5 Steps for Helping Someone with Low Self-Esteem or Depression
We may feel incredibly inept when we see a loved one suffering from symptoms that appear to be distressing and draining. When the friend you once laughed with on a daily basis now barely smiles when you crack a joke, stays confined to their home and begins to neglect basic hygiene, it’s difficult to know how and when to intervene. When that person is a family member, it may be just as difficult to know how to be most helpful. Are they depressed, or do they have low self-esteem?
Before offering guidance on how to intervene, I will offer a quick distinction between low self-esteem and depression. Low self-esteem occurs when we have a negative self-perception in relation to others, believing we are inferior in some way and therefore utilizing self-criticism, avoiding situations that are likely to end in perceived failure, withdrawing from situations where we may be rejected, and having an inability to express our needs. Though low self-esteem is not necessarily a precursor to depression, it is a risk factor and increased symptoms of isolation or discouragement necessitate attention and possible intervention, as neglect may lead to the development of depression.
Depression may be identified by the hallmark symptoms of depressed mood for the majority of the day every day, loss of interest or pleasure in regularly enjoyable activities, excessive weight loss or weight gain, inability to sleep or the desire to sleep as much as possible, extreme fatigue and lowered energy levels, feelings of worthlessness and guilt, and the greatest indicator being hopelessness and suicidal ideation. In children, depression may present as primary irritability rather than depressive feelings, present every day for no fewer than two weeks’ time.
Below I have listed five suggestions that may be helpful in regard to helping a friend or family member who is struggling with low-self esteem and/or depression.
When someone is experiencing low self-esteem:
- Encourage them to develop a sense of mastery in areas they are interested in, for example, a subject in school or a hobby they enjoy. These feelings of achievement may be built upon when trying something new, reminding the self of the effort put in to areas of achievement and recognizing that one cannot excel in all areas of life at all times.
- Normalize feelings of discouragement and discuss them openly. Discouragement and not achieving one’s efforts do not equate to failure, as someone with low self-esteem may believe.
- Initiate invites and include them intentionally in activities. It may be difficult for them to know how to instigate a connection and having someone take the first step feels incredibly supportive and relieving.
- Point out when they are using negative self-talk and discourage this behavior. This may be a normal habit for them and having a trusted friend refute their negative self-beliefs is one step toward changing these internal thoughts and behaviors.
- Take note of areas they are improving in or taking chances toward personal growth. Verbalize these affirmations and be specific. For example, “I saw the way you initiated the lead on that project. I know you’ve shared how uncomfortable that usually makes you feel. I’m proud of you.”
When someone is depressed:
- Validate their feelings of sadness, for example, “that sounds so difficult, I’m sorry to hear you’re going through this right now”.
- Check-in on them regularly, especially if you have noticed them isolating from others. Help them to see they are not alone in their feelings of isolation through your presence and concern. Even a simple text can mean so much.
- Ask how you can help and listen to their expressed needs without judgment. Everyone experiences depression differently and it is important to acknowledge your loved one’s specific experience and needs.
- Avoid offering advice or comparisons, especially making statements such as “I know how you feel”.
- Recognize when safety is becoming an issue and intervention by a mental health professional is necessary, specifically when a person is showing signs of suicidal ideation, self-harm, and extensive self-neglect. At this juncture, it is important to have a transparent conversation with your loved one about your concerns and advocate for them appropriately. For example, intervention for an adult will differ from that of your child unless you have reached a stage that necessitates mandatory reporting due to imminent danger to self or others.
For many of us, depression is a scary word associated with mental illness, medication, and uncertainty of how life will be impacted in the long run. Will this person ever experience joy again? Will my friend with low self-esteem ever just snap out of it and learn to believe in themselves and their capabilities? It is important to remember that every person is responsible for their own decisions and we can only be a support to them, not control them or force them to implement the interventions necessary to make healthy changes. If you are feeling that pressure with regard to a loved one, take a moment to be mindful of what you are responsible for and that even though you are an important element of their improvement, ultimately, they are in charge of making the decisions to change.