What do you say to a friend who is depressed and anguished?
Psychologists offer two approaches: positive reframing or negative validation.
A recent study, reported by Jesse Singal in New York Magazine, does not really discuss therapeutic tactics, though both of these approaches come to us from one or another kind of therapy.
When you engage in positive framing you are putting a failure in a different, more positive context. Basically you are saying: Suck it up and move on.
Jesse Singal describes positive reframing:
There's a deep well of encouraging phrases most people turn to when trying to cheer up a friend or loved one: "You'll do better next time." Or "It's not really that bad, is it?" Or the relatively straightforward "Come on — cheer up!"
The study shows, reasonably, that sometimes this works and sometimes it does not. It depends on the person you are addressing.
When you use positive reframing with someone who has what the researchers call high self-esteem, your words will make failure appear to be a one-off event, something uncharacteristic.
Which is the way someone who is confident sees failure.
He will weigh his failure against his past successes and will be receptive to someone who rejects the notion that he is defined by a single failure.
But, the research shows, positive reframing does not work when people are generally depressed, or, as the researchers say, suffering from low self-esteem.
Singal summarizes positive reframing in relation to both negative events, like failures, and anxiety:
They found that so-called "positive reframing," which, as the name suggests, is an attempt to put negative events in their "proper" perspective, not only doesn't resonate with people with low self-esteem, but can actually fully backfire and make the comforter feel worse about themselves because their comforting is not working, potentially damaging their relationship with the person they're trying to comfort.
Taking the example of someone positively reframing their partner's anxiety about a job interview, the researchers write that positive reframing "may suggest to some ... that their anxiety about the upcoming event is unfounded and that their relationship partner does not truly understand or accept their feelings." The comforter may then react negatively to the comfortee's lack of responsiveness, leading to a negative cycle.
Let’s be clear. Comforting someone who has flunked calculus is not the same as talking with someone who feel anxious about an impending performance. The first is a failure; the second is an anticipation of a possible failure.
Someone who has less confidence will see his failure as part of a pattern. He will not see himself as someone who has failed, but as someone who is a failure. Thus, a friend who tries to cheer him up will not be connecting because he will not be recognizing the way he sees himself.
Yet, even if positive reframing does not work well with people who see themselves as failures, a good therapist will usually try not to underwrite the person’s sense that he is a failure. He will try to help the person to amass evidence that tends to contradict the sense of being a failure.
When it comes to performance anxiety, things are different. It is not very helpful to tell someone who is anxious about a performance that he has no reason to be anxious. A more helpful response, Singal suggests, is to recognize that the emotion might well be suited to the situation. One finds it hard to imagine, however, that anyone, faced with a friend who is anxious about performing in an important game will say that the performer has no reason to feel anxious.
In a different context, when a friend is grieving the loss of someone near and dear, you acknowledge the appropriateness of the emotion. If the person tells you that he or she is anxious about the future, you will readily agree that the emotion is appropriate.
For the record, negative validation is not really negative. It affirms that an anxious or depressed friend has reason to feel the way he feels. Thus, that his emotions are reflecting something about his situation or circumstances.
In cases where people are anguished and do not know why they are feeling what they are feeling, one should always assume that the emotion suits their real life circumstances. Perhaps your suffering friend does not know why he is feeling what he is feeling, but still, you must assume that he is anxious about something, not nothing.
Singal explains why negative validation works with some people but not with others:
"Negative validation" — that is, "support behaviors that communicate that the feelings, actions, or responses of the recipient are normal and appropriate to the situation" — did resonate with people with low self-esteem, on the other hand. (People with high self-esteem tended to respond well to either positive reframing or negative validation.)
It is important to underscore, as Singal does, that people who have high self-confidence can respond well to either positive reframing or negative validation.
(Perhaps I am being persnickety, but if you tell someone that his emotions are appropriate to his circumstances, you are offering what I would call an affirmative validation.)
Finally, if you try positive reframing with someone who has low self-confidence, you are not, the researchers say, suffering from a lack of empathy.
People with high self-esteem tend to assume that others also have high self-esteem. Thus, they assume that if positive reframing works with them it will work with others. You might say that they are failing to recognize the low self-esteem in their friends or you might say that they are giving their friends the benefit of the doubt.
It seems also to be true that people with high self-confidence gravitate to those who also have high self-confidence. They choose to associate with others who see life in more optimistic terms and avoid those who do otherwise. Typically, they avoid people who bring them down. That is one way to maintain high self-esteem.
None of this is to say the cheer-uppers are bad friends or partners, or that they lack empathy. The authors point out that it's simply hard for people who have high self-esteem to slip into a properly empathetic mode when dealing with people who lack it — they even cite research showing that people who know when to steer clear of positive reframing have a tendency to slip into it nonetheless. It can be exhausting dealing with someone who appears to simply refuse to feel better. Even if you're well-versed on mental-health issues and know this not a helpful response, at a certain point it's extremely tempting to say, "Get over it! The sun will rise tomorrow. Let's go get a beer."
The example becomes less interesting when Singal offers an example of what you should say to someone with low self-esteem:
So, to take a practical example: If you're trying to console someone with low self-esteem who is convinced a bad grade on a grad-school paper is a disaster that highlights how lazy and stupid they are, you'll likely be a lot more successful with a line like "That must really suck to feel so down about your grade," as opposed to reassuring them they'll do better next time.
At the least, this example is strange. It is not negative validation. It is not even validation. It does not tell the person that his emotions are normal, given the circumstances.
And, there’s nothing empathetic about it either. The speaker is saying that he does not feel the way his friend does and has no idea what that feeling is. In fact, the sentence says something like, It must suck to be you, and thank God, I am not you.
This is not only off-putting… it disrespects and disconnects.
Some people will fail to show empathy by treating you as though you are more self-confident that you are. Others will fail to show empathy by refusing to connect with you.