Depression varies from person to person and episode to episode, not only in its degree of intensity and disability, but also by which types of symptoms the depressed person experiences. Some people experience most or all of the symptoms of depression during depressive episodes, but many people experience only one or a few.
It always amazes me how some people with depression can obsess about suicide, but be compassionate, forgiving, and non-judgmental about themselves, while others can attack themselves viciously and yet never find any appeal to suicide. Others feel like they are weighed down by a thousand pounds of bricks when they try to get out of bed, or brush their teeth, or do the dishes, but be able to feel joy. And some can be negative about every aspect of the future, but have no trouble motivating themselves to get their chores done. Some people never get suicidal, no matter how depressed they get. Others never get irritable, or never turn to addictions.
The Cluster View
This is why I developed the “cluster view” of depressive experiences. Generally, a cluster of five depression symptoms is required for a depression diagnosis, but many people experience a cluster of one to four of the symptoms, often in ways that vary widely. Usually, each person has a fairly consistent and characteristic profile for which of these symptoms attack them when they get depressed. This is why I think it’s important to talk separately about each of the ways people experience depression, or depression-like symptoms.
The Low Ambition Experience
One of the experiences of depression is the lack of physical and/or emotional energy to motivate and function. People with this type of depression feel overwhelmed by life—sometimes constantly and by everything. They just don’t have the ability to motivate themselves to do what they need to do. This is very disabling, even in milder forms.procrastination, irresponsibility, attention-deficit, laziness, passive resistance, sloppiness, incompetence, disorganization, and more. But when someone is missing “that thing” that makes people get up and go do something, life is constantly overwhelming. The depressed person may be constantly failing and can easily lose control of the functionality of their life. Most people take this ability to motivate themselves to do things for granted. They just have it—after their morning coffee, at least—and don’t have to think about it. But for those who suffer from the lack of that ability, life can be Hell.
People experiencing this type of depression may find they have trouble motivating themselves for certain chores or parts of their lives, or that the problem extends to everything they need to do. It’s very disabling to have to talk to yourself like a coach for an hour just to get up the energy to get out of bed, even more so if you can’t motivate yourself to take care of things you have to do—like your job, parenting, or self-care—no matter how hard you try.
Understanding Emotional Energy
I believe that the motivation center that depression attacks is our “emotional energy,” which is separate from physical energy. Emotional energy is hard to describe, but if you want to do something and your body has the physical energy and you’re not scared to do the thing, but you still can’t get yourself to do it, it’s probably because you have very low emotional energy.
People with this low emotional energy cluster are not necessarily without drive or ambition to succeed. People with low emotional energy can be very ambitious, driven, and able to fulfill their ambitions when they are not experiencing this symptom. But having low emotional energy is like wanting to run a marathon when your legs are tied together. Sometimes this symptom comes in people who have been very ambitious and worked so hard they burned themselves out. Even more confusingly, people can sometimes have enough physical energy to act, but still not have the emotional energy required to act.
Listening to Emotional Energy Communications
If you have low emotional energy symptoms, try listening carefully to your “ambition system” messages. Sometimes this depressed lack of motivation is simply due to brain chemistry—in which case, the message is about doing something to alter brain chemistry. But often, the message is related to how you feel about the things that you can’t get yourself to do. Could it be that you’re dissatisfied with your job, your partner, or something else in your life that you’d have to deal with if you got up and functioned? That could be what your lack of emotional energy is telling you.
Or is there something about your life you feel helpless to change? Research has repeatedly shown that helplessness causes depression, and feeling helpless can drain people’s emotional and physical energy. If feel like you can’t have an impact, no matter what you do, then why try to do anything?
Repressing feelings of anger can also drain people for different reasons. If you think that letting yourself be angry will be destructive and you suppress it, there are two consequences: it takes a lot of energy to suppress those feelings, and you are suppressing a great deal of life-force and energy that come with anger. Your system might also know that if you have no energy, you can’t get very angry, so it cuts off your energy to protect you from perceived negative consequences of getting angry.
Living the Reality of Low Ambition
When people listen to the communications that their low emotional energy is telling them, they often find that the problem is trying to get themselves to do things because they “should” or because someone else wants them to: they try to force themselves to do things. I have found that if you wait and watch carefully, there may be moments when you feel like you can do something, or even want to. You may have to wait minutes, hours, days, or months before that moment happens, but if you can possibly afford to wait, listen, and seize the moment when you feel it, then suddenly something that felt impossible can feel easier, or even a little exciting. Noticing those moments of energy and acting on them is very important. It’s easy to ignore these moments and let things get worse.
Sometimes altering your expectations can shift your emotional energy as well. Like, what would actually happen if you didn’t fold your laundry—just stuffed it in drawers, or left it in the laundry basket? Would that make doing the laundry feel more achievable? The rules we carry about how things “should” be done can make them unachievable when you’re depressed. If you can give yourself permission to do whatever is absolutely necessary for you, it can allow you to continue to function in the world. If you can’t bear to do something, put it off, or get help—as much as possible. Make sure you get enough rest and are not trying to do too much. Make sure you have enough pleasurable activities, rest, and unstructured time. Ambition grows in certain environments and wilts in others—learn what these are for you.
© Copyright 2011 by Cynthia W. Lubow, MS, MFT, therapist in El Cerrito, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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