Before describing and explaining Sigmund Freud’s theoretical model for understanding depression, I would like to make some points about theory.
A theory is a working model; a way of conceptualizing a phenomenon that helps us to understand and effect change in ourselves or others. The American intellectual William James described how theoretical models can be useful for understanding while not being real. In this way, a theory can be true -meaning it works, while not being real. An example of this can be found in our everyday treatment of currency. What gives paper currency value is our belief in it, not the paper and ink itself, which is relatively worthless. Its value is symbolic and theoretical, not real. The value of the money is true in that it functions within our society in meaningful way. James shows us that theory can be true without being real. This being said, we can approach Freud’s theory of depression as a model that can be useful in understanding the phenomenon, without becoming distracted by questions that have little bearing on its pragmatic functioning.
In his essay, Mourning and Melancholia (1917), Freud describes the differences and similarities between mourning the death of a loved one, and depression (melancholia) as it can occur in some individuals. Freud observes that when one mourns the loss of a loved one, sadness is the main feature. When one is depressed, guilt and self-reproach are the main features. This distinction leads Freud to propose a model that helps us to understand the phenomenon of depression.
Like mourning, Freud tells us, depression begins with the loss of a loved object. Freud uses the word object to speak of other people or things that we become attached to. In this way, mother, father, or stuffed animal can all be objects of attachment. Emotionally, the attachment to a stuffed teddybear can be as strong as the attachment to a living person. Loss can be, but is not limited to, death. Loss in this sense can be a disappointment, a slight, neglect, or betrayal by the loved other. This is the first step in the development of depressive reaction: a perceived loss of the loved other.
This other, Freud explains, is usually someone very close to the person, and the loss is typically experienced in childhood. The loss that initiates the depressive reaction might have occurred so long ago that the adult is not fully aware of it. What they remain aware of is the emotional devastation of the perceived betrayal from the other with whom they are attached.
Freud observed that three things take place when we are betrayed by someone we are attached to. First, we try to hold on to that person emotionally, in a way, not letting them go. Secondly, we can suffer guilt for a sense of responsibility for their abandoning us. Thirdly, we often punish ourselves for causing their betrayal. Let’s unpack each of these separately.
When we have an object that we love, that we are attached to, and that object is lost, we can hold on to that object by integrating it into ourselves. In this way we can introject the other into our own identity and incorporate the other into our own sense of self. This is what happens when a child integrates their parents’ moral codes into what we call conscience. A way of keeping an object connected to ourselves; to keep it close to us, is to identify with it and incorporate it into our own sense of self. This is similar to identification with aggressor, in which we attempt to overcome a fear of something by become the thing we fear. Put simply, we attempt to hold-on to someone by incorporating them into ourselves.
When someone abandons or betrays us, we can often experience a sense of responsibility for their actions. This questioning of our responsibility for the betrayal is a common characteristic in any loss. The emotional experience of ambivalence, that is, a sense of being a victim of betrayal while simultaneously being the cause of that betrayal, is a central factor in Freud’s conception of depression. We can come to experience anger towards the other for betraying us, while feeling as sense of guilt for causing their betrayal.
At this point, the individual can safely direct their rage and anger towards the other; punishing them for their betrayal, symbolically on their own self. In other words, the hostility is directed inwards, to the portion of the self that has identified with the lost object of love. The experience of depression, in this way, becomes a self-punishment. That part of the self that is the other is punished while the intact sense of self is blamed and punished for causing the betrayal. The depression is a simultaneous punishing the other and the self, both as incorporations in the me.
Sigmund Freud’s 1917 model for depression is not to be taken as the only model, and should not be misunderstood as the explanation for all depression. The model has been useful to some people for understanding their experience of depression. Like all theoretical work, we take it or leave it, depending on its practical value for our own understanding of ourselves.
*The essay Mourning and Melancholia in full-text.