marigold: “It’s surprising to see how much affected the providers [of social support]. They still did it , even when they saw it did not help.”

Counterintuitive Help

When offering social support to friends, give them the type of help they want, not the type of help you are inclined to give. Even when it goes against your better judgment, tell your friends what they want to hear, and allow them the space to feel sad about negative situations.

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