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:
- Blame themselves when something goes wrong.
- Believe that other people don’t like them.
- Feel a general sense of dislike for themselves.
- Interpret their actions in the worst possible light.
- Remember the mistakes they’ve made.
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:
- Self-image goals focused on “obtaining status or approval and avoiding vulnerability during social interactions.” Examples included “getting others to notice your positive qualities” and “avoiding showing your weaknesses.”
- In contrast, compassionate goals were about “striving to help others and avoiding selfish behavior”—for example, “making a positive difference in someone else’s life.”
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:
- Being supportive of others. We can let the people we care about know we’re excited when something goes well for them, and that we hurt when they’re in pain.
- Having compassion for others’ mistakes. We all mess up at times. A gentle response (e.g., “It’s OK—you’re human“) not only makes the person feel better but bolsters our relationship with them. It may also plant a seed for being treated kindly when it’s our turn to mess up.
- Making a positive difference in someone’s life. Examples include taking a friend out to lunch, making one’s partner’s day a little easier, or even graciously letting someone merge in front of you in traffic.
- Making constructive comments to others. Our words are powerful, for good and for harm. Building others up with our words also builds our relationships with them. An added bonus: We can’t be saying destructive words at the same time that we’re saying constructive ones.
- Avoiding doing anything that would be harmful to others. Sometimes it’s enough simply to avoid hurting other people. For example, maybe that means walking away during a heated argument when we know we’re about to say something venomous.
- Avoiding being self-centered. A preoccupation with our own well-being crowds out concern for others. High levels of depression and anxiety tend to make us turn inward and focus on ourselves, which probably explains in part why compassion for others can relieve both of these conditions.
- Avoiding doing things that are unhelpful to others. We can take care not to do things that make others’ lives more difficult, like leaving a mess for them to clean up.
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.