What Not to Say to a Struggling Friend

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I’m willing to bet that, over the years, you’ve told a sad friend or two to “cheer up” or “look at the postitives,” after a going through a bad breakup or missing out on a big promotion. Turns out, this is a terrible approach for lifting someone’s spirits.

According to new research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, “positive reframing,” or attempting to get a depressed person to look on the bright side, will not work on a person’s mood if they have low self-esteem—which most people do after a difficult life event. And you might even start to feel bad about yourself when your helpful attempts to bring good cheer falls on deaf ears, because you might think you’re horrible at lending support. Crazy, right?

The actual, correct, scientifically-supported way to lend words of comfort to a depressed friend is to employ “negative validation.” Basically, you should deliver words that communicate an understanding of the person’s emotions, so they feel their reaction to the situation is normal, logical, and appropriate. This type of support resonates with people of low self-esteem, whereas “positive reframing” does not. Researchers suggest this is because, by telling a super-sad person to look at their unfortunate situation differently, you are in essence telling them the way they’re not handling their emotions correctly.

Interestingly, people with high self-esteem tend to respond well to either approach, whether it be positive reframing or negative validation. Still, it’s probably best to take the empathetic approach. Here are some examples in action:

Scenario #1: Your friend is upset when he doesn’t hit his weight goal this week.

  • Incorrect: “Well, on a positive note, that means you can expect a bigger drop next week.”
  • Correct: “Man, I’m sorry. I know how hard you worked this week.”

Scenario #2: A golf ball lands on the windshield of your brother’s brand new car, leaving a huge crack.

  • Incorrect: “Look on the brightside: at least it’s just a small crack in the upper corner—it could have been worse.”
  • Correct: “Ouch. It must suck to have to bring your car into the shop when you just started driving it.”

Scenario #3: Your best friend just broke up with her longtime boyfriend, and won’t stop watching DVR’d episodes of The Bachelorette while eating Ben & Jerry’s.

  • Incorrect: “Cheer up! There is someone so much better out there waiting for you.”
  • Correct: “It must really hurt to think about moving on—cry it out, have another spoonful of Chunky Monkey, and let’s meet for a power walk tomorrow.”

How do you approach a friend going through a rough patch? What helps you feel better when it’s your turn? Share in the comments below!

 

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