What’s the matter with those people who always seem introverted, gloomy and never have any fun? Are they depressed? Maybe they have dysthymia, often thought of as a mild but chronic form of depression. Or just maybe there’s nothing wrong with them at all?
Over the years this is something that has exercised the minds of many eminent clinicians. Could there be such a thing as a depressive personality with features that only resemble the symptoms of milder forms of depression?
Attempts to identify and measure such ‘non-clinical’ personalities seem to indicate particular personality traits. Here is a person who is critical. Not only are they critical of others, they are self-critical, often self-derogatory and hard to please. Their general mood is one of pessimism and gloom, although so far as activities and life in general is concerned they would be considered quiet, responsible, self-disciplined types, who worry about their own shortcomings and seem preoccupied with negative outcomes and possibilities.
Of course when clinically assessed some people with these features will actually be diagnosed with depression, yet some are not. What we see in some people is a stable and enduring pattern of personality that resembles depressive symptoms, yet do not meet the criteria for depression as we currently define it.
At this point you may be wondering whether we are looking at a form of personality disorder? After all, how normal is it to be dejected and negative all the time? It’s a good question but we have to keep in mind that a style of personality differs from a personality disorder. A personality style is an enduring pattern of characteristics that influence the way we view the world around us and ourselves. It doesn’t necessarily follow that they are well adapted, but they will have been shaped by life experiences as much as what is hardwired through genes. Personality disorders differ from personality styles in that they reflect highly dysfunctional ways of thinking and behaving which result in significant impairments to daily living.
It does however seem reasonable to suggest that those with depressive personality have certain disadvantages. Klein and Miller (1993) for example, found that even with those who had no diagnosable depression were more socially impaired than those without the depressive traits. There is, they argue, still a case for supporting such people, perhaps through social skills support, in order to improve their life chances and perhaps even prevent a later slip into clinical depression.
Klein, D.N., & Miller, G.A. (1993). Depressive personality in nonclinical subjects. American Journal of Psychiatry, 150, 1718-1724.
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.