Mental health professionals have known for a long time that there’s a relationship between anger and depression. And clinicians steeped in the psychodynamic tradition have often touted the adage that depression is, at its heart, “anger turned inward.” But what exactly does this saying mean? And just what relationship does anger have to depression?
In recent years, many news stories have revealed an all-too-common profile. A socially awkward, isolated, or rejected individual is angry with and at the world. He or she is also down on him/herself. The person has such intense rage that directing it inward would almost certainly mean self-destruction. But having reached a breaking point, they decide to take out their wrath on as many as possible. And in the aftermath, they take themselves out in a perverted blaze of glory. At least people will know they were here and how badly they hurt. And someone will also have paid a dear price for all the pain they felt was inflicted on them. Moreover, by ensuring their own demise, they won’t have to face continued unpleasantness.
The scenario above describes the “angry depressive” personality. And investigators have long looked for ways to better recognize and understand such types. Knowing their potential danger, the idea is to get them help before it’s too late. But there’s still a lot of debate about the validity of the angry depressive construct.
Over the years, psychology has offered many explanations of depression. There’s the classical notion that depression is “anger turned inward.” Then there’s the once revolutionary but now commonly accepted “learned helplessness” model. And of course, there’s the “medical model.” And in the 80s and 90s psychiatry pushed hard for all mental health conditions to be seen as biochemical imbalances best resolved with prescription drugs. But, I’m a clinician who’s always taken a holistic approach to understanding and treating human illness. So, I’ve long striven to put all the different perspectives into the proper balance.
A Model for Depression
I’ve worked with hundreds of individuals with various types and levels of depression. And I have observed a typical pattern of progression to their illness. First, they were heavily emotionally invested in securing something from their “outer world.” Second, they experienced the limited power they had secure it and became frustrated and angry. Third, instead of retreating or changing course or approach, they dug in their heels and invested even more heavily. This made them even more frustrated, and angry. Fourth, 4) they directed their anger outward, taking it out on people, places, and things. And Fifth, when that proved fruitless or ultimately unsatisfying, they turned their anger on themselves. They’d come to see themselves and their own powerlessness as the real “enemy.”
My character-impaired patients taught me a lot about anger, aggression, and violence. My experience with relationship partners of disturbed characters taught me a lot, too. I became more acutely aware of just how much fighting people do in their lives. And I realized how undisciplined many had become about the ways they fought. Along the way, it became clear that fighting a lost cause is the behavioral formula for depression. Mastering the “8th Commandment” we’ve been talking about is key. Disciplining our aggressive instincts means not fighting battles we haven’t the power to win. And we empower ourselves when we invest our energy where we do have power: our own behavior.
Talk to me directly on Character Matters live Sunday, December 9 at 7 pm Eastern.