There’s often nothing more isolating than being told to “cheer up” or “it’s not so bad” when in the throes of a rough patch. Even when it’s clear that a shift in perspective or a perkier outlook could make a situation seem better, it’s not always possible to just flip an internal switch and suddenly decide to feel better. A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reminds us of what psychologists have been saying for years — that these “positive reframing” phrases, which we use in an attempt to create perspective, are sometimes anything but helpful.
Through six experiments, the study sought to find better ways to offer support and found that the self-esteem of the person receiving the reframing advice was a major factor in their receptiveness. Researchers from the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University found that people with low self-esteem are less likely to benefit from supporters’ attempts at reframing their experiences positively. On the other hand, people with low self-esteem are just as likely as those with high self-esteem to be receptive to a friend validating their crappy feelings. The researchers also found that in real-life situations, people were less likely to validate the negative feelings of friends who had low self-esteem.
To be clear, it’s not that these misguided advice-givers are bad friends or partners. They likely only want the best for their loved one, and are simply giving the kind of support they think they’d like to receive if roles were reversed. It’s just tough to understand what it’s like to have low self-esteem for those who aren’t experiencing it. Even those who are aware that positive reframing may be harmful tend to accidentally slip into the pattern without realizing it. This can create a strain on relationships, because the friend going through a tough time feels misunderstood while the friend trying to offer help feels like they’re making things worse.
The reason those with low self-esteem reject reframing may have a lot to do with feeling as though their bad feelings are being dismissed. The findings suggest that the next time someone you love is feeling low, make sure they know their feelings are validated. Instead of telling them that things will be better tomorrow, the research team suggests simply trying to listen to their feelings, and offering something supportive along the lines of “it must be rough to feel so frustrated.” On a bad day, knowing that someone is trying to understand rather than pass off your feelings as irrational could make a world of difference.
I think sometimes it can be really tough to know what will most console someone. What do you to prefer to hear from a friend on a bad day?