Can Low Self-Esteem Cause Depression?

Depression and low self-esteem often go together. However, it can be hard to determine whether low self-esteem is the cause of an individual’s depression or the result of it.

How Would You Define Low Self-Esteem and Depression?

People with low self-esteem are very critical of themselves. They see themselves as fundamentally inadequate compared to other people.

People who are depressed suffer from a consistently low mood. They feel hopeless and pessimistic.

Often, low self-esteem and depression go together. People who are depressed often blame themselves for their depression and think that they’re depressed because there’s something wrong with them.

However, not everyone who is depressed suffers from low self-esteem, at least not consciously. Many depressed people blame external circumstances for their dark moods. They blame their bosses, their partners, or their children. They think that, if only those things changed, they would feel fine.

Can Low Self-Esteem Cause Depression?

When depression has a biological basis, low self-esteem is the result of the depression, not the cause. I often see people who haven’t started taking anti-depressants or who aren’t on the right medication for them. They feel terrible about themselves and are sure that they’ve done something to cause their depression. Once they get on the right medication, those feelings go away.

I often tell these patients that depression is like a funhouse mirror that makes everything appear to be the opposite of what it really is. They think that their low self-esteem is causing their depression, but, in fact, their depression is causing their low self-esteem.

When an individual’s depression doesn’t have a biological component, low self-esteem often is a contributing cause. However, not everyone who has low self-esteem is depressed. Many people with low self-esteem experience anxiety, not depression.

Are There Common Traits with Low Self-Esteem?

The majority of people who have low self-esteem believe that they don’t measure up. They think that the reason things aren’t going the way they want (career, relationships, etc.) is because there’s something wrong with them.  

For example, I have patients in the arts who are very creative and work very hard but aren’t able to support themselves via visual art, music, or theater. They know how difficult it is to succeed, yet remain convinced they are unsuccessful because they’re lazy.

Similarly, people with low self-esteem often blame themselves for difficulties in their relationships. They take much more than their rightful share of responsibility for their partner’s happiness. They expect very little from their partner in return believing they’re too inadequate to be treated well.

What Treatments Have You Found to be Effective?

Many people with low self-esteem have spent their lives under the influence of what some therapists call “pathogenic beliefs”. These beliefs include the belief that they’re inadequate. This belief, in turn, can usually be traced back to early interactions with parents or other caregivers.

Because these pathogenic beliefs developed when they were young, most people don’t experience them as beliefs. They think that this is the reality of their lives. Effective treatment involves helping people recognize how they came to experience themselves as inadequate and helping them to see how they can understand themselves differently.

Do You Have Any Advice for Those with Low Self-Esteem?

If low self-esteem is interfering with your ability to enjoy your life and meet your goals, I would encourage you to seek psychotherapy. If depression is contributing to your low self-esteem, medication may also help you feel better about yourself. But, even if you’re not depressed, psychotherapy helps you overcome chronic self-criticism and puts you on the path towards a more fulfilling life.

Click here to learn more about treatment for low self-esteem and depression with Dr. Jane Rubin.