Depressive Personality Styles: an In-Depth Discussion
Kathryn Levison, BA
Edited by Azat Kemal Yurtbilir, MA
Imagery by Dan Mohr / yesisaid.design
Just like all personality styles discussed on these pages, people who adopt a depressive character approach to their world must keep one thing firmly in mind:
- A depressive personality is not a depressive personality disorder.
- Personality styles do not need to be “fixed.”
- It’s the uncomfortable behaviors within a personality style that need attending to.
However, the depth of suffering some depressive people endure can make the situation feel insidious and the emotional pain near-intractable to the point that a person may go from therapist to therapist, hoping for a cure but going around in circles because the deeply buried unconscious issues aren’t always addressed.
So before we get into the meat of the depressive personality style matter — and there is a lot to get into with this topic — a bit of encouragement is in order.
Quick Q & A for depressives who previously tried talk therapy
Q: “I had therapy before, but I’m still looking for answers here. Am I hopeless, or does therapy not work for me?”
A: No, you’re not hopeless, and yes, more than likely, whatever psychotherapy you had in the past was successful to some extent. Otherwise, you’d have given up and wouldn’t be reading this blog.
As Nancy McWilliams puts it, “Depressives heal by talking.”
Therefore if you’ve had therapy in the past — maybe even worked with more than one therapist as I have — you’re instinctively doing for yourself what you need.
Q: “Is psychoanalytic psychotherapy better than other talk therapy modalities for depressive personality types?”
A: No, psychoanalytic psychotherapy is not empirically better. It is empirically different from both traditional psychoanalysis and other talk therapy modalities.
The value and worth of anything intangible are always subjective. Like beauty, psychoanalysis versus any other modality is also “in the eye of the beholder.” I’ve had brilliant non-psychoanalytic therapists, and I’ve had so-so non-psychoanalytic counselors.
I’ve done a reasonable amount of research, enough that after experiencing a mostly traditional couch, I’d choose some form of psychoanalysis over anything else out there. Why? Because I’ve never had so much fun doing such brutal — exhausting, terrifying, exciting, depressing — emotional work in my life!
Q: “What’s so different about how psychoanalytic psychotherapy deals with depression that I should keep reading and maybe consider trying it?”
A: Psychoanalytic psychotherapy digs deep to find the root of a person’s depression, and the root of a depressive personality’s depression is, to pardon the levity, right up Freud’s investigative alley: denial.
Denial: the primary defense of many personality styles
Manic personalities often rely heavily on denial to keep moving and staying occupied, not frozen in their psycho-emotional tracks when it comes to getting through the day. Depressive personalities also employ denial, but this is crucial to keep in mind:
- The word denial can sound negative, but …
- It’s just psychological shorthand for the unconscious “out of sight, out of mind” coping strategy and…
- Once those things a person put away unconsciously are brought to conscious light, more profound healing can begin, but until then …
- If denial works at all, it still never works forever. Eventually, the pain breaks through, the person begins to suffer more than they can handle, and they seek help …
And the help that a depressive person is seeking is precisely what psychoanalytic psychotherapy can provide.
It’s all about bringing things into the light so that the person is aware of the unconscious factors at play and can make conscious decisions to adopt different coping behaviors so that their world runs more smoothly.
Helps and Hindrances to Treating Depressive Personalities: DSM-5, Big Pharma, and Public Awareness
It’s easy to lay all obstacles to psychotherapy at the feet of “Big Pharma” and diagnostic guides like the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). It’s a shame, but in the case of depressive personalities, psychotherapists often face one or both of these giants, sometimes with each new client, especially if the client has insurance.
The decision by the DSM to lump depressive behaviors under the category “Mood Disorders” raised several obstacles. But for once, when it comes to depressives, Big Pharma is on the side of healing.
Good news: head meds aren’t what they used to be
In the past, therapists couldn’t help some of the more severely distressed people if their thought processes led to too much emotional upheaval and became overwhelming. Even those who could handle therapy sometimes committed suicide because the thought of “hope” was, paradoxically, too much to bear. They simply couldn’t handle the “pain” of attachment to anyone as significant as a therapist.
While the first psychotherapeutic medications tended to numb and shut down a person’s experience (lithium comes to mind), today’s medications can be finely tuned. In many cases, all that’s needed is for the person to have a little more support than what talk therapy alone can provide to help them face their psycho-emotional life and the existing difficulties of daily living without feeling overwhelmed. This can allow the person to understand that their perceived “flaws” are primarily unconscious. Even the deepest feelings of self-hatred can be worked through in the same fashion as severely pathological and damaging negative introjects (negative unconscious beliefs).
Public awareness of mental health issues is invaluable
Part of the reason why laymen are more aware of the often subtle differences between normal variations in a person’s moods and clinical depression is thanks to the medical community. Many pre-visit intake forms for a person’s primary care physician or specialist now have a bare-bones version of the detailed self-evaluation used by psychiatrists and psychologists. It’s generally in the form of a line of “smiley faces” expressing different moods, and the patient is to check off how they’re feeling.
(With a psychological intake, the questions deepen, e.g., how long have you felt this way — how often in the last day, week, month, etc.)
These mini-evals, as well as the NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) and other organizations focused on mental health, like actress Glenn Close’s foundation BC2M (Bring Change to Mind), have increased public awareness to the point that almost everyone can envision moods on a spectrum to one degree or another.
However, just the same as medical doctors prefer to do the diagnosing themselves rather than have you tell them, “I have this problem, so I went online, and this site said you should give me this,” mental health professionals would also prefer you not diagnose yourself over the internet.
It’s like my first-year psych professor warned us on Day One:
- “An undergrad in psychology teaches you just enough to be really dangerous.”
Awareness must be tempered with professional assessments
Because the defining line between clinical depression consists of a well-defined constellation of behaviors studied in depth by professionals, common sense still dictates that anyone concerned about lingering or deep depression should have that issue addressed by a professional psychologist.
The basics, though, are familiar, at least in passing.
- Unremitting sadness
- Lack of energy
- Anhedonia* (the inability to enjoy simple pleasures)
- Vegetative disturbances (trouble eating, sleeping)
- Difficulties with self-regulation (ability to control one’s actions in the face of emotional disturbances)
A light moment
Anhedonia was Woody Allen’s original working title for the movie Annie Hall because the word perfectly defined the characters of Annie and Alvy, who bonded over their shared frustration with a lack of pleasure in the world.
Brief overview of depressive types: clinical, introjective, anaclitic
A mini vocabulary cheat sheet: introjection, introspection, anaclitic
These expressions will come up repeatedly. Since the first two — introjection and introspection — are so close in spelling and pronunciation, don’t feel bad if you find yourself squinting at the similarities and perhaps resorting to phonetics. Even seasoned psychotherapists will admit that these phrases don’t roll off the tongue easily.
- Introjection: think “injection” — an unconscious, positive or negative belief that’s “under your skin.”
- Introspection: think “inspection” — looking inside yourself to find that unconscious something “under your skin” so you can bring it into the light and examine it or inspect it. Self-introspection refers to a person doing their own search for positive and negative introjects, either alone or with the help of their therapist.
- Anaclitic memory trick: Anaclitic means “extreme dependence on another person or persons for emotional support.” Because the first person someone depends on for support is their mother or a mother substitute, and because many psychological concepts revolve around the concept of “mother” in its many variations, I use this trick with a female name: “I’m anaclitically depressed because the Anna I want to cling to is gone.”
Depressive personality types defined (clinical introject anaclitic)
Clinical depression: the one depressive type that’s reasonably easy to spot.
The person is chronically sad, has no energy, suffers from anhedonia (inability to enjoy ordinary pleasures), and has problems eating, sleeping, and getting through the day. Sometimes a person can see that in the mirror and know they need help. Clinicians sometimes consider true clinical depression to be a “depressive disorder.”
Introjective depression: also known as self-critical depression.
This person experiences intense sadness, self-punishing feelings, relentless self-doubt, self-criticism, and self-loathing. Often the person stays overly busy — numerous activities, throwing themselves into work or hobbies — to try to “perform and achieve” as a way to compensate for feelings of guilt and shame — “the introjects” — over not having lived up to expectations.
If someone is introjectively depressed, they consider something within themselves to be at fault for a loss.
- “If I hadn’t done this thing …”
- “If I had done this other thing …”
- “There’s something wrong with me that I’m doomed to suffer.”
Anaclitic depression: this type of depression involves interpersonal dependency.
Meaning the loss of one or more people to whom the person is deeply attached. Following the loss, the person experiences intense fears of abandonment. Feelings of helplessness and weakness dominate the person’s mood.
Someone who is anaclitically depressed doesn’t see themselves as “actively bad.” Instead, they feel so inadequate that they can’t see anything better in their future.
Authentic generosity can spring from introjective depression
Some people handle their painful unconscious dynamics by helping others in various ways — charitable work, volunteering, monetary or other contributions. This isn’t always done with a woe-is-me spirit. It’s just a fascinating dichotomy that some of the most realistically benevolent people seem most vulnerable to feelings of moral inferiority.
Still, the dynamics involved in “stepping outside of yourself” are good for the soul. I didn’t think anything I did was unusually generous, but my dad did. When I called him to ask his opinion on whether I should pursue a potential opportunity for a degree in religious music, he said he thought I’d do great because “You’ve always been altruistic.”
I was confused at first. In my world, things like planning little recitals and other outings for my music students — without charging for the rehearsals or a fee to perform — were “usual and customary.” It’s how my teacher and my closest music teacher friends operated.
It finally hit home just how much helping those kids helped my heart when my time as a teacher came to a close, and I found myself feeling lost, empty, and “a little bit useless” to the world.
Music staved off my more serious depressive feelings when the rest of my life was painfully unstable. Therefore, I’d counsel anyone, “If giving feeds your heart and you don’t go into a situation feeling the need to be paid or applauded, go for it.”
Clinical Depression vs. Depressive Styles: Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia
Freud’s views which he covered in depth in his 1917 publication, Trauer und melancholie, have been studied for decades and generated a universe of material. Right now, though, we’ll stick to a basic overview.
Normal mourning vs. depressive conditions, aka “melancholia”
- “Ordinary grief”: the person experiences the loss as having something in their external world either diminished or missing altogether and can mourn that external loss. Grief and mourning can look different for each person.
- Depression, aka “melancholia”: the person feels the loss or damage as internal, a missing part of the self.
- Grief comes in waves: the person can function reasonably well between bouts of acute pain when reminded of the loss.
- Depression can be unrelenting and deadening: unaddressed depression can cripple a person’s ability to live life, affecting personal relationships, jobs and job opportunities, and even the person’s physical well-being.*
- Mourning process: ends in a slow recovery of mood.
- Depression: can go on and on.
*A few ways depression can affect physical health
The National Institute of Mental Health offers a comprehensive list that includes the psychological aspects of depression and then adds physical and cognitive symptoms that may indicate that a person’s depressive mood could be more serious.
- Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies or activities.
- Decreased energy, fatigue, or being “slowed down.”
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions.
- Difficulty sleeping, early morning awakening, or oversleeping.
- Changes in appetite or unplanned weight changes.
- Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems with no apparent physical cause that don’t ease with treatment.
Depression as the opposite of mourning/grief
One of the most valuable keywords when describing any situation calling for discernment to determine whether a particularly emotional period in someone’s life is edging close to a disorder needing treatment is “overwhelming.”
- In normal grief, the person can experience overwhelming feelings and emotional pain but is not overwhelmingly depressed.
- When someone experiences clinical depression, their reasoning, emotions, and ability to accurately process physical sensations can be diminished or cease altogether.
Freud, Abraham, and “Getting Stuck” in a Developmental Stage
Sigmund Freud and his colleague Karl Abraham suggested that an essential precursor to depressive states is the experience of premature loss. This could be the death of a parent or sibling, a long period of deprivation during which the child’s basic needs aren’t met sufficiently, or the trauma of something being taken away before the child is mature enough to process the loss. As a result, the person can become fixated (stuck in or obsessed with) in one of Freud’s developmental stages due to behaviors arising from deep, unconscious roots.
One reason a person has trouble moving past things is childhood amnesia or infantile amnesia. In these cases, the person’s inability to remember early childhood events may result from memories not being laid down in enough detail. This is due to the normal development of a human child’s limited cognitive abilities and brain functions not yet mature enough to hold onto memories.
Fixations can occur in all stages, but the most common in anaclitic depression is the oral stage which relates to the period from birth through eighteen months or so and can include pre-verbal experiences.
As for who may be more vulnerable to an infantile fixation, it’s often the person who was either overindulged or deprived to the point of trauma.
A more apropos definition of “infantile”
It’s not uncommon for one person to insult another by saying, “That’s so infantile.” The implication is that the other person’s behaviors or viewpoints are immature or otherwise some version of “not adult.”
In a psychological context, infantile refers to behaviors or thought patterns originating in that earliest time (birth through the first year or year and a half). Some adult behaviors like temper tantrums are empirically immature. Other behaviors that one might consider infantile are a part of being human, and there’s no need to interfere with them unless/until they cause trouble in that person’s life.
How depressives exhibit the oral stage of development
A depressive person’s expressions of Freud’s oral stage behaviors are relatively simple: they apply to anything having to do with the mouth.
- Eating, smoking, drinking, talking, kissing
These are often referred to as “oral gratifications.” Also, all of these, except smoking, are basic human needs — food, water/liquids, communication, and connection with others.
Interestingly, psychotherapists can sometimes have trouble parsing out what it takes to fulfill a person’s root oral need, especially if the therapist has depressive tendencies, which is not unusual.
For example, Nancy McWilliams wrote that during her early training, one of her supervisors mentioned that McWilliams tended to see people as “hungry,” thus revealing her tendency to project her depressive issues on others, especially clients. She eventually solved this dilemma by learning to “[discriminate] between those who need to be fed emotionally and those who needed to be asked why they had not learned to cook.”
Psychodynamic Viewpoint of Depressive Behaviors
Two more APA definitions would be helpful here.
Affect: any experience of feeling or emotion, ranging from suffering to elation, from the simplest to the most complex sensations of feeling, and from the most normal to the most pathological emotional reactions. Often described in terms of positive affect or negative affect
Effect: an event or state that is brought about as the result of another (its cause)
Freud noted that people in depressed states aim their negative affect (negative feelings/emotions) away from others and toward the self. The result is that the person ends up hating themselves, all out of proportion to their actual shortcomings.
Originally this phenomenon was described as “sadism (aggression) against the self” or “anger turned inward.” Therefore, Freud and his colleagues began trying to help their patients identify things that angered them as a way to reverse their pathological thought processes.
Aggression-inward model: lack of self-defending anger
Depressive people seldom feel spontaneous or unconflicted anger with a self-advocating stance, standing up for themselves and their own interests. Nancy McWilliams writes that author William Goldman (The Princess Bride, Marathon Man) once quipped to an interviewer. “When I’m accused of a crime I didn’t commit, I wonder why I have forgotten it.’
The other dominant feeling or major affect in anaclitic depressives is sadness. Of course, evil and injustice distress them, but they rarely feel indignant anger like a paranoid person or moralize like an obsessive personality.
To a perceptive listener, even an otherwise psychologically healthy and high-spirited person with a depressive character will subtly reveal an inner melancholy.
Monica McGoldrick described the depressive soul of the Irish ethnic subculture as being “a group famous for having a song in the heart and a tear in the eye.”
One major therapeutic plus
Most depressive people are easy to like (except for some who can’t function normally) and even admire. They tend to aim hatred and criticism inward toward themselves rather than outward, even if the fault legitimately lies with the other person. On the other hand, it’s not unusual for them to be generous, sensitive, and compassionate, almost to a fault.
And if anyone appreciates therapy more than other personality styles, it’s depressives!
A little psychoanalytical silliness
After I started reading some of my analyst’s book recommendations, he’d occasionally give me a “pop quiz” on concepts. This exchange is priceless.
“Katy, do you know what separates depressives from others with issues?”
“I have no idea.”
“Depressives can’t hate.”
“No kidding. Well. since you think I’m depressive … bully for me!”
How depressive personalities handle their world
It’s a mixed blessing to look inside yourself for blame before seeing a problem in others. The positive side is a willingness to admit your culpability. The negative side is that even after settling the matter in your favor, you end up “chewing on things,” looking for a loophole you missed that would put more blame on yourself. How do I know this?
Been there. Done that. Every single day for decades.
Are there perks to blaming the self?
Actually, yes. Turning against yourself when you’re hurt by someone else can do the following.
- Reduces anxiety (especially separation anxiety): if you believe your anger and criticism ensure abandonment, you’ll feel safer keeping it directed at yourself.
- Gives a sense of power: “my badness drove them away, but it’s my badness, so I can change the situation.”
- Can be an advantage when going into psychoanalytic psychotherapy: the person who walks into a psychotherapist’s room having “taken responsibility” for their negative emotions and experiences, even if the self-blame is inaccurate, is often a bit more prepared.
Blatt’s depressive coping style sub-types
While different depressive styles employ different negative self-talk phrases, Sidney Blatt felt that only two sub-types could account for all variations.
Blatt was a psychoanalyst and clinical psychologist who identified two basic styles adopted by depressive people to help them handle stress, especially when the depressive person feels that they don’t have something they need. This lack can result from someone denying the person and/or they can’t get that thing for themselves.
Feeling empty/that something is missing:
- I’m hungry
- I’m lonely
- I need a connection
Feeling unworthy as a person:
- I’m not good enough
- I’m flawed
- I’m bad
- It’s my fault (even when it’s not)
Some people learn a deadly variation of the two
- If a person is taught that feeling empty — feeling the need for something — is bad or wrong, then…
- If the person is taught that they’re unworthy of having that need met in the first place …
That can make them feel it’s not worth asking for what they need because the answer is likely no. Worse still, once they have some ability to take care of themselves and not be 100% dependent on someone else, they may be so brainwashed into “I’m not worthy” that they feel guilty if they succeed in any aspect of survival or success.
Irrational guilt is better than admitting impotence
This sense of guilt varies slightly depending on the depressive type.
- An introjectively depressed person feels “I’m bad, but I’m also powerful.”
- An anaclitically depressed person feels victimized, powerless & passive.
Note: this is different from those who adopt a narcissistic style. Narcissistic thought patterns generally revolve around status and power, while depressive idealization centers more on moral concerns.
How and Why Depressive Personalities Come to Think of Themselves in Such Poor Terms
People with depressive psychologies can take “negative” but completely human impulses to an extreme. For example, greed, selfishness, competition, vanity, pride, anger, envy, and lust are all common. But when a depressive personality experiences these feelings, they may judge themselves too harshly and think they’re perverse and dangerous.
Negative mindset regarding normal feelings in early human development
Relating these examples loosely to Freud’s first three developmental stages can illustrate how deep-seated survival needs — and normal human experiences — can be misconstrued.
Oral stage (birth to one year when the focus is on “the mouth”)
- “I’m afraid my hunger* will destroy others.”
Anal stage (one to three years, potty training is a focus)
- “My defiance and aggression are dangerous” (respectively “refusing to go” on command and “going whenever I please”)
Phallic stage (three to six years, focus on awareness of the sexes and competitions like sibling rivalry)
- “My wishes to compete for and win love are evil.”
*In this case, “hunger” can be less physical/physiological and more emotional and psychological. For instance, babies are “hungry for” not just food but also warmth, clean diapers, and being comforted by someone who loves them.
False: unmourned losses are the depressive person’s fault
Depressive people tend to solve the problem of unmourned losses by deciding that they deserve rejection. They try to be “good” but live with the fear they’ll be exposed as sinful and discarded as unworthy. Future rejection is almost guaranteed if anyone comes to know the person intimately.
I had a lot of trouble with relationships from kindergarten on due to unhealthy issues in my home life. I did well with schoolwork, but recess was a nightmare. Anything involving “make-believe” was torture, and visits with my few friends were disastrous unless we stuck to board games. Bottom line?
Never mind “playing well with others.” I didn’t know how to play at all.
Too often, my feeling utterly lost came across as distant and disinterested. The fact that I wasn’t always invited back left me feeling like I’d ruined every relationship when it was really a matter of me not knowing how to be a kid.
It’s no surprise that I was relieved and grateful every time we moved (eight times in my first ten years). Had I known more show tunes, I’d probably have gone around humming Sally Bowles’ lament from Cabaret, the lyrics of which are unnervingly apropos to depressive thought processes.
Maybe this time I’ll be lucky / Maybe this time, he’ll stay
Maybe this time, for the first time / Love won’t hurry away
He will hold me fast / I’ll be home at last
Not a loser anymore / Like the last time and the time before
Depressive guilt’s “certain magnificent conceit” can short-circuit positive feedback
It’s a fact: guilt is part of the human condition. We’ll all fallible and make mistakes for which we feel guilt and shame. But as McWilliams put it, the guilt felt by a depressive personality has “a certain magnificent conceit” — referring to the conviction that the person’s innate sinfulness caused the disaster.
People suffering from introjective depression may also have low self-esteem based on the grandiose idea that “Nobody is as bad as me.” As a result, they can feel devastated by constructive criticism. Even when presented respectfully and intended to be empathic — a work evaluation is a good example — they may feel so exposed and wounded that they might miss or minimize any complimentary facets of the feedback.
Faced with genuine mean-spirited attacks, folks suffering from introjective depression often cannot see beyond any grains of truth in the content. However, no one deserves to be treated abusively, no matter how legitimate the persecutor’s complaints are.
Childhood Roots of Depressive Personality Styles: Early and/or Repeated Loss
Childhood’s mixed blessing: children are existentially dependent
Children have a remarkable capacity to adapt. When they find their reality unsafe, they can choose to either accept reality or deny it. What’s interesting is what their choice reveals.
- If they accept reality, they exhibit analicitic depressive suffering: a chronic sense of emptiness, longing, futility, and existential despair over their “incompleteness.”
- Denying reality expresses the introjective dynamic: if the child denies the reality that the people they must depend on are empirically untrustworthy — a decision made because the child cannot bear living in fear of what will become of him — the child may decide that the source of their unhappiness lies within themselves.
But again, if the pain is within the self, then there’s hope that self-improvement can alter their circumstances. All they need to do is to “be good enough” — to overcome the selfish, destructive existence they think they live — and then life will improve.
Parental depression as a causative factor in depressive dynamics
Children are deeply bothered by a parent’s depression, especially when they witness this in their earliest years. Suppose the parent can’t respond to a child’s expressions of caring and concern. In that case, the child may come to feel guilty for making appropriate demands. They may even conclude that their needs drain and exhaust others.
The earlier a child becomes dependent upon someone who’s deeply depressed, the greater the child’s emotional privation will be.
Privation vs. deprivation: is one worse than the other?
- Privation refers to the absence of something the child needs or desires, like food, sleep, and psycho-emotional connections with others.
- Deprivation refers to the removal of one or more of those needs.
As for whether never having something in the first place (privation) is more damaging than having something taken away — especially without a logical and understandable explanation (deprivation) — depends on several variables.
- If the crucial need is supplied soon enough, a child’s privation may be mitigated and even forgotten with enough time.
- If the thing taken away is restored, the time it’s withheld determines how much damage is done to the child’s psyche.
- If the thing is never restored by the person or persons who denied the child — and if the child never finds a satisfactory substitute, even in adulthood — “permanently going without” can be a hardship that’s difficult or even impossible to bear.
What’s all this about “love objects?”
When psychologists talk about love objects, they’re referring to something or someone a person was attached to that’s now gone.
In studying the connection between depression and mourning, Freud looked for the origin of dysthymic* dynamics in painful premature experiences of separation from a love object. This early loss isn’t always concrete, observable, or empirical, like the death of a loved one. Instead, the person’s suffering may be more internal and more psychological.
*Dysthymia, sometimes known as “minor depression,” refers to any depressed mood that is mild or moderate in severity.
What exactly is a love object?
In formal clinical terms, the APA (American Psychological Association) defines a love object as one of two things.
- The person toward whom an individual directs affection, devotion, and (usually) sexual interest.
- In psychoanalytic theory, the person who is loved by the individual’s ego, as opposed to the object that satisfies an instinct.
Like positive and negative introjects (unconscious beliefs), the lost person or relationship does not have to be someone who, in reality, was critical, hostile, or neglectful. Children also project their reactions onto love objects that desert them.
Tangible love object loss: death
Losing someone to death is a loss everyone can “see” and understand. Still, sadly, some people criticize deep mourning over a pet, a loss that can be as deep as losing a human child. What determines a person’s reaction — and eventual acclimation — to the loss can be helped or hindered by others.
One of the most crucial things is for the person to find closure, especially for deeper and more complicated relationships. Unfortunately, this can be almost impossible for a child to grasp, let alone work through at that time without counseling.
Closure is crucial but sometimes hard to obtain
Consider losing someone with whom you have a close “personal” relationship but have no contact outside the formal relationship — a doctor, therapist, beloved teacher, or some other significant figure. Finding peace can be tricky. Unless you can attend a memorial service or you’re close enough to the person’s staff or inner circle to be notified and included in some of their grief expressions, you might feel left out in the cold.
The crucial factor is finding some way to set your heart at least partially at ease, trusting that with time you’ll adjust.
Note: our blog on manic character patterns may be helpful in some cases since it sheds a bit of light on the psycho-emotional importance of emotionally appropriate endings.
Intangible love object loss: situational deprivation
Nancy McWilliams offers the example of a little boy who feels deserted by his dad, but not because the father was emotionally unavailable. Maybe he had to work a second job or was deployed or in the hospital with a serious illness. The son will feel hostility toward his father for “abandoning” him, but the child will long for his father and feel self-rebuke over these negative feelings. The child may also idealize his father or another “lost love object” and internalize all negative feelings. “My dad’s staying away from me because I’m selfish to want his attention.”
- Please note: this reaction is not consistent with the “anger-inward model.” But it does explain why a person could get into the habit of handling hostile feelings by blaming him or herself. So, for example, if a person believes their “badness” drives people away, they might decide to allow nothing but positive feelings toward loved ones.
One example is someone who stays with an abusive or inconsiderate partner because “If I’m somehow good enough, my partner will stop mistreating me.”
Love object loss: ego/instinct deprivation
Another example McWilliams offers is a child feeling pressure to give up dependent behaviors before they are emotionally ready to do so. A primary example in Freud’s world is breastfeeding, in which deprivation can occur if the mother weans the child too soon. As mentioned previously, this can set the stage for an oral fixation (a focus on things involving the mouth).
Erna Furman, an Austrian-born American child psychoanalyst, psychologist, and teacher, published a pivotal work entitled “Mothers Have to Be There to Be Left.” Furman’s paper is founded on the classic concept that it’s the mother’s responsibility to wean infants “when they’re ready to accept the loss of a need-gratifying object.” Breastfeeding is the perfect example of “need-gratifying” since it offers a source of food, physical closeness to the mother, and the mother’s undivided attention, at least for a while.
Furman stresses that unless they’re pushed, kids wean themselves. More importantly, separation from the mother is natural. Children who are confident of their parent’s availability will happily look elsewhere to refuel as long as Mom is there to run back to when the world gets too scary.
How mothers can thwart normal growth, often unintentionally
Not all parental “abuse” is intended to be abuse. Some is unintentional, and some is the response of a weary or impatient parent under stress.
- A mother who clings (“I’ll be so lonely without you”) can make a child feel guilty when the child’s natural instinct is to separate from the parent when appropriate.
- A mother who pushes the child away (“Why can’t you play by yourself?”) can teach a child that normal needs for closeness are bad or wrong.
Either way, the bottom line is that the child is taught that normal wishes to be aggressive and independent are hurtful, first to the mother and later to other people to whom the child attaches.
Other conditions that exacerbate the trauma of early loss
Some situations in life can engender depressive tendencies even in anyone if crucial information or comprehension is missing.
- Children too young to understand death can’t grieve normally.
- Abstract concepts don’t always make sense, e.g., “Daddy loves you, but he won’t live here anymore because he and Mommy don’t get along,”
- Kids become confused if they don’t understand why their needs are being neglected, e.g., the little boy whose father is deployed or has to work two jobs.
Sometimes an “age-appropriate” experience can still be confusing
I was old enough to understand the death of my maternal grandmother. Still, when my father took my siblings and me to the funeral home for a private moment, my reaction to seeing her in the casket was bizarre, and I knew it.
“She’s just sleeping,” I insisted. “Wake her up, Dad. Wake her up!”
I was fourteen. I’d seen death. I was there when my grandmother had to take her beloved dachshund to the vet and leave him there. So I had an “experience” with death, and yet, I reacted irrationally. Who knows what went through the minds of my six-year-old brother and four-year-old sister?
Can depression be prevented or mitigated in cases of divorce?
Psychologist and researcher Judith Wallerstein’s twenty-five-year research project found two significant ways parents can help children be less traumatized.
- The custodial parent remains either physically or psychologically available (preferably both).
- The child is given an age-appropriate explanation that they understand and can internalize
When Grief and Mourning are Denied or are Unacceptable
Caregivers who deny grief can do any number of things that set the stage for a child to learn that “normal” grieving isn’t normal.
- “We’re all better off without so and so.”
- “Why are you crying? Nobody hurt you. You’re just feeling sorry for yourself.”
- “Don’t be so selfish. You don’t need all this attention.”
If adults react this way, the child may conclude:
- Grief is dangerous.
- Needing comfort is destructive or disruptive to others.
- Being vulnerable isn’t safe.
Eventually, they come to hate those “needy greedy” aspects of themselves.
A parent’s reaction can leave no room for others’ expressions of grief
The phrase “sucking all the oxygen out of the room” — one person getting unwarranted attention at the expense of others — perfectly describes what I occasionally witnessed during the years that I sang for religious functions, including funerals. Of course, it’s understandable for a widow to be devastated. Still, others who were inconsolable struck me as having potentially unhealthy overreactions. Years earlier, I had the same concern regarding my mother’s response to my grandmother’s death.
From the moment my mom got the phone call, she was literally hysterical to the point that my dad had to pack for her. She moaned and wailed during the six-hour car ride from our house to my grandparents’ home. Once there, she sat on the sofa, whimpering and weeping, and then openly bawled at the funeral. My grandfather was, of course, far less demonstrative. Still, I noticed that once in a while, when I began to feel that my mother’s behavior was bordering on obnoxiousness, my grandfather quietly excused himself and went outside to smoke his pipe.
What troubled me the most was that everyone was “kept so busy” trying to get my mother to calm down that very few were able to express their own grief — including me. As a result, I lived for almost four decades, still feeling a version of the “trapped in the back seat numbly staring out the car window” I experienced during the long drive to my grandparents’ house. It wasn’t until I’d been in analysis for a while that I was truly able to recognize that I had never fully mourned my grandmother’s death.
Shame/blame by families can drive a person’s depressive dynamics
Nancy McWilliams has had several patients whose family comments fed the depressive person’s self-preservation drive to internalize rather than express their grief.
One woman lost her mother to cancer with she was eleven.
- The girl’s father complained, “Your unhappiness is aggravating my ulcer,” and then accused her of purposely hastening his death.
Another woman cried about being sent away to an overnight camp for several weeks.
- Her mother called her four-year-old daughter a “sniveling baby.”
- A depressive man’s mother was severely depressed and emotionally unavailable during his early years, but still, she complained. “Why are you demanding my attention? That’s just selfish and insensitive. You should be grateful I don’t send you to an orphanage.”
Being threatened with abandonment can be worse than the reality
At my first writers’ group, I befriended a woman who was writing a memoir on her dysfunctional upbringing. Her story was so poignant that the details have stuck with me for a decade. This woman was barely seven years old but had known since she was four that there was something seriously wrong with her family. Her mother fawned over her brother while neglecting the daughter and punishing her for reasons the mother refused to explain.
Going to kindergarten and first grade began to validate the hunches about her family that the girl had begun to develop in pre-school, but it didn’t change her feelings. Her six- and seven-year-old brain had a few more years to develop. Now she could collect observations about other children and their parents and “process the data,” so to speak, into fairly solid memories, several of which she remembers in great detail.
She also gained some self-confidence via positive input from her teachers, enough that one day she finally spoke up to her mother about another unexplained punishment.
“This isn’t fair! What did I do wrong?”
The mother’s response?
“If you don’t like it here, you can leave and find somewhere else to live.”
The girl lived in terror for years, waiting for her mother to find some way to abandon her. The mother finally did so by locking the girl out of the house in the middle of her sophomore year at the local college with no other explanation than, “You can’t be in the house alone when I’m not here.” That left the girl sitting in her car in the driveway, waiting for her mother to come home from work — inclement weather notwithstanding.
Years later, she discovered that the day she was locked out was precisely one day after her father remarried. Because she was nineteen, he no longer had any way to protect her from her mother’s unfathomable punitive decisions.
Both loving and hateful families can breed depressive dynamics
In a society where adults fail to make enough time to listen, families break up when people move, and painful emotions are ignored because “we have drugs for that” …
It’s not surprising that our rates of youthful depression and suicide have skyrocketed, that counter-depressive compulsions like prescription drug abuse, obesity, and gambling are on the rise, and that we are seeing an explosion of popular movements with “lost child” or “child within” rediscovered, and that self-help groups that reduce feelings of isolation are highly sought after.
Human beings seem not to have been designed to handle as much instability in their relationships as contemporary life engenders.
Psychotherapy for Depressive Personality Styles
When studying depressive personality styles, one must look deeply into the person’s past. However, even in the face of severe, repeated trauma, some people weather the emotional storms better than others and may not have as many issues in adulthood.
One case in point is the propensity many therapists have toward depressive dynamics.
No armchair pop psychology, please.
There’s an old saying — in many ways an insult — that a person decides to become a therapist because they “couldn’t fix their family, so they decided to fix the world instead.” More than likely, there’s a kernel of truth to the notion, but it’s far from the whole picture.
The same mindset also holds true for many doctors, lawyers, and others in the helping professions who seek psychoanalytic psychotherapy.
A comforting note from psychoanalyst Ralph Greenson: “your psychotherapist knows depression, too”
While the name is familiar to students and practitioners of depth psychology, Ralph Greenson may be more identifiable by the public as Marilyn Monroe’s analyst. Dr. Greenson also served as a model for Leo Rosten’s novel Captain Newman, M.D., and was later portrayed by Gregory Peck when the book was made into a movie.
Greenson strongly believed that a psychoanalyst — or anyone in the “talk therapy” profession — who has not experienced a significant episode of depression might actually be handicapped in their work as a healer. Who better to guide you through the complex waters of emotional healing than someone who’s been there?
A somewhat lighter but still apropos analogy is the old chestnut regarding marriage counseling by certain clergymen:
- “Can you really trust the marital advice of a celibate priest?”
Dr. Greenson’s point is that the therapeutic tools required to help clients and patients through depression are best sharpened and refined when the therapist goes through the process. Empathizing with a person’s sadness is one thing, but consider the difference when your therapist has firsthand knowledge.
- The empathy they gained via “been there and done that” is often more profound and more compassionate.
- A psychotherapist who’s suffered depression understands the wounds that can be inflicted on a person’s self-esteem.
- They know what it’s like to crave closeness yet be afraid to be open and vulnerable.
- They’ve experienced how difficult it can be to accept a loss.
Perhaps most importantly, personal experience with depression helps short-circuit the therapist’s tendency to blame themselves for a patient’s “failure” to improve. It can also help a therapist know that, while they may indeed have a gift for psychology, in the end, their “successes” are really due to their client’s personal efforts.
One therapist-patient response
One of McWilliams’ depressive patients was also a therapist whose reaction to any setback with a client was to spend inordinate amounts of time in “negative” self-introspection, searching for her role in the problem. Of course, it’s not at all unusual for clients to engender negative feelings in their therapist. Still, McWilliams needed to encourage this therapist-patient to focus on learning the typical uncertainties involved in treating depressive people instead of second-guessing her career choice.
The most crucial aspect of healing: a safe space
To quote Chicago-based psychotherapist Danielle Trudeau:
“… having the space to express our pain and fears is of the utmost importance. A therapist can help you make real meaning of your feelings, and the experiences you’ve had both in the past and now …”
Pain and loss can often seem meaningless and pointless, as if God or the universe has decided to punish us somehow. When my cancer returned, I felt targeted. I spent a lot of time wondering just what I’d done so wrong that I was now forced to choose between literal death or living the rest of my life with a handful of uncomfortable — and sometimes downright embarrassing — situations resulting from the surgery. But it was my emotional state because of cancer that led me to seek help.
However, since I insisted on working with the best therapist I could find, I ended up trading my skilled surgeon’s very safe (and terrifying) operating table for my psychoanalyst’s absolutely safe (and seriously unnerving) couch…
Along with his equally unnerving gift for discernment in the form of guessing the situation eating me that day just by noticing how I dropped my car keys on his coffee table.
Healing by talking may be “hokey,” but it works
Danielle also admits that the idea of “healing” just by sitting in a chair (or lying on a couch) and talking for an hour at a time can seem simplistic or self-serving.
- “Maybe that sounds hokey, or like wallowing in your feelings too much.”
But she also encourages:
- “… taking the time to specify and understand the feelings we have due to loss and grief is one of the best and most immediate ways to keep our feelings from getting buried and left unprocessed.”
This is the beauty of depth psychology: it goes right to the heart of the matter — the unconscious — where all the memories and emotions lie in a tangled mess. It just takes some practice to learn to relax and, as they say, “trust the process.”
What depth psychologists adore: depressives who learn to be angry
As mentioned before, depressive people blame themselves more than others, making them less threatening and more approachable. Because they don’t want to be a burden to anyone, they’re highly respectful of their therapist’s standing as a separate and genuinely caring person. They also can settle into therapy a little sooner, just because it’s such a relief to have the undivided attention of a noncritical person a few times a week. But there are a few
But they also can project their negative internal voice on their therapist, anticipating rejection and disapproval even for, as McWilliams puts it, a “minor crime of thought.” It can be a real eye-opener to discover that no matter what you say to your therapist, you’ll only meet acceptance and understanding.
They may also develop a relatively harmless idealization of their therapist as taking care of them. In many ways, this is true — until the therapist suggests making real changes to all the issues that seem to have been accepted as “the way it is.”
One significant indicator of progress goes back to expressing anger. As depressive people move ahead in therapy, they begin to be able to aim anger and criticism at their therapist. At first, this may just be venting frustration rooted in that “life stinks” mindset.
- “You really can’t help me.”
- “Nothing you (the therapist) are doing is making any difference in my life.”
Eventually, they develop the capacity to be critical of this supposedly warm, intuitive person who suddenly demands that they work on things. But the therapist’s job at this point is to welcome complaints; the more they do so, the more likely the person is to make a stand for themselves outside of session.
“Can This Depressive Heart be Healed?”
Yes. Absolutely, unequivocally yes. Because your heart isn’t “broken” in the sense of non-function. It just needs some “psychoanalytic psychotherapeutic bypass surgery.” A safe relationship can facilitate the healing experience you need to understand your past, heal from emotional wounds and live your life in the best way that best serves you today.
The other thing to keep in mind, especially if you’re operating under the cloud of a particularly negative introject, is the fact that, in a way, it’s that person’s abuse that drove you to the best possible help.
Don’t shy away from unexpected gratitude toward your abuser
Finding ironically positive nuggets in situations of lifelong pain is a decided perk of depth psychology. It’s not the same as Stockholm Syndrome — “empathizing with the captor and his/her cause.” It is like getting LASIK surgery for your emotional vision.
One day in our first year, my analyst commented regarding my mother, “If she’d done anything differently at all, you wouldn’t be sitting here.”
“Then I guess I owe her a thank you note,” I said, “because you and this couch are the best things that ever happened to me.”
Do expect to be aggravated by your psychoanalytic psychotherapist’s style
A depressive person’s strong drive toward connection is not a hindrance to be overcome. It’s a plus that some other personalities don’t have. And while any therapy provides some level of healing for those of us who genuinely do heal through talking, depth psychology is, as they say, “a whole ‘nother animal.”
Psychoanalytic psychotherapists are also in a class by themselves. First, they’ll make you nuts with their insistence on, like Nancy McWilliams’ patient complained, “framing issues” as problems to be solved. You won’t get away with “it is what it is, and I can’t change it” for very long. Then just when you think you have a solid non-therapeutic connection — one adult human being interacting with another — surprise! They’ll “interpret” what you said or felt in ways that can really annoy you.
Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself (even though you may not get what you want from your therapist in the short term)
I cornered my analyst periodically regarding the near intolerable Katy-as-child dynamic. It was “fun” and a little funny on days like the one when I flounced in and flopped myself in one of his club chairs.
“What the blazes is going on here? I walk in as an adult but then hit that couch, and I’m three years old — and I can’t always go back to feeling normal when I leave.”
A few months later, I had had just about enough.
“Why do I always have to be an infant and you always have to be … I don’t know what you are, but if you tell me one more time, ‘you’re sick, Katy, and I want you to get well’ without explaining what you mean by ‘sick’ I swear, I’ll deck you. Why can’t we have a normal, respectful relationship?
My dear analyst’s maddening response? “You could have had that with any psychologist, so why did you come to me?”
Truth is truth: “Because I had no idea you weren’t normal!”*
*Trust me: depth psychologists are, across the board, different than other counselors. I chalk it up to their willingness to endure the rigors of their own treatment, whether couch psychoanalysis or sitting-up psychoanalytic psychotherapy. All that digging changes a person and is always for the better.
Do expect depth psychology to knock you out of your depressive personality socks
Don’t get me wrong — you won’t suddenly stop suffering from the gloomies. You won’t morph from Winnie the Pooh’s anhedonic Eeyore to bouncy, flouncy Tigger unless you have a penchant for manic behavior under certain stressors. Even then, your hyper Tigger side won’t permanently stick. However, your inner Eeyore might not come apart as badly on days his tail goes missing.
You will come to think differently about how you feel and feel differently about what you think. Eventually, you’ll think differently about yourself, even if nothing in your external world changes.
For further reading
Freud’s view on loss: Danielle Trudeau https://depthcounseling.org/blog/mourning-and-melancholia
Introvert/extravert personality styles and ego-syntonia/ego-dystonia: https://depthcounseling.org/blog/levison-manic-character-patterns
Emotionally appropriate endings to relationships: https://depthcounseling.org/blog/levison-manic-character-patterns
McWilliams, N. (2011). Psychoanalytic diagnosis. Dissociative Psychologies. Guilford.Freud, S. (1917). Mourning and melancholia. Routledge.
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National Institute for Mental Health. (n.d.). Depression. Retrieved October 2, 2022, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/depression
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Association for Psychological Science. (2018, June 20). How Mother-Child Separation Causes Neurobiological Vulnerability Into Adulthood. Retrieved October 7, 2022, from https://www.psychologicalscience.org/publications/observer/obsonline/how-mother-child-separation-causes-neurobiological-vulnerability-into-adulthood.html
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Ralph Greenson. Retrieved October 2, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ralph_Greenson
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