Experiences of Depression: Low Emotional Energy Inhibits Ambition

A middle-aged woman rests her head on her handDepression 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.

This experience is often misunderstand and called 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. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • rae g

    March 3rd, 2011 at 5:28 AM

    Isn’t it amazing how essentially the same disease can affect so many in nmerous different ways? You think that there is a strict model for depressive behavior but there isn’t. Some retreat while others do not, some gain weight while others lose. Some lose their lives with it and some soldier through.

  • Troubled Soul

    March 3rd, 2011 at 9:30 AM

    I’ve been feeling this way for a few months now. I’m currently in college and everything that needs me to put an effort seems like an enemy. I feel like I have lost stength to do anything and I often suffer from body pains. I do not know if this is really happening or if it is a result of my mental state.

    Suicide is something that has crossed my mind a few times since the past few weeks but I really don’t want to hurt my family by doing that. Sometimes I feel “what the hell I shall just do it”. Never made an attempt but am contemplating it. I do not know where life’s headed and my grades are dismal. What do I do?

    Thank you in anticipation.

  • Cynthia Lubow, MFT

    March 4th, 2011 at 12:31 AM

    Troubled Soul,

    Please please find a good therapist to talk to about how you’re feeling. Often symptoms like yours can be relieved by medication and psychotherapy. This is just a moment in a long life you can live and most likely enjoy and be successful. If this is just a brain chemistry adjustment, you could feel better within a few weeks, or sooner. This happens to many many people, and most students go through something like this at one time or another. Please don’t kill yourself before you get enough help to find out how much better you can feel!

    Will you get help?

  • KJP

    March 4th, 2011 at 5:53 AM

    Just like with anything else I suppose that this is simply one more thing that can manifest itself in all different sorts of ways depending on who you are and other biological factors. What may affect you in one way could be totally different from another. But that is one of the scariest things about depression is how unpredictable it can be and that is why we have to be so diligent and aware of someone who is going through this to ensure that no harm is done to others or to themselves.


    March 4th, 2011 at 6:13 AM

    ^^Please find help first. You can first approach a counselor in your college. Then you could decide to maybe go out and seek professional help to have constant sessions. I really feel bad for you because you are young and want to tell you that suicide is not the answer to your problems.

  • Molly Merson

    April 11th, 2014 at 9:35 PM

    This is beautifully written, Cynthia, and touches on so much that resonates with me and with the clients I work with. I appreciate and am inspired by your thoughts.

  • alisa

    July 17th, 2014 at 3:25 PM

    I have a double wammy going on. I was struggling with clinical Depression when my significant other died suddenly. It changed my whole life plus the profound grief that accompanied it. So now I have the grief on top of my depression and P.T.S.D. My symptoms are all over the page. I am hallow and miserable. I have a therapist and go to support groups. It still going slow. This was an interesting read. Thank you.

  • Cynthia Lubow, MFT

    July 18th, 2014 at 9:55 AM

    Alisa, that is way more than any one person should ever have to deal with–especially all at once! I hope you are crying and resting and screaming and writing and making images of your pain to express it, or getting help with what’s preventing any of that. If you find a way to express the grief, it will heal.

  • Connie

    July 21st, 2014 at 2:28 PM

    With a few minor exceptions, this article described my life…wow. Seldom have I seen this particular aspect of depression described, much less so well. I’m in the process of finding a therapist to help me deal with all of the issues that are dragging down my life.

    Alisa: I’m so sorry you’re on this path. My significant other died too…almost 10 years ago now. The very best thing I did for my grief was to connect with other grievers, and others who’d lost their life partner especially. And the best place I found for that is Soaring Spirits International; I highly recommend it. See soaringspirits.org. (SSI is inclusive of ALL who’ve lost their life partner, regardless of marital status, age, gender, or orientation.) Once you participate in even one SSI program, you become part of a community of widowed people and thereby have access to many others who “get it.” We would welcome you with open arms.

  • Lisa

    November 30th, 2014 at 8:12 PM

    I can’t agree with the suggested antidote in this post because as much as I’d like to keep waiting for this phantom feeling – motivation/ambition – to return, I’m too aware that a watched pot never boils and Godot never shows. Also, according to various studies published on the subject, thoughts dont inspire behavior; it’s behavior which actually incepts thought and I can think of many times in my life this has been true. The various fields of neuroscientists have been steadily publishing in many areas of human life, including this one and while many of them are of the Buddhist mentality, all of them use the mentality to withdraw mind from brain and place mind with body, where, unified, the mind and body take action.

  • kirstie

    July 7th, 2015 at 8:30 AM

    I’m 21 years old this is supposed to be the best time of my life I should be so busy I shouldn’t be thinking of the what ifs. I certainly shouldn’t be wishing my life away like I am or asking all the loved ones I lost for answers because they don’t have them.

  • Leenan W

    October 24th, 2016 at 12:25 PM

    I am 56 years old and ever since I was probably 6 , I can remember thinking what was wrong with me. I started having these first symptoms of depression having motivation or ambition was never there. it wasn’t until later that I had the other symptoms of depression. I started self medicating at 14 with drugs and alcohol. which has carried on to this day I have tried just about every medication there is .it will bring me out of that deep hole of darkness and hopelessness but the the lack of motivation and ambition is still nit there. if I feel like oh I would like to try that it doesn’t last long and rarely finish anything..Since .childhood I have felt lacking what others had. I never had intrests really of anykind.The only thing I really liked was TV. I hated myself for not having that get up and go. I wanted to have leader traits but neverdid.i wanted to pay attention to details but never have,i had all these dreams but not the power to do them. drugs gave me these things and we know how that works. people think that if im laughing and talking im ok and im not. Im still lacking im still not good enough. I get things dome as quickly as possible just to get it over with. my life is almost over and I feel no hope of this ever changing.

  • Not a Saint

    October 24th, 2016 at 3:21 PM

    Leenan…..your story is my story. Remarkably so, other than our age. I am 65, but the rest is the same.2

  • Leenan

    October 25th, 2016 at 3:40 PM

    .This is the first article by a professional iv ever seen or read that describes me completely. people have not believed me or been able to comprehend what im describing.. not even my family. This news gives me hope and thank you for your courage, Not a Saint, for reaching out to let me know im not alone.

  • Tyranto

    November 12th, 2016 at 3:12 PM

    Leenan. You are just my reflection and I’m only 22 years of age, except I have attempted suicide multiple times.

  • Randell

    December 17th, 2016 at 9:59 PM

    My psychiatrist once confided to me and told me that psychiatry is still in the dark ages… they actually know very little about how the mind works and operates. As for many drugs… they don’t even fully understand how and why they work.

  • J.i.

    February 20th, 2017 at 11:49 AM

    I have never been able to define what I am feeling, but your definition of emotional energy levels of someone who was very successful and reached burnout made me feel feel like you took an xray of my mind.
    I have had a situation with my family that took me into a deep depression and I’m barely functioning
    I have been able to keep working but that is all. Everything else in my life has stopped. The phone does not ring anymore, I can barely get up to wall my dog and chores are very challenging to get done.

    I want so badly to do so many things, but I do not have the emotional drive or excitement.

    How can I change?

  • Linda B

    December 16th, 2017 at 1:32 PM

    Thank you for explaining my experience exactly. I’ve been experiencing it for 36 years. If I didn’t have such a wonderful husband, I’d don’t know where I’d be. Medication takes care of mental pain and sadness of depression but still this part persists. I have many other health conditions to deal with but this is the absolute worst. I’m always researching to try to find any help I can. The latest I’ve found is a lack of dopamine rather than lack of seratonin. I have most of the symptoms listed for it. They recommend some supplements but how do you know if they would interact with your medications? My doctors have either never heard of the supplement or don’t now if there would be an interaction. The latest thing I was told by my therapist is that the medication I take provides the dopamine. Well, it’s not nearly enough. I have tried l-tyrosine (powder) and it helped a little. Any improvement is great! I can’t help but wonder if the other supplements would help too. Dealing with this for 36 years causes depression all by itself! And actually the past 2 or 3 years has been worse because I had been doing gardening but these past few years I haven’t been able too. Anyway, you might want to read about lack of dopamine yourselves and see if you think it describes what you are dealing with. Thanks again for the wonderful article. I’m taking it in to my therapist next visit. Oh, she also says the medication won’t
    help this part. I have to get my sleep regulated and exercise regularly. Really?

  • Lora

    April 16th, 2020 at 7:36 PM

    Thank you for the description about low emotional energy. This describes me exactly. I have only recently come to accept that some things are just too hard for me to do, and let go of my perfectionism and the unrealistic expectations I placed on myself for so many years. I accept that I need more downtime, more sleep, and more time alone to be able to function in daily life. I now allow myself to only cook very basic meals, do housework and laundry in stages, and just maintain my career as it is, and let go of societal pressure to climb the ladder. My superego still tries to make me feel bad about not pursuing goals that id be able to accomplish if I wasn’t going through this. I hope I can find some peace of mind about that and give myself credit where credit is due: I am holding down a full time job! I am successful in my chosen career! I am financially secure and independent! I’ve lersn to take care of myself! I said no to toxic relationships! Good for me. I’m entitled to some “lazy time” because without it, I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning.

  • Paul D

    May 8th, 2020 at 8:04 AM

    Emotional energy has been an issue all of my life and have learned to live with it. Now in my 50s, I do not suggest this approach as it is stifling to every aspect of ones existance. Finding someone both capable and willing to actually help seems almost impossible. it is a tough ride.

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