Please Just Stop! (Why Cheering People Up Can Backfire)

If you've ever had a bad day and just wanted to wallow in your misery rather than receive kind and inspirational words from a friend, you may not be as unusual as you think. A new study from the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University suggests that people with low self-esteem would prefer you not to attempt to cheer them up when things aren't going their way.

Researchers claim that people with low self-esteem are more likely to interpret negative experiences — breakups, lost jobs, failed tests, and the like — as signs that they are generally incompetent, rather than as bumps in the road. Because of this tendency, they seek out confirmation that their negative feelings are warranted; words of optimism usually fall flat.

Here's what the researchers had to say about their findings:

"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," said Professor Denise Marigold, from Renison University College at Waterloo, and lead author of the study. 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.

So what's the solution? Sympathy! Instead of trying to redirect an unresponsive sad person toward happiness, acknowledging the person's feelings could be the best way to comfort a friend in need. For some people, when dark clouds are covering the sky, no amount of blue will prevent the storm from coming.

No word on whether this study was prompted by Napoleon, who probably didn't want to hear the the Duke of Wellington's condolences on that Belgian battlefield two centuries ago.

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