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Personality analysis of the depressive personality

Updated: Oct 27, 2021

This post is a summary of Nancy McWilliam's chapter on depressive personalities in her book Psychoanalytic Diagnosis.

Depressive personalities

Depression is enduring whereas grief comes in waves. Severely depressed people can take on years of therapy and still believe "uncritically that the best way to save the world is to destroy the self." There are two subtypes of depression: introjective and anaclitic.

Depression has a heritable component. However, it's unclear how much comes from genetics or modeled behavior. Nevertheless, the common organizing theme relates to loss. Depressive personalities rarely feel spontaneous anger on their own behalf but rather experience guilt. They tend to feel aware of every mistake they have made and every neglected opportunity to do something right. Depressive people tend to be likable since they direct their conflicts on themselves rather than on others.

Psychoanalytic_Diagnosis book cover
Psychoanalytic Diagnosis

Introjectively depressed people internalize voices from their past. They have an inner dialogue that runs them down. Because the person whose voice is internalized is usually a parent or guardian, the inner voices of attack are conflated with love. As a result, the introjectively depressed person finds the voices to be ego-syntonic, meaning they agree with the tone and characterizations presented by the "ghosts." This can be the case even when parents feel genuine love for their children but must tend to adult responsibilities. A parent who has to work two jobs or otherwise be absent, may love their child, but the child may react to the separation with internalized anger and blame themselves in numerous ways. Many children prefer the most irrational guilt to the acknowledgement of their powerlessness.

This isn't the case with anaclitically depressed people. The acknowledge the powerlessness and this has a profound impact. They don't see themselves as the cause of the separation, but rather see the world as unreliable and unable to meet their needs. This generates the emptiness that the anaclitic subtypes experience.

Both subtypes use a lot of idealization to their own detriment. They idealize others in a state of low self-esteem. They subsequently create a feedback loop where the depressed person feels diminished and looks to external idealized others to fill the lack. A family dynamic that discourages grief and mourning can push this underground and the child can develop guilt for feeling the sense of loss that can't be expressed. A depressed parent can also create a depressive character in the child.

Early experiences of loss usually precede dysthymic personalities. Children who are weaned of a mother's care too soon, or had behaviors extinguished before they were ready can develop an internal sense of pervasive loss. Normal separation and the expression of a mother's grief is expected. But if the mother's feeling induces guilt such as expressing her own ability to cope without the child or pushing the child away, then depressive characterological patterns may be the result.

Internally, introjectively depressive people view the range of human internal experience as indicating that they are bad. They think that it is something wrong with them that makes them have all of these urges. Criticism may be particularly harsh for them though some learn to turn this low position into a point of pride believing that no one else is as bad as they are. Anaclitically depressed people don't tend to see themselves so much as bad, but rather believe that life is ultimately a series of disappointments. While this might be true, they are unable to live and experience all of the ups and downs in between the losses.

Personality Analysis of the Depressive Personality References

McWilliams, N. (2011). Psychoanalytic diagnosis: Understanding personality structure in the clinical process (2nd ed.). Guilford Press.


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