TORONTO — Have you ever offered words of encouragement to your pessimistic friend? His job isn’t that bad, no one saw that embarrassing thing she did, he will get the girl.
A new Canadian study has some sage advice: save your breath, your downtrodden friend doesn’t want to hear it.
University of Waterloo scientists out of Ontario suggest that our friends stuck in the gutter are helping themselves to a hefty dose of feeling unworthy. Their breakups, layoffs and other misfortunes prove it. And, well, you’re kind of cramping their wallowing style when you look for the silver lining.
Turns out, your cheerleading might leave you feeling worse off, too.
“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 and reject what we call positive reframing — expressions of optimism and encouragement for bettering their situation,” lead author, Dr. Denise Marigold, said.
Marigold is an assistant professor at the Renison University College at Waterloo where she specializes in studying relationships and social support.
Marigold often caught herself cheering up her friends when they were upset. In some cases, their sour mood didn’t change. So she wondered, is she really helping?
Her research is based on about 1,000 participants between 18 and 30 years old. In a series of six studies, that either surveyed respondents or had them interact in a lab, the researchers learned that people with low self-esteem aren’t interested in uplifting words. It can actually backfire and push them into a corner.
“It makes them feel they aren’t understood and there’s something wrong with their feelings,” Marigold told Global News.
Friends doling out the kind words felt worse (let’s be honest, it’s tiring and frustrating) and they were perceptive — they knew their pep talk didn’t go over well.
So what’s your best bet if you’re dealing with a friend who’s down in the dumps?
“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 suggested.
Humans thrive on reading social cues: if your friend isn’t embracing the optimism, back off instead of laying it on thicker (which is our tendency). You could even ask your friend what he or she needs at the moment – encouragement or a shoulder to cry on.
“It’s really hard in the face of a friend in distress to let them sit there and be negative,” Marigold said, but ultimately, you may be more helpful.
Your friend needs validation about their bad feelings. That’s not a free ticket to tell your friend that they’re indeed a loser. That means you can let them know that feeling lousy is appropriate to the situation and you can understand how difficult the scenario must be for them.
Marigold’s full findings are slated to appear in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. They were released this week.