Low self-esteem and depression come together so often the question becomes, which one causes the other?
Two psychological views developed on this matter. On the one side is the ‘scar’ model, where depression is seen as eroding self-esteem. On the other side is the ‘vulnerability’ model, which believes low self-esteem brings on depression.
Recent research now supports the latter – that it’s more likely to suffer low self-esteem before depression than vice versa. Of course everyone is unique. Sometimes sudden life trauma can cause depression in some one who has high self-esteem, and the depression is the cause of a plummet in confidence. But in general, low self-esteem comes first.
Research Supporting the Link Between Self-Esteem and Depression
A large scale review on the links between self-esteem and depression carried out by Swiss researchers Julia Friedrike Sowislo and Ulrich Orth collated information from ninety-five different studies with samples that ranged from children to the elderly.
The findings very much proved that the effects of low self-esteem on depression were significantly higher than those of depression on self-esteem, no matter the gender or age of the people surveyed.
The researchers believe that those with low self-esteem are prone to replay and focus on negative thoughts far more than those who have high self-esteem, putting themselves at higher risk for low moods. And those with self-esteem might also encourage others to give them negative feedback, making things worse for themselves yet again.
Although more research is required, the recommendation from the study is that increasing self-esteem is likely an intervention that could decrease symptoms of depression.
Why are Self-Esteem and Depression so Connected?
Depression is a serious mood disorder where sufferers feel down, sad, and numb for weeks or longer (for more information read our Guide to Depression).
Self-esteem is related to our core beliefs about ourselves– whether we find ourselves worthy or unworthy of good things.
Feeling worthless makes it hard to feel good about yourself and life. And the more worthless one feels, the lower one can get, until you are depressed (feelings of worthlessness are one of the clinical symptoms of depression).
Often such feelings of worthlessness are related to difficult and traumatic childhood experiences, too, which themselves can be a reason for depression.
But exactly how can feelings of worthlessness make us feel so low?
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) , a form of therapy now popular in the UK, calls such negative thoughts as feelings of worthlessness ‘thinking errors’ or ‘cognitive distortions‘.
The idea is that cognitive distortions (like thinking, ‘I am no good’) cause a chain reaction or ‘loop’ that pulls us deeper into negativity or keeps us feeling low. The negative thought leads to physical sensations and emotions that then lead to a negative action taken, that then causes another negative thought, and the cycle continues (read more about CBT behavioural loops here).
Having low self-esteem and feeling worthless doesn’t just lead to negative thoughts about yourself, either. If you feel worthless, you can easily attribute this to other people, assuming they find you worthless, then even think that the world itself is too hard. So there can be many negative thought patterns to come out of low self-esteem. And feeling that others find you no good or the world is too hard can make you feel lonely and overwhelmed, both of which also can contribute to depression.
There are several things I don’t feel confident about. Should I be worried about depression?
Confidence and self-esteem are actually two different things, so not necessarily.
Self-esteem is related to our core beliefs about ourselves and whether we find ourselves worthy or unworthy of good things. It’s built up from childhood and the messages we take on about ourselves. These core beliefs are deeply rooted in our unconscious.
Confidence is more from conscious thought – it’s how we think about ourselves in a given situation.
So we might have good confidence in some areas, like think we are attractive and good at our job. But we might also deep down think we don’t deserve to be happy and loved so suffer low self esteem. Or we can have high self-esteem, and know our self worth, but have zero confidence when it comes to things like dating or extreme sports.
If you have low self confidence in something, such as a new job that you just started, but you generally think of yourself as a worthwhile person, there is low risk for depression (although a coach or counsellor is always helpful during such times of challenging transition).
If behind your lack of confidence is a deep rooted belief you have likely felt from childhood that someone like you is no good at things so could never carry off a difficult career, then you might suffer low self-esteem and yes, be at risk for depression.
Five Quick Tips for Improving Your Self-Esteem
Therapy is highly recommended when it comes to improving self-esteem, because negative beliefs about yourself often relate to childhood trauma and can be quite deeply buried. Changing your self-esteem can therefore be a long-term project, and a therapist provides support and a safe environment that makes it easier.
But here are some tips that can get you started now on noticing your beliefs and making more positive choices for yourself.
1. Watch your language.
Start to notice if you are saying negative things about yourself and encouraging others to put you down.
2. Don’t seek others approval.
While to some extent we all want our friend’s opinions on things, take notice if you do things just to win approval or are always asking others what they think and never doing things just for yourself.
And notice just who you are seeking approval from. Those who have low self-esteem tend to unconsciously want to prove their negative self beliefs, and will without realising it seek approval from the very people they are not likely to get it from easily.
3. Keep a record of what you do well every day.
When we suffer low self-esteem the mind can trick us into overlooking the positive and only seeing the negative (read more about this in our article on black and white thinking). Change this habit by ending every day by writing down five accomplishments or things that went well. They don’t have to be big things, it can something as small as putting together an outfit you felt great in or smiling at someone and noticing it made them happy. Definitely write them down over just ‘think’ them, so the next time you are sure nothing good ever happens to you or you never accomplish anything you can have a read.
4. Work to spend more time with people who appreciate you.
As well as seeking approval from those who won’t give it (and therefore rather conveniently confirming your belief you are unworthy), when you suffer low self-esteem it’s likely you’ll also gravitate towards people who don’t appreciate you. It’s the same principle – they do the dirty work for you of supporting your negative thoughts about yourself.
What would happen if you started to hang around those who don’t appreciate you less, and those who do appreciate you more? Or even found all new friends who like you the way you are?
5. Choose to do more of what you are good at and less of what you struggle with
If you are not very good at basketball, but insist on playing it every week so after you can tell yourself that you are the worst player and will never be any good, maybe it’s time to give it a rest and notice that running long distance is something that comes easy to you (in fact you are the most energised runner on the court, come to think of it). You might tell yourself ‘but I like basketball more’. Is this true? Or do you secretly just like the chance it gives you to beat yourself up? What would happen if you tried joining a running club for a bit instead?
Do you have a way of increasing your self-esteem you care to share? Do so below.
images by Global Panorama, Joseph Antoniello, Kiran Foster, Gustavo Devito