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Feelings of worthlessness and how to overcome them

Feelings of worthlessness and how to overcome them

Low self-esteem can happen to anyone. Here's how to cope if you are feeling worthless, and where to get support.

Reviewed by:
Austin Lin, MD
View bio
June 27, 2024
Original source:

Key takeaways

  • Feelings of worthlessness are a common symptom of depression and mood disorders, but may result from other causes.
  • Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, can help combat negative feelings about your self-worth.

Feelings of worthlessness can stem from a variety of things like. a tendency towards perfectionism, unresolved trauma, or even societal expectations. It’s important to recognize when you have feelings of inadequacy or, and when they start to interfere with your daily life and overall well-being, you should seek support from those around you. In this guide, we’ll walk you through common causes behind feelings of worthlessness, when to seek help from your support system, and how to maintain a positive mindset.

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What can cause feelings of worthlessness?

There are many things that can cause you to feel unworthy, including internal factors (which encompass how you feel on the inside) and external factors (or what you experience on the outside).  

Internal factors

  • Personal experiences: Childhood trauma, neglect, and repeated instances of rejection or bullying can deeply affect your self-worth. These experiences can cause you to believe you’re unlovable, undeserving, or inherently flawed, contributing to feelings of worthlessness.
  • Low self-esteem: Individuals with low self-esteem often have a negative self-image and may compare themselves unfavorably to others. This constant self-criticism can diminish your self-esteem over time.
  • Past failures: Previous setbacks or failures can reinforce negative feelings and beliefs about your abilities or worthiness. These failures may be internalized as personal shortcomings, placing the blame on yourself rather than your context and circumstances.
  • Self-critical thoughts: Patterns of self-criticism, perfectionism, and rumination can perpetuate feelings of worthlessness. Internalizing criticism from others or replaying past mistakes can amplify your negative self-perception and erode your self-esteem.
  • Identity issues: Struggling with identity, including your sexuality, gender, or cultural background, can negatively impact your self-esteem. The contexts in which we live shape how we move through the world, and discrimination, racism, and homophobia can challenge your self-worth.

The factors above often intertwine and reinforce one another, shaping your self-perception and emotional well-being. External factors can also have an impact on your self-perception.

External factors

  • Social comparisons: Constantly comparing yourself to others, especially in achievement areas, can make you feel like you’re not good enough. But keep in mind that much of this perception is shaped by your context, not your actual abilities.
  • Critical or abusive relationships: Relationships (whether personal or professional) where criticism, invalidation, or emotional abuse are prevalent can lower your self-esteem over time.
  • Bullying or harassment: Experiencing bullying or harassment can significantly impact your sense of self-worth, especially if the mistreatment is ongoing or severe.
  • Unsupportive environments: Work, school, or home environments where support, recognition, or validation are lacking can make you feel like you’re not worthy.  
  • Financial hardship: Facing persistent financial struggles, poverty, or economic instability can lead to feelings of worthlessness, especially if you equate your financial success to your social value.
  • Media influences: Feelings of worthlessness can arise with constant exposure to idealized images or narratives in media. From magazines to social media, you may hold yourself to unrealistic standards of beauty, success, and happiness.
  • Health issues: Chronic illnesses, disabilities, or disorders can impact your self-esteem, especially if they affect your ability to participate fully in life or meet societal expectations.
  • Unemployment or job insecurity: Being unemployed or facing constant job insecurity can affect your self-worth, particularly in cultures where personal success and productivity are closely tied to your value.

It’s important to note that while external factors can influence feelings of worthlessness, individual responses and coping skills also play a significant role. Seeking support from friends, family members, or mental health professionals can be crucial in addressing and managing these feelings.

When should you get professional help for low self-esteem?

A mental health professional can help when feelings of worthlessness start to impact your daily life, relationships, and overall well-being. Here are some signs that it may be time to seek help:

  • Persistent negative self-view: If you consistently feel worthless, inadequate, or undeserving, despite efforts to think positively or make changes on your own.
  • Difficulty functioning: When low self-esteem interferes with your ability to perform at work, school, or in social situations. This could include avoiding tasks or activities due to fear of failure or criticism.
  • Impact on relationships: If low self-esteem affects your relationships by making you overly dependent on others’ approval, or if you withdraw from social interactions due to feeling inadequate or unworthy.
  • Unhealthy coping mechanisms: Turning to harmful behaviors such as substance use, self-harm, or disordered eating as a way to cope with feelings of low self-worth.
  • Persistent feelings of hopelessness: If you frequently feel hopeless about improving your self-esteem or your overall life situation, despite efforts to change, it may be time to get help. Prolonged feelings of hopelessness may be a sign of major depressive disorder.
  • Impact on mental health: Low self-esteem often contributes to or coexists with other mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, trauma and stressor related disorders, or personality disorders. Addressing self-esteem concerns through therapy can be part of treatment.  

If you recognize these signs in yourself or someone you care about, it may be helpful to reach out to a mental health professional like a psychiatrist who can give you a proper diagnosis if you a have one. They can help come up with a treatment plan that may include medication to help your mood and well-being. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can offer a safe space to explore underlying issues, challenge negative beliefs, and learn practical skills to boost self-esteem. There are many online therapy platforms that can make talking to someone easy.

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How to cultivate a positive mindset

As mentioned above, low self-esteem can lead to symptoms of depression, anxiety, or other mental health conditions that may need attention. Cultivating a positive mindset can allow you to set a new tone for the way you experience the day, and while overcoming feelings of worthlessness can be challenging, we’ve highlighted seven tips that can help:

1. Challenge negative thought patterns

Practice identifying and challenging negative thoughts about yourself. When you catch yourself thinking you’re worthless, counteract it with the contrary: “I am enough.” You can remind yourself of your strengths, past achievements, or any positive feedback you’ve received.

2. Practice self-compassion

Treat yourself with the same kindness and understanding that you would offer to a friend. Acknowledge that everyone makes mistakes and experiences setbacks. Self-compassion involves being gentle with yourself rather than harshly self-critical.

3. Challenge perfectionism

Perfectionism often contributes to feelings of worthlessness because it sets unrealistically high standards. Learn to accept yourself as a work in progress and embrace imperfections as part of being human. Focus on doing your best rather than achieving perfection.

4. Practice gratitude

Regularly reflect on the things in your life that you're grateful for. This could be small everyday pleasures, supportive relationships, or personal strengths. Keeping a gratitude journal can help you shift your focus from what you lack to what you have.

By implementing these tips consistently, you can change how you perceive yourself and build a healthier sense of self-worth over time. Remember that overcoming feelings of worthlessness is a process that takes time and effort, but with persistence and self-care, you can achieve it.

More strategies

Self-love is a critical aspect of mental health, often nurtured through daily affirmations and cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). Focusing on improving self-care such as taking time to engage in hobbies, spending time with friends/family, getting adequate sleep, enjoying a good meal, etc are equally important. For those who struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, CBT can be especially beneficial as it helps reframe negative self-talk and break the cycle of ruminating on negative events.  

Perfectionism, a common trait among those with PTSD, often exacerbates feelings of inadequacy and fuels negative self-talk. Through CBT and self-affirmations, individuals can learn to challenge perfectionistic tendencies, develop a more compassionate self-view, and ultimately foster a healthier relationship with themselves.

If you’re someone experiencing a mental health condition, here are a few more things you can do to raise your self-esteem:

5. Engage in activities you enjoy

Spend time doing things that bring you pleasure and a sense of accomplishment. Whether it’s a hobby, exercise, or volunteering, engaging in activities that you enjoy can improve your mood and self-esteem.

6. Set realistic goals

Break down big goals into smaller, achievable steps. Accomplishing even small tasks can boost your sense of competence and worth. We also recommend celebrating these successes, no matter how minor they may seem.

7. Seek support

Reach out to trusted friends, loved ones, or a therapist. Talking about your feelings with someone who listens without judgment can provide perspective and emotional support. Supportive relationships can remind you of your value and help you see yourself more positively.

Talkiatry is a national psychiatry practice that offers personalized virtual care. You can fill out this brief assessment to get matched with a psychiatrist who specializes in your specific concerns. With Talkiatry, you can conveniently schedule your first appointment, usually within a matter of days, and talk to your psychiatrist from the comforts of your own home.  

The information in this article is for education and informational purposes only and should never be substituted for medical advice, diagnoses, or treatment. If you or someone you know may be in danger, call 911 or the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 right away.

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Frequently asked questions

Does Talkiatry take my insurance?

We're in network with major insurers, including:

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Call the number on your insurance card and ask about your plan’s coverage for outpatient psychiatric services.

How does Talkiatry compare to face-to-face treatment?

For most patients, Talkiatry treatment is just as effective as in-person psychiatry (American Psychiatric Association, 2021), and much more convenient. That said, we don’t currently provide treatment for schizophrenia, primary eating disorder treatment, or Medication Assisted Treatment for substance use disorders.

What kind of treatment does Talkiatry provide?

At Talkiatry, we specialize in psychiatry, meaning the diagnosis and treatment of mental health conditions. Your psychiatrist will meet with you virtually on a schedule you set together, devise a treatment plan tailored to your specific needs and preferences, and work with you to adjust your plan as you meet your goals.

If your treatment plan includes medication, your psychiatrist will prescribe and manage it. If needed, your psychiatrist can also refer you to a Talkiatry therapist.

What's the difference between a therapist and psychiatrist?

Psychiatrists are doctors who have specialized training in diagnosing and treating complex mental health conditions through medication management. If you are experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, PTSD, or similar, a psychiatrist may be a good place to start.  

Other signs that you should see a psychiatrist include:  

  • Your primary care doctor or another doctor thinks you may benefit from the services of a psychiatrist and provides a referral    
  • You are interested in taking medication to treat a mental health condition  
  • Your symptoms are severe enough to regularly interfere with your everyday life

The term “therapist” can apply to a range of professionals including social workers, mental health counselors, psychologists, professional counselors, marriage and family therapists, and psychoanalysts. Working with a therapist generally involves regular talk therapy sessions where you discuss your feelings, problem-solving strategies, and coping mechanisms to help with your condition.

Who can prescribe medication?

All our psychiatrists (and all psychiatrists in general) are medical doctors with additional training in mental health. They can prescribe any medication they think can help their patients. In order to find out which medications might be appropriate, they need to conduct a full evaluation. At Talkiatry, first visits are generally scheduled for 60 minutes or more to give your psychiatrist time to learn about you, work on a treatment plan, and discuss any medications that might be included.

Austin Lin, MD

Dr. Austin Lin is a double board-certified adult and addiction psychiatrist who has been in practice for over 9 years. At the center of Dr. Lin’s clinical approach is a strong emphasis on establishing trust and using a collaborative approach to help patients develop an individualized and cohesive plan so that they are able to achieve their goals.

Dr. Lin's practice focuses on medication management. Typically, he offers this in conjunction with supportive therapy, motivational interviewing, and/or cognitive behavioral therapy in 30-minute follow-up visits. Occasionally, Dr. Lin may recommend that additional therapy is needed and ask that you bring a therapist into your care team in order to provide the best outcome.

Dr. Lin received his medical degree from St. George’s University School of Medicine. He went on to complete his residency in psychiatry at Harvard South Shore, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School, where he served as Chief Resident and earned his 360° Professionalism award. He then had additional training in Addiction Psychiatry through his fellowship at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. After completing training, Dr. Lin has worked as an Addiction Psychiatrist and Director of Adult Services in the Trauma and Resilience Center (TRC) at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth). He specialized in treating patients with a history of depression, anxiety, trauma, and substance use disorders.

Dr. Lin has held an academic appointment at UTHealth, and he has spent his professional career supervising and teaching medical students and psychiatry residents.

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