How Do People with Depression See Themselves?

October 31, 2019
Many roads lead to depression. Today, we'll study one of the most unique ones.

We’re all fighting our own battles. Work, family, relationships… Every day is a new challenge in so many different ways. However, often the battle that leads to paralyzing depression is the one you fight with yourself.

Experts state that people with depression tend to amplify the effects of their symptoms. A report published by Dr. Kopala-Sibley suggests that if you’re depressed, it’s better for you to focus less on your symptoms and more on how you feel about yourself. The latter could be the root cause of your depression. Experts state that it’s better to treat the root cause of this condition rather than just the symptoms.

The conclusions from this study support Higgins’ self-discrepancy theoryAccording to this theory, the self has three domains: the actual, the ideal, and the “ought”. Kopala-Sibley’s research indicates that when there’s a discrepancy between the actual self and the ideal self, depression manifests.

People with depression with their head on their knees.

What causes self-discrepancy?

You build your self-concept based on many variables. Although people tend to believe that the “self” is a single entity, that’s not true. There’s the self that defines you, the person you actually are: the actual self.

However, there are also parallel selves, such as the self that you’d like to be, or the ideal self. There’s also the responsible self, or as Higgins described it, the “ought”. This is who you feel you should be based on the customs and social roles that you adopt.

For example, maybe you’re a competent, intelligent, and hard-working person. However, if your work doesn’t let you express those traits, a conflict will arise. In this case, the mismatch between the actual self and the ideal self provides fertile ground for developing depression.

Another thing that depends on the perceived distance between the actual and ideal self is self-esteem. It’s closely linked to your psychological well-being. If you have low self-esteem, you’re more vulnerable to depression. Research shows that people with low self-esteem have lower levels of gray matter in areas of the brain that help you intuit what other people think of you.

People with depression and inner dialogue

Your actual and ideal selves relate to each other based on a story that you tell about yourself and how others see you. Self-esteem is higher when there isn’t much of a difference between the two. If you’re experiencing symptoms of depression, you’re probably dealing with a significant discrepancy between your actual and ideal self.

The inner dialogue that people with depression have often makes them believe that their actual selves are too far removed from their ideal selves. If you want to eliminate that distance, you can try changing your internal narrative. Focusing on what you can change to get closer to your ideal self is a good start.

Mindfulness

If changing the way you narrate your own story doesn’t help, then practicing mindfulness is another great strategy. Mindfulness can help close the gap between the actual and ideal self.

The immediate benefit of this type of meditation is that you learn to observe your own thoughts without judging them. Letting go of judgment can help significantly improve symptoms of depression. Gradual self-acceptance is another way to bring the actual and ideal self closer together.

A woman outside with her eyes closed.

Aligning who you really are with your ideals

The goal here isn’t perfection. Instead, you should acknowledge that you have room for improvement. Being gentle and kind with yourself creates an environment that’s much more conducive to setting goals and getting rid of those you don’t need.

Negative emotional states often worsen the distance between your actual and ideal self, which can spiral you even further down into depression. Practicing these strategies can help you manage your own expectations and, consequently, the frustration that they might cause. Depression, in this sense, is a wake-up call to pay attention to your internal discrepancies. It’s a sign that you need to identify them and work on them. Your mental health and well-being will thank you.

Bak W. (2014). Self-Standards and Self-Discrepancies. A Structural Model of Self-Knowledge. Current psychology (New Brunswick, N.J.), 33(2), 155–173. doi:10.1007/s12144-013-9203-4

Kopala‐Sibley, Daniel; Zuroff, David C. (2019) The self and depression: Four psychological theories and their potential neural correlates. US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. doi: 10.1111/jopy.12456.

Pillay, Srini (2019) How Does Your “Sense of Self” Relate to Depression? New research explains why self congruence matters. Psychology Today