In most cases, depression is a short-term illness from which people soon recover. Even those vulnerable to the disorder tend to experience it in bouts. For others, however, the depressive traits are permanent.
First, it must be acknowledged that some dispute the depressive personality. Indeed, the American Psychiatric Association removed it from the DSM, or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.
Rarely does someone tick every box for one personality disorder and none for any other. More often, they exhibit the majority of traits for one disorder and a handful from those closely related. The depressive most often resemble the avoidant and paranoid personalities.
A depressive personality has depression woven into the fabric of his being. And it usually appears at an early age. As anyone who has experienced depression knows, it alters the way you think, behave, and see the world. Should they find temporary relief, in a drug high for example, it seems as though dark glasses have been removed, or like some horrible background noise has been switched off. Indeed, they may even exclaim, “so this is how normal people see things!”
Depressives are pessimistic. They expect the worst and, in some cases, will it into being. And when the worst does occur, they seem elated – pleased that their fears have been confirmed. Depressives also tend towards paranoia, with a vague sense of the universe as malignant: constantly pushing against them and trying to undermine any peace or happiness.
Most obviously, their mood is joyless, flat and gloomy. Even when they try to lighten up, they still depress others. For example, a child prefers her mother to read her Harry Potter, since the father takes the life and magic out of it, no matter how he tries. Within a family, they tend to be the butt of running jokes (usually because the other members are desperate to lighten the mood).
Negativity is another classic trait. They see the dark in everything. For example, you stop to admire the spring blossom, and your partner merely grumbles, “but the petals make such a mess when they fall.” They are also suspicious and see the worst in people. If their neighbor is pleasant, they assume she wants something. They generally dislike new people as well.
And this critical attitude is turned inwards. People with depressive personalities are surprised by success and usually find a way of downplaying it – dismissing it as luck, for example. When they fail, however, it confirms their worthlessness. In general, they feel inadequate. When they meet someone attractive, clever or funny, they automatically place themselves in a subordinate role and expect to be rejected.
They are also brooders, which is hardly surprising. If your view of the world is dark and pessimistic, if you constantly expect the worst and assume you will be unable to cope, you are likely to worry. And this brooding consumes them. A depressive will sit for hours chewing something over and tormenting himself with the possible outcomes. In the morning, he opens a letter querying his tax returns; by the afternoon he is convinced he’s headed for jail!
Guilt and remorse are also common. When someone dies, guilt is natural. Indeed, it is part of the grieving process: we think of the mistakes we made, of the times we hurt them or took them for granted. But a depressive will torment himself with these thoughts. And their guilt tends to be generalized. They were not the son or daughter they ought to have been, or were an inadequate parent, an incompetent doctor, and so on. Others feel guilty for not having made enough of their talent or education.
It will come as no surprise to learn that such people find life hard. In general, they tend to be disliked or mocked. You can even see this in literature. Characters like Jacques in As You Like It, or even Eeyore in Winnie the Poo, are there to be laughed at. But having a depressive personality is no joke. The victim’s life is often a lonely and unhappy one, and when trauma or tragedy strike, it hurts them more and takes them longer to recover.
The American psychologist Theodore Millon wrote extensively on personality disorders and described numerous subtypes. In the case of depressive personalities, he identified five: the ill-humored, the restive, the morbid, the self-derogating and the voguish.
Ill-humored depressives are fractious and irritable. To them, life itself is a chore. Much of their gloom and despair is directed inwards, however. Guilt and shame are common, and the ill-humored never feel that they lived up to their potential or did a satisfactory job. They are dissatisfied and uneasy, with a tendency towards hypochondria, convinced every cough means lung cancer, every forgotten name Alzheimer’s. They also loathe and distrust the world around them: politicians are all corrupt and self-serving, the neighbours are lazy welfare cheats, and their friends talk about them behind their back.
Voguish depressives are different, often displaying narcissistic and histrionic traits alongside their depression. In other words, they are conscious of their own misery. Indeed, they cultivate the look or pose. Do you remember that boy at school who dyed his hair black and said he hated everyone? He may have been a voguish depressive in the making. This does not mean their depression is a sham, by the way, merely that they embrace it, wearing the long black coat, taking solitary walks on wet evenings, and listening to bands like Radiohead, The Smiths and Joy Division. To them, depression is cool, a sign of depth and sensitivity. And the concern of family and friends, though they appear to shun it, thrills them. Voguish depressives also delight in shocking people with their cynical views.
Restive depressives are close to the avoidant personality, with whom they share many traits. They are restless and unsettled, and they feel constantly under threat. Despair dominates their emotional life and makes them extremely pessimistic. Like the avoidant, they have as little to do with the world as possible.
A morbid depressive is sluggish and flat. To say they lack sparkle or joy is an understatement. They have little energy and seem oppressed or weighed down by their troubles. Outsiders often assume they are in mourning or have been through some kind of trauma.
The self-derogatory depressive tends to be dependent or clingy. This is because they feel incompetent and unable to survive or cope with life. They also feel inadequate and unworthy and tend to be full of anger and self-loathing. And they justify their self-loathing by unpleasant and dishonorable behavior.
When Someone You Love Has a Depressive Personality
Living with someone who has such a personality can be hard work. Most find life a struggle: we fight through rush hour traffic, worry about our children, and do jobs that bore and exhaust us. To then come home to an atmosphere of gloom and pessimism is tough. A depressive doesn’t even need to say anything; their whole aura is flat and miserable.
If you are going to build a life with them, you must accept this. To an extent, they are confined or trapped within their personality, and how they see the world is largely shaped by that. It also shapes their thought and language. Do not expect them to say things like “I am sure it will all be fine” or “that will be fun, you are going to have such a great time”. Even if they tried, it would sound insincere (which it would be).
First, you must both recognise the problem. And you need to make it clear to your partner that their pessimism and gloom drags you down. That way, he can at least bite his tongue when he feels the urge to say something negative. Once they know what’s wrong, they can make an effort to change. Why people develop these personalities is unclear, but genes probably play a part. Often, they grew up with a depressed mother or father who offloaded their bitter views onto them. Children are like little sponges; they absorb everything adults say and assume it is true.
But change is possible. Neuroscience tells us that the brain is plastic, meaning that it constantly re-wires. So long as the individual is willing to try, CBT can literally re-program the way they think and behave. According to epigenetics, even your genes can be switched on or off.
While they work on this, however, you need to be careful. Just as they must try not to bring you down, you must avoid tipping them into a bout of serious depression. Some become so wrapped up in, or so fond of, their misery that your efforts will be ignored. Others, however, will appreciate it. Depressives are often drawn to cheerful people, like someone in darkness stumbling towards the light. If they seem low, chat about something trivial but cheerful – like a neighbour’s new puppy, or a random act of kindness you saw on the train.
Don’t become irritable, but don’t feed their depression and negativity either. The British novelist Matt Haig wrote an interesting memoir of depression called Reasons to Stay Alive. One of his greatest fears, he recalls, was that his depression would drive his girlfriend away. When they seem down, reassure them that you are here and won’t leave.
Too often, such people are dismissed as whiny moaners. Others accuse them of self-pity or ingratitude. And this contempt is revealed in their nicknames (grouch, grump, etc). In reality, having a depressive personality means pain and suffering. Indeed, for most it is like living in a dark and dingy prison.