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While positive interactions help to reduce stress, distress, increase coping and self-esteem, negative interactions with the environment do just the opposite. It has been established in past research that the subjective perception of the social interaction and the quality of the support given as helpful or unhelpful is more important than the frequency of the contact or the amount of available resources (Pietrzak e.t al., 2009; Harber, Cohen, Lucas, & Baltes, 2007).

A negative and unsupportive social interaction can be defined as a relationship that brings hurt, distress, sadness, isolation, rejection and unpleasantness (Ingram et al., 2001; Wortman, 1984). Ingram et al. (2001) have found that negative relationships, which are divided into 4 main constructs, lead to reduced psychological and physical well-being. Naturally the constructs can be mixed and changed according to the participants and situations.  The first sub-construct involves minimization, which is basically downplaying of the significance of the stressor in one’s life (i.e. Forget it, it’s in the past,” or “Just get over it”, “don’t take it that hard”). Lack of recognition and devaluation or even dismissal of the psychological distress is very painful to the individual. The second is blaming, the social network blames the person for his/her current distress. An individual, who perceives his or her network as being judgmental, disapproving and unreliable, will find it difficult to discuss the problems and communicate his or her emotions. It may also increase the level of frustration, resentment and anger that the individual feels.  

In addition, distancing is the third construct. The social network takes an emotional, behavioral and even physical distance from the individual and essentially isolates him. Avoidance of interaction with the person might originate from ambivalent feelings by members of the social network and it makes the individual feel even more distressed, lonesome and isolated. People might sometimes also project the message that one should not talk about one’s distress and should keep one’s experiences to oneself. Awkwardness is the last construct. Sometime people just don’t know what to do or not to say. They may even be having a hard time dealing with their own thoughts and feelings about what the individual is sharing with them and therefore they feel awkward. Some may also be determine to ‘fix’ to individual and offer support in the way which they understand to be right, but it doesn’t answer the individual‘s needs. Over excessive contact, taking over, unsolicited advice and high expression of emotions can be perceived to be unhelpful, negative and even frustrating. An overprotective and over-involved partner, for example, can encourage dependence and helplessness, which can impair adjustment levels, social functioning, as well as, psychological well-being (Pakenham et al., 1994).

If you perceive that someone responds unhelpfully to you but it does not originate from maliciousness, extreme negativity, lack of enthusiasm or pure unwillingness to help, then you could try to give some feedback and tell them how they can really help you. If they don’t really know how to help you, direct them and state exactly what you need. For example, if you need to vent, say “I really need someone to just listen to me now. That will really help me feel better; do you have a couple of minutes to sit with me? “. If you notice that they are not responding to your request i.e. listening, tell them specifically what they are doing wrong and how it makes you feel i.e. “when you keep texting a friend while I am talking , it makes me really frustrated and annoyed because you are not listening to me. It feels like you don’t care about what I am saying to you. Can you please pay more attention to me while we talk?”. If telling someone exactly how they can help you does not change circumstances then at least you know that you tried to express yourself better, where you stand and you will need accept things as they are. If it is a family member or partner, you could choose go to therapy and work on your communications skills to better understand each other and each other’s needs, but if it is someone like colleague or an acquaintance, sometimes you just need to put yourself first, leave the situation and walk away.  

Harber, M. G., Cohen, J. L., Lucas, T., & Baltes, B. R. (2007). The relationship between self reported, received and perceived support: a meta analysis review. American Journal of Community psychology, 39, 133-144.

Ingram, K. M., Betz, N. E., Mindes, E. J., Schmitt, M. M., & Smith, N. G. (2001) Unsupportive responses from others concerning a stressful life event: Development of the unsupportive social interactions inventory. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 20, 173–207.

Pakenham, K. I., Dadds, M. R., & Terry, D. J. (1994). Relationships between adjustment to HIV and both social support and coping. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 62, 1194-1203.

Pietrzak, R. H., Johnson, D. C., Goldstein, M. B., Malley, J. C., & Southwick, S. M. (2009). Psychological resilience and post deployment social support protect again traumatic stress and depressive symptoms in soldiers returning from operations enduring freedom and Iraqi Freedom. Depression and Anxiety, 26, 8, 745-751.

Wortman, C. B. (1984). Social support and the cancer patient: conceptual and methodological issues. Cancer, 53, 2339-2360.