How Does Your "Sense of Self" Relate to Depression?

New research explains why self congruence matters.

Posted May 18, 2019

Sebastiaan Stam/Unsplash
When depression strikes...
Source: Sebastiaan Stam/Unsplash

When you're depressed, you may be tempted to focus on your symptoms, such as feeling down, being unable to eat or sleep, or difficulty concentrating. But a 2019 paper on depression suggests that "a sense of self" is what you should pay attention to.  

What is your sense of self? Why does it matter? And what can you do about it to feel less depressed? In this post, I will focus on one of the theories that explain why people get depressed. This premise is called the "self-discrepancy theory." 

According to psychology professor Edward Higgins, the "self" has three aspects: an actual, ideal, and ought self.

An "actual" self is who you think you are, and how you assess your characteristics, such as talent, intelligence, and looks. An "ideal" self is what you wish you would or could be. And an "ought" self is what you or others think you should be.

Research indicates that when there is a mismatch between your "actual" and "ideal" selves, you are likely to get depressed.

Say, for example, you think of yourself as smart, hard-working, and successful. But in real life, your work situation limits your progress and starts to slow you down. When your "actual" self becomes a lower-achieving version of your ideal self, depression will set in. So when you're depressed, you should address the actual-ideal mismatch. A 2019 meta-analysis confirmed the importance of actual-ideal mismatches in depression.

The degree of match between who you are and your ideal self also determines your self-esteem. And low self-esteem contributes to depression.

People with low self-esteem have less gray matter in brain regions responsible for adapting to stress and feeling pride. They also have less gray matter in "theory of mind" brain regions—regions that help us infer what others are thinking. 

Based on the self-discrepancy theory, how can you help yourself if you are feeling depressed? Your internal narrative—the story you have about yourself and how others perceive you—will determine how your "actual" self can begin to approximate your "ideal" self. To do this, you need to examine your depressed assumptions and change them based on what we know from psychology and brain research. The following assumptions should be changed:

  • Use Self-Talk: When you're depressed, you might think, "My actual-ideal mismatch is fixed. I'm doomed." Change your self talk to: "My brain can change throughout my life." The old adage, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks" has been proven to be wrong.
  • Switch to Internal Guides: When you're depressed, you might think, "I don't see any opportunities to get closer to my ideal self." Switch your attention from the outside to the inside. Depression will block your ability to see opportunities on the outside. For that reason, switch to your internal self-guides. The first guide is a sense of possibility. Then, with this sense, imagine an outcome you want. Rather than thinking of what you want as being in the future, consider it done now.  Simulate this. Then, you can focus on what you need to change to make this a reality.
  • Use MBCT: When you're depressed, you might think, "I can't do anything to make my actual self get closer to my ideal self. Practice principles of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) which close the gap between your actual and ideal self. Start by becoming an observer of your thoughts rather than being a judge of them. When you stop judging yourself due to your discrepancies, you will feel less depressed. Self-acceptance, self-kindness, and non-striving can all provide a reprieve from spinning your wheels. During this reprieve, you can reframe your goals. For instance, rather than being "perfect," you can be better than you were. And rather than "ideal" being something to strive for, think of it as something that you already are. Depression and low self-esteem block this ideal. 
  • Use Promotion Rather Than Prevention Strategies: When you're depressed, you may be harsh toward yourself. Instead, practice self-compassion. Self-compassion is a proven route to reach your goals. It's not about false self-praising either. You're smart enough to know when this feels fake. It's simply about providing the emotional environment that you need to reach your goals. One key component of this compassionate emotional environment includes a "promotion" rather than a "prevention" approach. Focus more on what you need to do rather than what you need to prevent.

When you're depressed, consider that your actual and ideal selves are not aligned. Then, use these mindset shifts to start changing your state of being.

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