How To Cheer Up The Negative Nancy In Your Life

Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Have you seen the “It’s Not About the Nail” video? It’s an absolute classic that feeds mercilessly on gender stereotypes. The video opens with a woman discussing her terrible headache and how bad she feels. We cut to her partner, a man who tries to solve the problem by suggesting she consider removing the nail jutting out of her forehead.
For this, he gets a big time reprimand. It’s not about the nail. He tries again: “That sounds really hard.” (A win!) “It is, thank you,” she replies.
The heavy-handed message is obvious: Men should stop fixing things and listen a little better. Just be there. Just be supportive.
Although it is the case that men, more than women, may try to solve problems when a situation calls for some emotional finesse, new research is showing that some people — men and women alike — may not want to be cheered up in the first place. In a series of six detailed studies, Denise Marigold and colleagues found that people with low self-esteem respond poorly to their friends’ optimism or encouragement. Surely you know a few people like this: No matter what you say, your friend seems stuck in the mud.
Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
The basic idea of this study was that people with more negative views of themselves prefer support efforts that are consistent with those views. Trying to cheer up a friend with low self-esteem is fraught with difficulties because asking them to look on the bright side is against their nature. The bright side is simply not a side they like to look at.
Instead, it seems that people with low self-esteem prefer what the authors called “negative validation efforts” — support behaviors that communicate an understanding of how difficult the situation is for that person. These behaviors, as the authors note, “… give assurance that expression of negative emotions is permissible and understandable.” In other words: Telling our sulking friends and family it’s reasonable and OK to sulk is probably the best idea when we know they have a fairly low sense of self-worth.
One of the more interesting parts of this study is that it also investigated what happened to support givers who delivered positive messages to people with low self-esteem who were in distress. In this case, providers appeared more frustrated, tired and exasperated when trying to give positive support relative to the “that sucks” negative validation.
In support interactions with people who feel badly about themselves, we quickly start feeling burned out and begin to distance ourselves. What’s the point?! I am doing everything to cheer her up and she won’t even smile for one second! In the end, she feels the same, and you feel worse. Everybody loses.
This study has three take-home messages that can help you be a better support giver.
Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Know Your Audience
If you have the slightest hint your partner or friend is going to rebuff your cheery efforts at support, stick with the negative validation efforts. Start with an acknowledgement about how bad the situation stinks — reflect an understanding of how your friend or partner feels. This does not mean you agree with them or think they’re in the right, but that you recognize how crappy they feel. Keep it simple: That’s terrible. What crap. I am really sorry this happened.
As an aside, I am routinely astounded by how many people are unable to offer other people support. When it seems like someone needs you, we’d all do well to follow a simple rule: Don’t talk about yourself or make comparisons; just acknowledge how difficult things are for your friend or partner. In this respect, the nail in the head video, well, hits it on the head. I often don’t tell people when I’ve had a crappy day because I really don’t want to have to hear about how crappy their day was. (Remember I already had a crappy day? Don’t make it worse by complaining to me about yours.)
Don’t Take It Personally
It’s hard not to get exasperated by friends who won’t take good-natured support as it was intended. This is not your fault. Step back, breathe, and re-engage. Don’t forsake people who are close to you because it’s hard for them to look on the bright side. Try to understand this fact and do the best you can.
Go For “Both/And” Solutions
By “both/and” I am referring to the potential value of support efforts that are understanding-oriented (the so-called negative validation efforts — That really sucks!) and those that constitute positive reframing (I am sure tomorrow will be a lot better). Your friends with low self-esteem may rebuff the positive reframing efforts, but that doesn’t mean they’re of little value. My kids hate taking medicine when they’re sick, but they certainly feel better in the end. I don’t know if the same logic applies for social support, but I like to think it does. Even if people feel badly about themselves, it would seem there’s value in helping them learn how to make lemonade out of lemons. You can’t be blindly positive (see my first suggestions), but you can hold out the opportunity for people to grow and accept your well intended efforts at support.
Humans are wired at a deep and fundamental level for social connection. We are healthiest and happiest when embedded in close relationships that function well. A critical feature of all relationships is reciprocal support — the ability to give support to others when they need it and the ability to receive it when you need it. I hope the ideas I outlined here can be helpful as you think about the support you’re giving and receiving in your own lives.