Most people find that their mood fluctuates a great deal over the course of a lifetime, from the dreadful depression following a bereavement to the ecstatic high of a new relationship. But some never seem happy. No matter what their circumstances, their mood is flat and they are focussed on the negative. In such cases, the individual may have what is sometimes known as a depressive or melancholic personality.
So how does someone with a melancholic personality differ from someone who is simply depressed? In essence, those with a melancholic personality are generally flat and low, no matter what is actually happening in their life. Of course, depression isn’t always related to external circumstances: someone who is happily married and enjoys their work may still suffer a bout of depression. But such people, helped by a good diet, regular exercise, and the love of their family, will usually recover – just as they would recover from a bout of flu. Someone with a melancholic personality, on the other hand, consistently thinks and behaves in a gloomy manner. Indeed, these feelings can be so consistent that the individual may not even regard himself as depressed.
In general, someone with a melancholic personality will be flat, gloomy, and dejected. They usually expect the worst and almost will things to go wrong. Such people are often uncomfortable with happiness and success, fearing that this will tempt fate to bring things crashing down. Failure and pain, however, are considered natural and safe.
Their attitude towards themselves is also highly negative. They may consider themselves stupid and worthless, and will often focus on missed opportunities and failures, dismissing any successes or triumphs as meaningless. Guilt is another common emotion. And depressives rarely get excited or animated, neither do they have many passions or interests. For them, life is more like a tedious chore than a precious gift. Friends and family may give them affectionate nicknames like “the grump” or “the grouch”. Sometimes, however, the same people will angrily accuse them of ruining a party, holiday, or wedding though their ‘attitude.’
More generally, those with melancholic personalities tend to dress and speak in a distinctive way. For example, they may wear dark, dowdy, unfashionable clothes – black tee-shirts, scruffy old boots etc. Others simply don’t care how they look, not bothering to wash much or look after their teeth and hair. Wearing the same clothes all the time and rarely bothering to buy anything new is another classic sign. When they speak, their voice is often slow, flat, and whiny. And they may have distinctive body language – hunched shoulders, averted eyes, and so on.
Of course, not all melancholic personalities are the same, any more than all cheerful people are the same. In fact, several distinct subtypes have been identified. And these subtypes usually include traits from other personality disorders.
One of the most interesting is the so-called ‘voguish depressive.’ A voguish depressive, though he may deny it, sees depression as romantic, cool, and even noble. That does not mean he pretends to be unhappy (his gloom is real enough) but that he is conscious of the impression he is making.
Voguish depressives often have narcissistic traits and, like narcissists, consider themselves unique or special. They are suffering, they think, because they are more sensitive and perceptive than everyone else. Some will even build a lifestyle around their personality: listening to bands like Joy Division and The Smiths; reading existential writers like Sartre, or gloomy poets like Philip Larkin; and even identifying with a particular social group, like Goths or Punks. Parents will be unsurprised to hear that adolescents often go through spells of voguish depression.
The ‘morbid depressive,’ on the other hand, has no interest in gloomy romantic poses. Morbid depressives combine their depressive traits with masochistic dependence. And this masochistic streak often leads them to almost will themselves into feeling bad. ‘After all,’ they reason, ‘this is what I deserve.’ Guilt is a common feature of depression, but it is especially acute among morbids. And thanks to their dependent, passive nature, they can rarely see any point in making changes. Instead, they wait, with a sense of impending doom, for what life will throw at them next.
The ‘ill-humored depressive’ is another interesting subtype. Ill-humored depressives combine their general depression with extreme negativity. Of course, most depressives are negative, but the ill-humored are exceptionally bad – always irritable, discontented, and complaining. If you have ever heard it said of someone that ‘nothing is ever good enough for her,’ they may have an ill-humored form of the melancholic personality.
One of the most unpleasant features of the ill-humored personality is the way they draw others into their gloom. The ill-humored want everyone else to recognize how unhappy and dissatisfied they are and, if possible, make them share those feelings. Indeed, such people are often annoyed by cheerful contentment, regarding such people as simple, shallow, and insensitive. More generally, they have a kind of malignant, ill-will towards the world, something that can even lead to outright hostility.
There is no simple cure for a melancholic personality. Whereas a bout of mild depression can usually be treated with exercise, medication, and a healthy diet, a melancholic personality is more fundamental and rests on deeply ingrained patterns of thought. Sometimes, genetics play a role, in which case it is obviously harder to reverse.
Sometimes, however, a melancholic personality can be formed by absorbing the worldview of a parent or guardian. For example, if an only child is raised by a deeply depressed single mother, who fills the child with her bitterness, fear and negativity, then a melancholic personality may form. The child has had no one to compare his depressed mother with – no siblings or father. He therefore assumes her attitude is normal and correct. In such cases, the individual would benefit a great deal from therapy. The therapist will help them uncover and challenge the learnt behavior and the deep-rooted, underlying beliefs and patterns of thought.
Melancholic personalities often attract a good deal of ridicule. They may be given nicknames, for example, or find themselves on the receiving end of sarcastic comments. Even children’s films and books often feature a melancholic character (like Grumpy in Snow White, or Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh), usually depicted as slightly ridiculous or comic. But for those who actually have such a personality, life is a good deal darker, slower, and more unhappy than it is for other people – something that should be borne in mind.