How Not to Cheer Up a Person with Low Self-Esteem

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Originally posted on July 22, 2014.

Social support can take many forms. A helpful tweet, the annual Facebook birthday barrage of well wishes, and long conversations with friends and family can put things in perspective and reduce our stress. But, according to recent research from Renison University, Wilfrid Laurier University, and the University of Waterloo, these acts of kindness backfire when interacting with people who have low self-esteem.

People with low self-esteem have social support preferences that often put them on a collision course with their friends and family. They desire information that validates their negative self-feelings. When their friends offer positive feedback, people with low self-esteem don’t accept it. This aversion to positivity causes low self-esteem spillover: Their friends begin to feel bad about themselves, too.

What is the moral of the story? Find someone who has a similar self-concept as you do. Birds of a feather should often flock together. Although it might be hard to imagine wanting information that validates our negative self-feelings, it is unwise to force people to enjoy something they dislike. Knowing yourself and what you like is the first step in building a successful relationship. The next step is finding someone who shares your preferences, no matter how sunny or gloomy they might be.

About the Author
C. Nathan DeWall is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Social Psychology Lab at the University of Kentucky. He received his Bachelor’s Degree from St. Olaf College, a Master’s Degree in Social Science from the University of Chicago, and a Master’s degree and Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Florida State University. DeWall received the 2011 College of Arts and Sciences Outstanding Teaching Award, which recognizes excellence in undergraduate and graduate teaching. In 2011, the Association for Psychological Science identified DeWall as a “Rising Star” for “making significant contributions to the field of psychological science.”