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When Friends' "Help" Hurts

It has been well-documented that perceived support is associated with better health and well-being.1,2 Knowing that you’ll have someone there when you need them is a great comfort. However, the effects of actually getting help from others are mixed. When it works, support makes us feel good and can have tremendously positive effects on our lives.3 But other times it doesn’t help, and can even make us feel worse.4,5,6 So when is support from our loved ones well-received and when does it backfire?

There are several reasons why support may not be effective. Sometimes the people supporting us aren’t that good at providing the right kind of support.7,8 Another possibility is that receiving support makes the recipient feel indebted to the provider, leading to negative feelings.9 And finally receiving help could be a blow to self-esteem.10

A recent study11 examined this third possibility. According to the threat to self-esteem model,10 help can be perceived as supportive and loving, or it can be seen as threatening if that help is interpreted as implying incompetence. According to the researchers, support is especially likely to be seen as threatening if it is in an area that is self-relevant or self-defining—that is, in an area where your own success and achievement are especially important. Receiving help with a self-relevant task can make you feel badly about yourself, and this can undermine the potential positive effects of the help. For example, if your self-concept rests, in part, on your great cooking ability, it may be a blow to your ego when a friend helps you prepare a meal for guests because it suggests that you’re not the master chef you thought you were. The researchers conducted two studies to determine if attempts to help with a self-relevant stressor led to more negative feelings.

Study 1 focused on a survey of graduating law students who were preparing for the Bar Examination, a highly stressful test that all lawyers must take if they wish to practice law professionally. For these law students, success on the exam was extremely self-relevant, with the students rating it as extremely important to them. In the weeks leading up to the test, the students completed daily measures of their own anxious mood, whether or not the biggest stressor they faced that day was related to the exam, and whether or not their partner had provided emotional support. Results showed that closer to the exam date, and on days when the students were especially stressed about the exam, receiving emotional support was associated with more anxiety than on days when the exam was less salient. That means that when students were worried about the exam, emotional support was especially ineffective.

In Study 2, the researchers tested their hypothesis in a controlled experimental setting. This time, they examined how support from a stranger on a self-relevant or irrelevant task might lead to distress, and how this might be due to the negative feelings about oneself that are elicited by that offer to help.

In this second study, the researchers recruited undergraduate students who had rated academic achievement as extremely important to them. The researchers asked the students to complete 20 very difficult math and logic problems. For some, the task was framed as self-relevant and for others it was not. Those in the self-relevant condition were told that the task was a measure of intelligence and academic potential, while those in the non-self-relevant condition were told that the purpose of the task was merely to determine the difficulty of the questions. After participants completed the first ten items, those assigned to the social support condition were offered a calculator to help with the rest of the problems.

How did the students respond to the experimenter’s offer to help? Both before and after the task, participants rated their own emotional distress—anxious, sad, as well as their feelings about themselves—ashamed, dissatisfied with oneself. The results showed that for students who believed the task was self-relevant (that is, indicative of intelligence and academic prowess), those who were helped by the experimenter had larger increases in both emotional distress and negative self-evaluations than those who didn’t get help. Those who didn’t believe the task was self-relevant showed less negative reactions to the support. In addition, the more negatively the support impacted self-evaluations, the more likely the students were to experience increased distress. This suggests that support had negative emotional consequences in part because it made the students feel dissatisfied with themselves.

This research shows that sometimes well-intentioned efforts to help can backfire. When you help others with the things that are most important to them, your efforts could do more harm than good. This makes it especially difficult to help your loved ones because effective support is hardest to provide when it’s about something that really matters, the very situation where you are most likely to want to help.

This research did not address how one can provide more effective support, but it suggests that finding ways to make help less threatening to the self-concept of the recipient could go a long way toward making it more effective. Perhaps showing the recipient that you still very much respect their abilities could reduce the harmful effects of the help. In addition, providing support in a way that is less apparent to the recipient allows them to benefit from it because they don’t perceive it as support.6,12 Thus, when support is hidden from view, it’s less threatening to your self-worth.

A version of this article orginally appeared on Psychology Today.

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1Cohen, S. (2004). Social relationships and health. American Psychologist59, 676–684.  

2Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., & Layton, J. B. (2010). Social relationships and mortality risk: A meta-analytic review. PLoS Medicine7, e1000316. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316

3Feeney, B. C., & Collins, N. L. (2014). A new look at social support: A theoretical perspective on thriving through relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. doi: 10.1177/1088868314544222. Published online before print August 14, 2014.

4Barrera, M., Jr. (1986). Distinctions between social support concepts, measures, and models. American Journal of Community Psychology, 14, 413– 445.

5Bolger, N., Foster, M., Vinokur, A. D., & Ng, R. (1996). Close relationships and adjustment to a life crisis: The case of breast cancer. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology70, 283-294.

6Bolger, N., Zuckerman, A., & Kessler, R. C. (2000). Invisible support and adjustment to stress. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 953–961.

7Coyne, J. C., Wortman, C. B., & Lehman, D. R. (1988). The other side of support: Emotional overinvolvement and miscarried helping. In B. H. Gottlieb (Ed.), Marshaling social support: Formats, processes, and effects (pp. 305–330). Newbury Park, CA: Sage

8Martire, L. M., Stephens, M. A. P., Druley, J. A., & Wojno, W. C. (2002). Negative reactions to received spousal care: Predictors and consequences of miscarried support.Health Psychology, 21, 167–176.

9Gleason, M. E. J., Iida, M., Bolger, N., & Shrout, P. E. (2003). Daily supportive equity in close relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 1036-1045. doi: 10.1177/0146167203253473

10 Fisher, J. D., Nadler, A., & Whitcher-Alagna, S. (1982). Recipient reactions to aid.Psychological Bulletin91, 27–54. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.91.1.27

11Burke, C. T., & Goren, J. (in press). Self-evaluative consequences of social support receipt: The role of context self-relevance. Personal Relationships. doi: 10.1111/pere.12039. Available online before print

12Bolger, A., & Amarel, D. (2007). Effects of social support visibility on adjustment to stress: Experimental evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(3), 458-475. 

Dr. Gwendolyn Seidman Science of Relationships articles | Twitter
Gwen’s research focuses on self-presentation on the Internet, particularly the expression of hidden self-aspects online and the presentation of romantic relationships on social media. She also studies social support in couples, and the role of romantic partners’ perceptions of one another in relationship satisfaction and conflict. Gwen teaches courses on social psychology, the self, and close relationships, and also has a blog at Psychology Today called Close Encounters.

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