Unwittingly Creating Rejection: The Perils of Seeking Support for People with Low Self-Esteem
Imagine, for a moment, that you're trying to do something important, such as prepare for a tough test, cope with a difficult breakup, or (in my case) ensure your new cat feels sufficiently like the princely creature he is. There are many ways to achieve these goals, but the research is clear on one factor that is hugely beneficial: having social support as you go about trying to reach your goal. Social support comes in many forms, including things like a shoulder to cry on, advice, or practical help. But, regardless of its specific form, people who have high quality social support during times of stress do better in terms of a variety of outcomes, including their physical and mental health.
We know that social support is crucial, but here is an important question: how do you actually go about seeking support when you need it? Although research has extensively examined many aspects of social support, surprisingly little is known about how people seek social support.
My collaborators and I became particularly interested in one way of requesting support called indirect support seeking. Picture this scenario: a friend, family member, or romantic partner comes home from work, and they are clearly upset. They sigh, they pout, they might even cry a bit. They clearly want your support, but they don't openly tell you what is going on or directly ask for your help. When people use these types of subtle behaviors to look for support but don’t actually openly ask for help, it’s called indirect support seeking.
Based on our prior research, we knew that indirect support seeking tends to be detrimental for relationships. Partners find it frustrating, and it can lead them to withdraw from the situation entirely, instead of offering support.
Which leads to a question: why do people seek support in this way? If indirect support seeking tends to be harmful, then why do people do it? Although there are many possible answers to this question, our recent research showed that one key variable is low self-esteem.
Why low self-esteem? People who are low in self-esteem are fearful of social rejection. Because their sense of self is fragile, people with low self-esteem are more likely to doubt whether other people really like them. Unfortunately, reaching out for support from others includes a risk of rejection because the person could be uninterested in what we share, invalidate our feelings, or say our cat isn’t as princely as we think (how dare they?). And these kinds of ambivalent or rejecting reactions are particularly scary for people who doubt their own worth. As a result, people with low self-esteem might be more likely to use indirect ways of seeking support because they think it protects them from the risks associated with openly telling their partner the problem.
Unfortunately, because indirect support seeking tends to frustrate partners, we suspected that indirect support seeking would ironically lead to the very rejection that people low in self-esteem tend to fear!
We tested these ideas in two studies. Intimate relationship partners came to our laboratories, shared a personal goal with their partner, and discussed this goal for 7 minutes. We trained research assistants to spot indirect support seeking behaviors in these interactions, as well as how their partners responded.
As we suspected, across both studies, people with low self-esteem were especially likely to engage in indirect support seeking, and when they did so, their partners tended to respond negatively.
Moreover, people with low self-esteem were especially sensitive to their partner's negative responses. That is, people with low self-esteem rated the relationship especially poorly after the interaction if their partner responded negatively to their attempts to seek support.
So, people with low self-esteem tend to fear rejection and therefore seek support in indirect ways, but this support-seeking strategy ironically creates the very rejection people who are low in self-esteem tend to fear.
What’s the take home message? Overall, these results suggest that self-esteem plays an important role in shaping the way people seek support, and that fear of rejection might unwittingly drive away the support people actually need. Although more research is necessary, our research suggests that if people with low self-esteem are willing to take a risk and directly ask for social support, they may be able to forge the strong and close social connections (and cat compliments) that will contribute to their happiness in the long run.
For Further Reading:
Don, B. P., Girme, Y. U., & Hammond, M. D. (2019). Low Self-Esteem Predicts Indirect Support Seeking and Its Relationship Consequences in Intimate Relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 45, 1028-1041.
Don, B. P., & Hammond, M. D. (2017). Social support in intimate relationships: The role of relationship autonomy. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43, 1112-1124.
Don, B. P., Mickelson, K. D., & Barbee, A. P. (2013). Indirect support seeking and perceptions of spousal support: An examination of a reciprocal relationship. Personal Relationships, 20, 655-668.
Brian P. Don is a Postdoctoral Scholar in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He studies how our motivations influence the development of healthy relationships, including effective social support.