I recently stumbled upon a really relatable thread on the AskMen subreddit, where a woman is left wondering how to boost her partner’s confidence. The problem is, her partner has extremely low self-esteem, which means he rarely takes well to compliments (sic):
“Female here: My significant other and I have both had major confidence issues. Over the past few years, I’ve been working hard on it by getting into women’s groups and finding support to boost my own, and so far it’s made a profound difference in my life. I want the same for him, but my method seems like it wouldn’t fit him at all.”
The thread is headed by one main question: What boosts your confidence and feelings of masculinity? The comments are filled with all sorts of answers, from telling guys that you feel safe around them to simply telling men they look nice in a jacket.
Now, as my colleague Miles Klee once wrote, men (especially straight men) have a strange relationship with compliments — they rarely give them, and as a result, they also struggle to receive them without getting all awkward and weird. Add in low self-esteem, like the dude in the thread mentioned above, and he’ll likely reject almost any form of appreciation as dubious or downright wrong.
“Someone with low self-esteem isn’t likely to believe compliments no matter how genuine,” psychologist Jeanette Raymond reiterates. “That’s the basis of their low self-esteem — not having a history of genuine experiences that they can take in and create a sense of self-worth.” That being the case, complimenting a person with little confidence can actually make them feel even worse about themselves. “Reassurance is the worst thing to do, because it comes across as not taking the person seriously and reducing their self-esteem even further,” Raymond warns.
This obviously puts you, a person who just wants to help a friend, between a rock and a hard place: You want to make them feel better about themselves, but telling them how great they really are only makes matters worse. So what the hell are you supposed to do?
The best course of action, according to Raymond, is simply to hear them out. “The best way to help them feel better is to make them feel understood,” she explains. “We call this reflecting or mirroring, such as repeating back what you’ve heard or seen in regards to how bad they feel about their appearance.”
Once you have some insight into where exactly their low morale comes from, you can share some of your own negative thoughts about yourself (c’mon, we all have them). “Next up is empathizing and identifying — sharing your own experiences of feeling bad about some part of you or your experience,” Raymond says. “That makes the person feel more normal and less alone or freaky. Knowing that someone gets you and isn’t trying to cheer you up because they can’t tolerate your low sense of self is the most potent way of helping them.”
So next time you hear your sad friend talk about how terrible they are, let them know that you don’t always feel great about yourself, either. Because in this case at least, commiserating trumps complimenting every time.