Stop it with the platitudes! Your friend doesn’t want to hear, “You can take a frown and turn it upside down.” Nor do they want to hear, “Think of all the people who are struggling in the world,” and please don’t say, “Let’s go out and you’ll cheer up.” The simple fact is it’s likely your friend doesn’t want to cheer up. A recent study shows that typically people with low self-esteem don’t want to feel better. There’s comfort in the state they’re in according to researchers, from the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University
Think about it this way. Have you ever told your friend that “tomorrow will be a better day?” If you have, did it do any good? Has it ever helped to tell them their cloud has a silver lining? Most likely not. You weren’t successful to get them out of their funk and with good reason – from their perspective you are invalidating how they feel. The car broke down, the dog ran away and the toilet is overflowing and they want to feel bad about it, dammit. And they have every right to.
“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. 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.” She further states, “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,” Marigold said.
In their study, the researchers found no evidence that positive reframing helps participants with low self-esteem. And in fact, the people providing support to friends with low self-esteem often felt worse about themselves when they attempted to cheer up their friend. These individuals usually prefer negative validation, which conveys that the feelings, actions or responses of the recipient are normal, reasonable, and appropriate to the situation. “So a friend could express understanding about the predicament or for the difficulty of a situation, and suggest that expressing negative emotions is appropriate and understandable,” researchers explained in their study.
Based on this study, the next time a friend tells you that life sucks, it would be best to acknowledge that yes, sometimes it does suck. Because sometimes things in life do and it’s okay to acknowledge that.