When we're depressed, it's hard to feel good about ourselves. We're quick to see our own limitations and slow to remember our strengths. For example, people with depression are more likely to:
Low self-esteem is a significant predictor of future depression. On the flip side, our view of ourselves improves as depression improves, and increases in self-esteem during psychotherapy can prevent relapse into depression.
Thus finding ways to feel better about ourselves would appear to be one way to lift depression.
A recent study examined two ways of trying to increase one's sense of self-worth in a sample of adults with depression and/or anxiety:
The researchers measured how much each participant focused on these goals, and also assessed their depression and anxiety symptoms and their degree of conflict with other people.
Analyses showed that a greater focus on self-image goals was linked with more relationship conflict and a worsening of symptoms during the 6-week study period. In contrast, compassionate goals were associated with lower levels of symptoms and less relationship conflict.
The research team carried out an important follow-up study, asking a significant other for each participant (a romantic partner, family member, or close friend) to rate that person's self-image and compassionate goals.
These ratings by significant others were also linked to relationship quality as judged by the partners or family members. Thus the important people in one's life also feel the effects of where we focus our energy when we're anxious or depressed.
These results are both good and bad news for people with anxiety and depression.
The bad news is that trying to boost our self-image by avoiding vulnerability and seeking others' approval backfires in more ways than one: It leaves us feeling depressed and anxious, and also damages our relationships. These two effects can reinforce each other, leading to a downward spiral.
On the other hand, the really good news is that by turning our attention toward helping others, we make everyone feel better—ourselves included. We find not only relief from our depression and anxiety, but also improvements in our relationships.
Taken together these two effects can trigger a "virtuous circle" in which improved relationships lead to feeling better leads to improved relationships and so forth.
What are some specific ways to practice compassion for others?
The scale that measured compassion in the study above includes seven techniques:
Of course, we don't have to be anxious or depressed to do things that strengthen our connections to others. Investing in our relationships is the biggest key to our long-term health and happiness. And that sounds like a pretty compassionate way to treat ourselves.
Crocker, J., & Canevello, A. (2008). Creating and undermining social support in communal relationships: The role of compassionate and self-image goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 555-575.
Dinger, U., Ehrenthal, J. C., Nikendei, C., & Schauenburg, H. (2017). Change in self-esteem predicts depressive symptoms at follow-up after intensive multimodal psychotherapy for major depression. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 24, 1040-1046. doi:10.1002/cpp.2067
Erickson, T. M., Granillo, M. T., Crocker, J., Abelson, J. L., Reas, H. E., & Quach, C. M. (2017). Compassionate and self-image goals as interpersonal maintenance factors in clinical depression and anxiety. Journal of Clinical Psychology. doi:10.1002/jclp.22524
Leary, M. R., & Baumeister, R. F. (2000). The nature and function of self-esteem: Sociometer theory. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 32, 1-62. doi:10.1016/S0065-2601(00)80003-9