Be Careful When You Comfort Sad People

When a person you care about is feeling sad, the standard response in civilized society is to say “everything will be ok” in some shape or form. This decreases the perceived negativity of the situation, and that causes the person to lower their sadness to a level that corresponds to a new, more positive, outlook.

Unfortunately, some new research shows that there are drawbacks to downplaying a situation’s negativity too much. When you attempt to show a situation is not as bad as a person thinks, the implied message is that the person’s level of sadness is beyond what’s socially acceptable. After all, if the person should be this sad, you wouldn’t be telling them to cheer up. It turns out that perceived societal expectations about when a person should be sad play a big role in making negative emotions worse. Specifically, when people feel sad, but think that others don’t expect them to feel sad, their negative emotions are amplified.

Our perception of how others expect us to feel has significant implications for our emotional functioning. Across 4 studies the authors demonstrate that when people think others expect them not to feel negative emotions (i.e., sadness) they experience more negative emotion and reduced well-being. The authors show that perceived social expectancies predict these differences in emotion and well-being both more consistently than—and independently of—personal expectancies and that they do so by promoting negative self-evaluation when experiencing negative emotion.

The takeaway is that it may be good to occasionally remind somebody why they should feel bad. Obviously you shouldn’t try and make sad people feel worse, but rehashing certain negatives could be helpful if it shows the person their sadness is expected. For example, if a friend totals his car, remind him of the good times he had in the car. This is essentially how we deal with sadness after a person dies. When mourners talk about how great the deceased was, it works to legitimize their feelings. That may make them feel as though their extreme sadness is not out of line with what society expects, and in the long run that will help them feel better.
Bastian, B., Kuppens, P., Hornsey, M., Park, J., Koval, P., & Uchida, Y. (2012). Feeling bad about being sad: The role of social expectancies in amplifying negative mood. Emotion, 12 (1), 69-80 DOI: 10.1037/a0024755

One Response to Be Careful When You Comfort Sad People

  1. Callum James Hackett says:

    Excellent post, and an extremely important message. Having been through serious depression myself, I know first hand that it is entirely unpleasant to be told that everything will be OK or that I simply need to view the word differently. I didn’t want or need people to fix things, I just wanted them to be around and listen.

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