Worthlessness is an uncomfortable, distressing emotion that can take a huge toll on wellbeing.

While it's not uncommon to feel sad when things in life go offtrack — job loss, divorce, loss of friends or family — when feelings of insignificance become more than fleeting emotions, or your long-term outlook on life turns south, it may be time to speak with a professional. While some mental health issues, like depression, share the same symptoms and origins; it’s worth looking into therapy to mediate complaints before they become excessive and lead to more problems.

With the help of therapy, feelings of worthlessness can be converted to those of self-respect, a powerful concept that recognizes not only a person’s strengths but their worthiness of comfort, joy, and happiness.

What is worthlessness?

Worthlessness describes a feeling that one is not enough and undeserving of positive emotions, relationships, and situations. People who feel worthless may be unhappy with who they are or have low self-esteem. At the workplace, they might shy away from recognition because they feel like they don’t deserve the credit for their own work. In relationships, they may have difficulty accepting other people’s love for them, which can lead to insecurities and even conflict with a loved one or partner.

Self-worth, on the other hand, is when a person believes that they are deserving of good things because of who they are, what they do, and the way they live their lives. It incorporates acceptance of the self and recognition of personal strengths, including resilience. While some people may naturally have high self-esteem or confidence, self-respect mainly comes from introspection and intentionally reflecting on your experiences. When someone has low self-esteem, they may find themselves feeling sad, lonely, frustrated, resentful, or anxious. These emotions can lead to the development or exacerbation of depression or mental health conditions.

Origins of worthlessness

The way worthlessness develops differs person-to-person for a number of different reasons. Many people who have significant feelings of worthlessness grew up in environments with parents, elders, or siblings that were not affirming of who they were or what they did as children. They may have had insecure attachments with caregivers that were distant, punitive, or hostile, which taught them that their life or person had low value – and when they grew up, they retained and internalized this sense of inadequacy and shame.

Self-worthlessness can also be the result of a traumatic experience that changes a person’s thoughts about themselves. Abusive or toxic relationships can be disorienting in that the persons involved in them might lose sight of their authentic selves. This can create dissonance between how a person lives and how they want to live, leaving them with a sense of worthlessness. These negative connections can also teach an individual that they aren’t worthy of love, which can have devastating consequences for their mental health.

Feelings of worthlessness commonly originate through negative thought patterns. When someone repeatedly and routinely engages in negative self-talk, they put themselves down and convince themselves that they are undeserving of happiness or lack the qualities to be liked by others. Cognitive distortions, or false assumptions, can also cause feelings of self-blame through a misattribution of outcomes or events.

Symptoms of worthlessness

People who feel unworthy may experience some of the same symptoms of depression and other mood disorders — feelings of anxiety, stress, desperation, sadness, guilt and hopelessness, especially when considering who they are. They might disengage from social interactions out of fear that they aren’t good enough or that others will be disappointed in them. Like a major depressive disorder, worthlessness negatively affects self-esteem and confidence, leaving a person to feel uncomfortable in social settings, anxious when trying new things, or overwhelmingly unhappy with themselves.

When these thoughts and feelings become chronic, they can become a serious issue. In serious cases, it can develop into mental health concerns like anxiety or depression. People who feel an elevated level of personal negativity may resort to self-harm, which is why it’s important to seek the help of a doctor or licensed therapist when your mindset of pessimism becomes overwhelming.

Therapy for worthlessness

Therapists who treat worthlessness have experience showing clients they are strong, resilient individuals deserving of happiness, love, and fulfillment. During counseling, they teach clients how to identify instances of worthlessness and reflect on the origins of these intense feelings. Clients also learn how to break free of the harmful thoughts and behavior patterns that often lead to worthlessness and replace them with healthier alternatives.

In therapy sessions, clients will practice self-compassion practices with the help of a mental health professional. They’ll learn how to express gratitude for themselves and to recognize what makes them strong, unique individuals. Therapists aim to empower clients to love themselves and to take care of themselves so that they can lead meaningful, comfortable lives.

Most therapists are familiar and have experience with treating feelings of worthlessness through talk therapy. One of the best assurances for positive treatment is making sure you have a good relationship with your counseling professional. The therapeutic alliance is important in finding the right care and taking the first steps toward healing.