People with low self-esteem tend to seek support in ways that backfire, study finds

People with low self-esteem are more likely to seek support from an intimate partner in a manner that tends to backfire, according to new research in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

“We were interested in studying social support seeking because a large body of research demonstrates that social support has important consequences for mental, physical, and relational well-being, but only a few studies had previously examined the determinants of how people seek social support,” said study author Brian P. Don of Clackamas Community College.

“By drawing on self-esteem to understand the roots of support seeking behavior, this study makes an important advancement in understanding why people are sometimes unsuccessful in their attempts to seek support from intimate partners.”

The researchers were particularly interested in a phenomenon known as indirect support seeking — meaning sulking, whining, fidgeting, and/or displaying sadness to elicit support. People are believed to engage in this type of indirect communication because they fear being rejected.

In two studies, with 176 couples in total, the researchers found that those with lower self-esteem were more likely to engage in indirect support seeking. This type of support seeking was, in turn, associated with a greater chance of a partner responding with criticism, blame, or disapproval.

Those with low self-esteem — but not those with high self-esteem — also viewed their partner as less responsive to their needs when they responded negatively to their support seeking.

“People with low self-esteem tend to seek support in ways that actually hinder their partner’s ability to provide support, which in turn has detrimental consequences for how support seekers feel about the relationship,” Don told PsyPost.

“Theoretically, this occurs because people who are low in self-esteem tend to be wary of social rejection, but this fear of rejection ironically results in behaviors that tend to elicit the very rejection that people who are low in self-esteem fear.”

“One caveat is that, although the pattern of findings was consistent across both studies, the results did not fully replicate for all of the paths we tested. Thus, future work should look to continue to replicate these findings,” Don added.

“Given that support seeking is a relatively unexplored area, there are many questions still left to be tested, like how the support provider’s self-esteem may play a role in this process.”

The study, “Low Self-Esteem Predicts Indirect Support Seeking and Its Relationship Consequences in Intimate Relationships“, was authored by Brian P. Don, Yuthika U. Girme, and Matthew D. Hammond.