What to Do When Depression Makes You Feel Worthless
Originally posted on Psych Central
Feelings of worthlessness can happen for a variety of reasons, including depression. But with self-care and support, confidence and joy can return.
Experiencing a low mood and thoughts of worthlessness can be unpleasant and even frightening at times. These emotions may arrive after a major life transition, such as a divorce or a job loss. They can also be because of financial difficulties or another life stressor.
And yet, sometimes low self-esteem can also be due to depression — one of the most common mental health conditions in the United States.
Learning more about the link between depression and feelings of worthlessness may help you work through those negative thoughts. It may also help you notice when it may be time to reach out to a mental health professional.
How depression may affect your sense of self-worth
It’s important to note that depression and low self-esteem are different concepts.
Low self-esteem, on the other hand, can happen for numerous reasons. It may have appeared after disappointing a friend, for example, or doing poorly on a test. The feeling may have also been spurred by the way you were raised or your experiences throughout life.
Still, while they’re not one and the same, feelings of worthlessness can be part of experiencing depression. Experts suggest this because depression may distort your sense of self.
“Depression is often tied to a sense of low self-worth and negative beliefs about yourself,” says Billy Roberts, LISW-S, the founder of Focused Mind ADHD Counseling in Columbus, Ohio. “It can feel like you’re wearing emotional eyeglasses, clouding your vision. If you believe you are not good enough, you’ll see the world through these ‘not good enough’ glasses.”
Isabelle Morley, PsyD LLC, in Massachusetts, adds saying, “In some ways, the most challenging part of depression is the painful lies it makes people believe about themselves.”
“Even when someone has high self-esteem and a positive sense of self-worth, they can suddenly be plummeted into self-doubt, self-criticism, and the deeply held belief that they are worthless once depression hits,” she says.
If these feelings sound familiar to you, do know that you’re not alone and help is available.
How to be kind to yourself and boost your self-esteem
While feelings of worthlessness may seem difficult to bear, please keep in mind that several tactics can help you restore — or discover — happiness and self-confidence.
One of the most vital things you can do for yourself is to show yourself compassion. Understand that feelings of worthlessness are an aspect of depression itself.
“If you’re feeling this way, remember that it is the depression shaping how you see yourself, and it is not the truth,” Morley says. “It is an imbalance of neurochemicals that is impacting the way your brain and body are functioning, leading to misconceptions about who you are as a person.”
Holding this awareness at the forefront of your thoughts may help you empathize with yourself and what you’re going through.
In addition, you may want to consider the following:
Engage in behaviors that give you meaning and joy
Depression and feelings of worthlessness can make it hard to do things you used to enjoy.
Still, intentionally doing activities that give you a sense of meaning, purpose, or mastery is one of the front-line methods for boosting self-worth and treating depression. This approach is known as “behavioral activation” and has been shown to relieve symptoms of depression as well as cognitive therapy.
While it can be part of a structured therapy approach, you can also use this technique by yourself in a more informal way.
What activity you try is entirely up to you. For some, hiking may provide a sense of meaning and joy. For others, it may be reading about travel destinations or crafts.
To get you started, it can be helpful to schedule a specific time or interval to do the activity in question. Ideally, aim to do something that gives you a sense of meaning and joy multiple times throughout your week.
If you’re experiencing worthlessness, it may seem hard to muster up the energy to exercise. But research shows that exercise can be key to improving mood.
In fact, one study found that exercise may relieve depression.
This may be due in part to the fact that exercise releases endorphins — “feel good” brain chemicals that may help lift feelings of unworthiness.
If exercise feels like a challenge, try thinking about the following:
Find a form of exercise you enjoy. The more exercise feels like a “leisure activity,” the more likely you might be to engage in it. Now is not the time to be hard on yourself or force yourself to do something you dislike.
Focus on short amounts of exercise instead of long, intense workouts. This will help with feeling “overwhelmed” by the thought of exercising.
Use an activity tracker to get biofeedback, if one is available to you, or a fitness app. Research has shown that activity trackers may encourage you to participate in regular exercise, so using one or a fitness app may reinforce positive behavior.
Learn about the benefits of exercise to stay motivated.
Indeed, research reports that a combination of these efforts led to better outcomes overall.
“Meditation can be incredibly beneficial for people who are feeling low and lacking self-esteem,” says Charna Cassell, MFT, and the founder of Center for Passionate Living in Oakland, California.
“Meditation brings you back into the present moment,” she says. “This can be helpful for those who may be feeling guilty about the past or afraid of the future — two things that can increase feelings of worthlessness, shame, and desperation.”
Science backs this, too. While more research needs to be done on the topic, findings indicate that increased mindfulness — which may, for example, be achieved through meditation and yoga — is related to less depression, rumination, and worry.
Roberts suggests that positive self-talk is one way to handle and relieve feelings of worthlessness.
Because positive self-talk — even if it feels artificial at first — “can ultimately convert to more assertive behaviors,” he says. These behaviors include isolating less (if you’re prone to isolation when feeling low) and changing your thought patterns.
Positive self-talk is most effective when it’s used as a direct response to negative things we may tell ourselves. On it’s own or not directed at any particular negative thing, positive self-talk often fades quickly.
A few positive phrases you might want to try in response to negative self-talk include:
I love myself exactly for who I am.
I forgive myself for my past mistakes.
I am strong and courageous and will get through this.
I have the power to change my thoughts.
The last one, in particular, can be empowering, and encourage you to continue searching for healthy coping habits.
As Roberts puts it, “If you consider depression and low self-esteem like a cycle of thoughts, feelings, and actions, know that you can intervene at any point in the cycle.”
As mentioned, feeling low and unworthy may lead to isolation.
However, as difficult as it may be, you may benefit from getting outside and into nature.
In addition to the physical activity you will receive, a growing body of research shows that nature can have therapeutic effects and alleviate depression.
You could try a walk in a park — if one is available to you — or a hike at a place you find calming.
Reach out to loving, understanding people
Consider your community — friends, family members, colleagues — who celebrate your strengths. This may remind you of your worth and perhaps inspire you to keep going.
Sometimes, describing why you think you feel worthless to a trusted friend and seeing their response can also be beneficial and boost your sense of worth.
There’s a strong link between needing to “be” perfect and feelings of worthlessness.
In part because perfectionism is impossible to obtain. When you don’t reach your standards, your self-esteem may drop, and feelings of worthlessness may arrive.
Try to remind yourself that nothing and nobody is perfect. Being “imperfect” is perfectly acceptable. You’re enough just the way you are.
While letting go of perfectionist tendencies can be hard, there are ways to do it.
Reframe your thoughts
Both low self-esteem and depression — either alone or together — can affect the way you think.
But it’s also possible to reframe your thinking.
When a negative thought occurs, consider asking yourself the following:
Is my thought true? Do I have evidence to support it?
Where does this thought come from? If it’s from something someone said, are they a reliable source of information? Did they have my best needs in mind?
If the thought may be true — perhaps a mistake was legitimately made — what can I do differently moving forward?
If the thought is making me feel worse, how helpful is it for me at this time?
We all have different ways of feeling better. For some, this may be enjoying a meal with a friend. For others, it may be a solo bike ride or a warm bath.
Even if it’s difficult to consider caring for yourself when you feel low, you might consider creating a list of things that make you feel good — and then doing them.
Overall, taking small — or what Cassell calls “micro”— steps toward self-care may lessen feelings of worthlessness and low self-esteem.
When to seek help
If hopeless feelings have been bothering you and/or are affecting the main domains of your life — work, school, parenting, socializing — you may want to seek the help of a mental health professional right away.
This is particularly true if your feelings of worthlessness have gone on for more than 2 weeks, as symptoms that go on this long may be indicative of depression.
Also, tune in.
“It’s important to listen to your mind, body, and heart if you’re noticing that you’re feeling hopeless,” Roberts says. He recommends keeping an eye out for the following signs of depression:
noticeable changes in daily mood
increased irritability or frustration
lack of interest in preferred activities
low energy and motivation
“Early intervention is critical, as depression can worsen over time,” Roberts adds. “It’s important to seek help if you even suspect you are or about to [experience] depression.”
Morley concurs. “If you’re feeling hopeless, it’s time to seek help. Depression has a way of convincing us that the way we’re feeling about ourselves and about life is true.”
“If you’re caught in that belief, find a professional who can help you see things differently,” she says. “Don’t let another day of feeling worthless and hopeless go by. There are professionals who can and want to help.”
The APA suggests a thorough evaluation by a mental health professional, as well as a physical exam. This should include a blood test to ensure that your symptoms of depression are not due to an underlying medical condition, such as a thyroid problem or a vitamin deficiency.
If you do indeed have depression, your mental health professional may create a treatment plan tailored to your needs. These may include medication and psychotherapy (or “talk therapy”) such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
It’s especially critical to reach out for assistance if your feelings of worthlessness are accompanied by thoughts of suicide or self-harm.
Are you in a crisis or considering suicide?
If you’re having thoughts of suicide or self-harm, you can access free support right away with these resources:
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Call the Lifeline at 800-273-8255, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
The Crisis Text Line. Text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
The Trevor Project. LGBTQIA+ and under 25 years old? Call 866-488-7386, text START to 678678, or chat online 24-7.
Veterans Crisis Line. Call 800-273-8255, text 838255, or chat online 24-7.
Befrienders Worldwide. This international crisis helpline network can help you find a local helpline.
Feelings of worthlessness can occur at any time in life. The loss of a loved one, a breakup with your significant other, a job change or termination — all may cause a low or sad mood.
That said, the American Psychiatric Association reports that there’s a difference between grief, which may occur after such big life events, and depression. If feeling worthless persists or worsens, it could be a sign of depression.
Rest assured, however, that depression is one of the most treatable mental health conditions. In fact, the APA reports that 80% to 90% of people with depression “respond well to treatment.”
Also, try to remember that you’re not alone — and that with help and self-care, you can fight feelings of worthlessness. Confidence and joy can return.