The Self in Crisis: How Depression Affects Our Self-Concept

Depression alters a series of cortical regions related to our self-concept. This explains why we have such a hard time trusting ourselves or seeing ourselves in a positive light.
The Self in Crisis: How Depression Affects Our Self-Concept
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

Depression affects our self-concept. This link makes recovery from the condition far more difficult. In fact, it’s almost impossible to see ourselves in a positive light when our mind punishes us with increasingly negative and exhausting value judgments. When this happens, it’s no use being told that “You have to love yourself more”, as our brain simply responds with: “What for?”.

It’s true that biased self-perception and low self-esteem are part of the substrate of mood disorders. However, the reality is rather more complex. That’s because this psychological condition is a process that starts from multiple factors, never from just one.

When we live with a psychological disorder, the opinion that we have about ourselves gradually weakens. There are a whole series of biological mechanisms that orchestrate this type of destructive self-perception.

The self is based on complex brain processes that tend to be altered, especially when we suffer from a psychological disorder.

Sad man at the window thinking about how depression affects our self-concept
Although it’s true that low self-esteem is a characteristic of depression, it’s the sense of self that’s more affected during this psychological disorder.

The effect of depression on self-concept

Depression has numerous antagonists. For instance, there’s sadness, guilt, self-hatred, hopelessness, low self-esteem, self-demand, and even fear. Indeed, few clinical entities are so complex and host so many factors that mark their appearance and development. These include genetic and social factors.

Having negative self-perception alone isn’t enough to build the black hole of depression. Nevertheless, it’s becoming increasingly evident that this disorder progressively undermines, diminishes, and weakens the way we see ourselves. This explains the exhausting internal narratives of those who suffer from it. It also accounts for, in some cases, their resistance to move forward and improve their condition.

Low self-esteem and a fragile self-concept contribute to depression, and they become even worse if we don’t apply coping strategies. We might even reach both worrying and dramatic limits.

Building our self or way of seeing ourselves

The self, or the image/perception we have of ourselves, is built through different dimensions. For example, there’s the social aspect. This includes our education, environment, relationships, and experiences that allow us to build part of that perception. In fact, what we believe that others think of us, plus our own opinion, configures an important part of our self-esteem, self-concept, and self-image.

The University of Salzburg conducted research that indicates that people with low self-esteem show a smaller volume of gray matter in various regions of the brain. Especially in those related to the regulation of emotions, self-perception, and theory of mind (attributing thoughts and intentions to other people).

The self is a subtle combination of social and also biological aspects. Therefore, psychological conditions such as depression can reduce or weaken the self-image. This tends to be especially the case if it was previously fragile.

Depression affects self-concept

The University of Melbourne published a paper that delved into how depression affects our self-concept and the opinions that we build about ourselves. As with the previous research, it claims that this dimension is sustained in complex and hierarchical brain processes.

There are subcortical regions and cortical networks that can further distort and weaken our perception when we suffer from a mood disorder. The condition also causes an alteration in neurotransmitters. This means there are fewer interneuronal connections and a reduction in brain plasticity.

All of this neurochemical context alters our narratives and intensifies negative self-talk. Indeed, depression not only blocks our ability to see further opportunities but also weakens our self-image. We don’t believe we deserve happiness and well-being. Furthermore, we perceive ourselves as unable to achieve what we want and to leave behind our suffering.

Sad girl with her eyes closed thinking about how depression affects our self-concept
People with depression reinforce a negative and exhausting internal dialogue that further fragments the image they have of themselves.

Working with self-image and self-esteem during depression

Few realities are more therapeutic than promoting a compassionate, respectful, and resilient internal dialogue. However, if you’re suffering from depression you’ll be unable to do it on your own. Nor will you be able to connect in a motivating and hopeful way with your environment and social reality if, inside, you’re dominated by highly negative and catastrophic judgments.

Since depression affects your self-concept and your self is in perpetual crisis, there’s only one way out. This is psychological and pharmacological therapy.

Medications will be able to act on your brain chemistry. This will promote communication in your brain’s nerve cell circuits, to regulate your mood. However, you must accompany the pharmacological approach with therapy. That’s because you need to improve your thought patterns and break down the beliefs and pathological schemes that are reinforcing your discomfort and negative self-image.

As a matter of fact, the treatment of depression always requires a multifactorial framework in which to integrate new life habits and better emotional management. It even involves a reformulation of purposes, values, and vital meanings. After all, your sense of self is the cornerstone of your well-being. Therefore, you must take care of it. It’s what defines you.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.