It is well known that many people experience alternating manic and depressive states. Those with very severe symptoms are called bipolar. Yet, there are many people who experience various degrees of depressive feelings; there are people who are predominantly manic; and there are those who swing from one to the other (bipolar).
In this article I focus on people with depressive and manic personalities, even if they do not suffer from a full blown bipolar disorder. Nancy McWilliams writes extensively about these themes in her book “Psychoanalytic Diagnosis” and I will follow her line of thought.
It is interesting to note that the psychologies of people with depressive dynamics and those with manic (the denial of depression) dynamics are essentially the same. The basic themes and conflicts of depressive and manic people are similar, but the unconscious defenses used are different.
Depressive individuals are not always in a full blown clinical depression. The symptoms of a clinical depression are well known and include severe sadness, lack of energy, lack of enjoyment and problems with appetite and sleeping. Depression often runs in families, yet is not clear to what extent this is transmitted genetically and to what extent parents behave in ways that cause depressive tendencies in their children. An important factor in depressive tendencies is the experience of premature loss. Depressive individuals are understood to have suffered some early frustration or loss that was experienced as too overwhelming. Children tend to emerge from an experience of premature loss with a tendency to idealize the loved person and to internalize badness. So in stead of feeling: “I am angry at my father for leaving or at my mother for expecting me to function independently too early” the child internalizes the feeling: “I must be bad, that is why people leave”. These dynamics create a feeling of being bad, of having driven away a loved one (normally a parent) and of having to try very hard to prevent this from happening again. If a child takes in him/herself a sense of badness it gives a sense of control (if the badness is in me, I can change the situation and prevent this from happening again). These individuals thus believe that their source of sadness lies within themselves (their own badness). This turning against the self is a typical outcome of a childhood that has been emotionally insecure. These individuals experience early and sometimes repeated losses ranging from being weaned too early and being expected to function too independently too early; divorce; rejection; abandonment; death of a parent; various forms of separation from primary caregivers etc. Early loss is not always concrete (as with death of a loved one) it can be more emotional and internal (as with parents who pressure children to give up dependent longings and behavior before the child is ready for this). Young children do not have the mental abilities to process loss and therefore losses at a young age almost always cause some depressive dynamics.
In families where mourning losses are discouraged depressive tendencies are stronger. When parents deny grief (e.g. after divorce or death) so that loss can not be processed, mourning does not happen and eventually takes the form of the child believing that there is something wrong with him-/herself.
The combination of early loss and critical parental attitudes increase the likelihood of depressive dynamics and a sense of badness within the child. Significant depression in a parent, particularly in a child’s early years, also increase the possibility of depression for that child (depression in a parent is often experienced by the child as a from of emotional abandonment by the parent). Children with a depressed parent feel guilty about their normal needs and demands and fear that they are bad and too needy and exhaust their parents.
People with depressive personalities fear that they are bad and that they will therefore be abandoned by others. “Depressive people are agonizingly aware of every sin they have committed, every kindness they have neglected to extend, every selfish inclination that has crossed their minds” (Nancy McWilliams, 1994, p230). They long for love and attachment. Depressive people’s anger are mostly conflicted, thus they tend to feel guilt when angered (they turn anger inward and feel they are bad).
The underlying themes in manic personalities are similar to those discussed in connection with depressive individuals (early loss and insecurity). The difference lies in the way that this is dealt with. While depressed individuals take in a sense of badness and guilt (feeling they have caused loss and abandonment), manic individuals deny that there has been any loss. They tend to avoid situations that might threaten them with loss. They also escape emotional pain by sexual behaviour, abuse of alcohol or drugs and other impulsive acts that help them avoid pain. They also tend to feel invulnerable, overly confident and even grandiose thus denying loss, vulnerability and pain. Manic people often avoid close relationships fearing that they will loose the loved one. They choose to abandon their loved one in stead of risking abandonment. Where depressed people feel they are bad, manic individuals tend to do the opposite and devalue others. When some loss or painful experience becomes too painful to deny a manic person can become severely depressed and even suicidal.
These dynamics and ways of turning them against the self (in depressive dynamics) or avoiding them by denial or fleeing (in manic dynamics) are mostly unconscious. Often these losses suffered happen at a very early age when a child is very vulnerable and not yet capable of processing it. This emphasizes the great responsibility of parents. If depression is now known as “the illness of our times” what does it say about the quality of early parenting and the levels of loss that young children suffer? This also question the way that parents deal with losses and help their children mourn and process pain in stead of avoiding it.
Depressive and manic dynamics are complicated and very deep seated. There are no quick and easy solutions in facing these losses and processing the internal pain.