The whole world dwells in the dark when it comes to understanding human nature. Even the largest organization in the world specializing in mental illness, the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH), has a huge blind spot.
This agency of the U.S. government is giving us misleading information about the nature of clinical depression. In its information booklet on depression, the NIMH says, “It [clinical depression] is a real illness. It is not a sign of a person’s weakness or a character flaw.” Clinical depression, however, is a sign of a person’s weakness. In claiming otherwise in this booklet and on its website, the NIMH has rejected 100 years of painstakingly acquired intelligence and knowledge concerning the dynamics of the unconscious mind.
In doing so, the NIMH is also overlooking modern research. Brain imaging has found evidence that depression results from unresolved negative emotions associated with guilt and self-blame.* It’s not our fault that we have these negative emotions. We’re dealing here with what is still primitive and undeveloped in human nature. Nonetheless, these negative emotions do constitute a weakness within us.
Depression is a psychological weakness, a symptom of inner conflict in the unconscious mind or psyche. Just about everyone has some degree of inner conflict, and people with clinical depression are likely to be more conflicted than the average person. Inner conflict produces negative emotions, including self-blame and guilt, that in turn produce depression. Again, this is not anybody’s fault: still, it is a weakness.
When we can’t see where we’re weak or ignorant, we’re unlikely to become smarter or wiser. By assimilating self-knowledge, we’re able to offset these concealed, self-defeating dynamics, just as bugs in a software program can be neutralized.
Inner conflict is not the sole cause of depression. Other factors can contribute to it, including genetics, brain anomalies, poverty, weather, diet, political dysfunction, social corruption, and the lack of connections to friends, values, the natural world, and meaningful work. Nevertheless, inner conflict weakens us when it comes to dealing with these other conditions and challenges.
Most of us, as mentioned, have some degree of inner conflict and its accompanying emotional weakness. We struggle with self-regulation, self-doubt, and unruly negative emotions. Chronic depression is just one among many symptoms of inner conflict. Other symptoms include anxiety, bitterness, indecision, procrastination, boredom, loneliness, cynicism, addictive behaviors, and feelings of helplessness and entrapment. These symptoms, too, often occur in conjunction with chronic depression.
There’s a tendency for people to feel some shame and guilt when confronted by claims or allegations that they’re emotionally weak. This might account for why mental-health professionals are averse to making the claim. Our tendency is to feel we’re being blamed for this weakness. Why is that? Our inner critic—in its irrational and primitive way—does mock and scorn us for whatever such weaknesses we have, producing guilt and shame. This self-aggression or self-blame is all part of inner conflict.
Let’s look more deeply into the dynamics involving inner conflict to see how depression is created within us. (This post expands upon what I wrote in an earlier post, titled, The Hidden Causes of Clinical Depression.)
Through depth psychology, we learn that our psyche is a battleground between inner aggression and inner passivity. When we step back and observe our inner dialogue, we see how it contains both passive and aggressive ideas, attitudes, convictions, daydreams, and passions. Much of our thoughts and feelings, both conscious or unconscious, reflect passive and aggressive inclinations.
Our inner critic harasses us with accusations, sarcasm, mockery, and ridicule. On an inner level, we fight back, usually rather weakly, through the thoughts, feelings, and instinctive defensiveness of inner passivity. We can’t win this battle when we’re identified with our inner passivity: It simply can’t represent us effectively.
The suffering of depression is the pound of flesh we pay, through the passive side of inner conflict, to the aggressive inner critic. Depression is the emotional price we pay when, in our unconscious effort to minimize the threat of our hostile inner critic, we accept the punishment of emotional suffering.
Through inner passivity, we stab ourselves in the back with this compromise: We get the inner critic to back off by conceding that its ill-treatment of us is justified by our supposed flaws and defects. We pay this pound of flesh as, figuratively if not literally, we hang our head in guilt, shame, self-disgust, and even self-hatred, accepting sufficient punishment in demoralized self-debasement to satisfy the inner critic.
Most if not all of this conflict transpires without our conscious awareness of it. This knowledge is not widely accepted because we feel mortified—hugely humbled—in recognizing how uninformed, how ignorant we are, of life-defining dynamics at the heart of our existence. The idea is highly repugnant, on par with the notion that we’re expediting our extinction.
The inner critic is capable of belittling and demoralizing us to the point that we sink into apathy, hopelessness, self-rejection, despair, and depression. The inner critic’s accusations against us are usually negative, unfair, and unjust. The inner critic (the superego in the language of psychoanalysis) is a primitive aspect of our psyche that has usurped some of our biological aggression and turned it into self-aggression. While we might succeed in deflecting some measure of this inner assault, we typically still absorb much of it.
When we’re less conflicted, more in tune with our authentic self, we’re able to protect ourselves from the inner critic. The strongest, healthiest people have disabled the self-aggression, sometimes from an early age in ways that are mysterious and unconscious. When as adults we continue to operate from the passive side, our sense of self simply shifts back and forth, in one stage under the influence of inner passivity and, in the next stage, of our inner critic. Our authentic self is thereby hidden from us.
Many of the symptoms associated with depression are the same as those associated with inner conflict. Depressed people, according to psychiatry’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), are indecisive and feel low self-esteem, diminished interest in activities or pleasure, low energy, and an inability to concentrate. They also feel empty, sad, unworthy, and hopeless, the manual says. These painful feelings also arise from the conflict between inner aggression and inner passivity. Our inner critic assails us with accusations of our unworthiness, and through inner passivity we experience helplessness, hopelessness, shame, and guilt.
Many people have a particularly harsh inner critic, and genetic factors may account for much of this. Such an inner critic is particularly vicious and cruel. Without insight, these individuals presume, at least on an emotional if not mental level, that the harsh criticism or hatred they are feeling are somehow deserved because of their supposed faults and failures. As they absorb this negativity, they become increasingly contaminated emotionally by it. Because of inner passivity, they become less able to protect themselves from self-aggression. They are in danger of descending into self-rejection, self-hatred, and serious depression. Often, a person infused with self-rejection and self-hatred becomes increasingly rejecting and hateful of others.
Some of us, as well, are particularly burdened with large deposits of inner passivity. Our genetics can account for this, and childhood exposure to passive parents, or to fundamentalist or authoritarian systems, doesn’t help. Still, we don’t have to be ongoing victims of genetics or childhood experiences. In many instances, consciousness in the form of psychological astuteness and self-knowledge can trump genetics or at least mitigate the worst influences of genetic factors.
Guilt is commonly associated with depression. Guilt is often irrational, and it has a complex undercurrent. It’s associated with the degree to which an individual, through inner passivity, is unconsciously inclined or willing to soak up or absorb the negative, aggressive energy of the inner critic. Inner passivity involves the willingness and even the determination to experience itself, even when doing so is self-defeating or painful. Guilt is produced as part of one’s defensive effort to deny one’s inner passivity. Because of their inner passivity, some individuals soak up the inner critic’s aggression to the point of becoming congested with negativity, hence “psychologically sick” or depressed.
Many people suffering from depression frequently blame themselves for their failures and troubles. This corresponds with the inner critic’s readiness to blame us for our real or alleged faults and failures. Without any awareness of what they’re doing, some people, on a daily basis, repeat negative mantras (e.g., “What am I doing wrong?” or “I’ve been such a fool”) that are replays of a steady stream of accusatory insinuations from their inner critic.
Our inner passivity, as well, grapples with the venom dished out by the inner critic, although inner passivity often tries to shift the blame to some allegedly “lesser crime,” hoping the inner critic will agree to a plea bargain. Depression is also associated with bodily tension and stress, and such physical symptoms are psychosomatic byproducts of the anxiety produced by inner conflict.
Some experts say that depression arises when we’re unable to fulfill our needs or realize our potential. But why aren’t we fulfilling our needs or realizing our potential? Again, the conflict between inner passivity and the inner critic creates an emotional-mental blockage to creativity, purpose, confidence, and the full range of our intelligence.
Depression can also involve other forms of inner conflict. For instance, some people are inclined to indulge emotionally in feeling unloved and unsupported. Here the conflict consists of the conscious wish to feel strong and loved versus the unconscious willingness to engage in impressions, still unresolved from childhood, of being unloved and weak or helpless.
Relief from depression involves a learning process, and depression sufferers can apply this knowledge to relieve their misery. We learn the dynamics of the conflict (between inner passivity and inner aggression) that produce depression, and we then become insightful enough to see these dynamics at work in our own psyche. This strengthens our intelligence and consciousness. For now, very few psychotherapists, even among psychoanalysts, practice a method that employs this knowledge. Individuals who wish to try this process may have to learn it and apply it on their own. (Read, How to Be Your Own Inner Guide.)
Insight isn’t always necessary to emerge from depression. Many people, through whatever means, “snap out” of it. Some residue of inner strength comes to the rescue and enables them to take control of their life. Sometimes just starting to do physical exercises overcomes the passivity and creates a sense of strength. With the knowledge of inner conflict, however, we improve our chances of escaping depression and avoiding relapses.
The NIMH also says in its booklet: “Most people who experience depression need treatment to get better.” I have a problem here with the word treatment because it implies some form of medication-based intervention. (For those individuals who are satisfied with their medical intervention for depression, don’t let anything I have written here dissuade you from adhering to it.) People can overcome depression with psychotherapy, meditation, yoga, healthy lifestyle changes, new relationships or hobbies, the study of depth psychology, and so on.
The NIMH says clinical depression “is a real illness.” If the agency had said “psychological illness,” I would agree. But the term “real illness” is vague. And what exactly does that word “real” refer to? The statement implies an organic problem rather than an inorganic challenge that requires us to become smarter and more consciousness.
Finally, the NIMH, in the quote from its booklet, says that “[Clinical depression] is not a sign of a person’s weakness or a character flaw” [my italics]. True, depression is not directly indicative of “a character flaw.” Yet it is still the case that a character flaw is usually indicative of inner conflict and emotional weakness. It’s a fine point, yet it’s more evidence, as I see it, that the NIMH, in its attempt to describe the nature of clinical depression, is unclear and erroneous because of unconscious bias against the inconvenient or disconcerting knowledge of depth psychology.
There are many versions of depth psychology, some of which, in my view, are less effective than others. With the best depth psychology, people find their inner truth through their own intelligence. That truth uncovers the specifics of how and why depression has taken hold of them. This knowledge, once attained, empowers our intelligence and leads us to inner freedom.
My latest book has just been published. It’s titled, Our Deadly Flaw: Healing the Inner Conflict that Cripples Us and Subverts Society (2022), and it’s available here in paperback (315 pages) or as an e-book.
* The original research article, as published on the network of the Journal of the American Medical Association.