Fairbairn’s Theory of Depression
Richard L. Rubens, Ph.D.
Fairbairn developed a theory of endopsychic structure that turned all of psychoanalytic theory on its head: instead of seeing relationships as the result of drive discharge, his theory saw self-expression in relationship as the foundation of all psychic functioning; instead of seeing growth as synonymous with progressive structuralization, it understood the structuring of the self as being a process of splitting and repression that was fundamentally pathological; and, most crucially, instead of a biological theory of the vicissitudes of the instincts, his theory provided a way of understanding both healthy development and psychopathology in terms of the history of attachments. Based on this radically different theory, Fairbairn developed strikingly original and brilliant ways to understand the nature of schizophrenia and schizoid states and the clinical phenomena of hysteria, obsession, phobias, and paranoia. Curiously, however, Fairbairn had very little to say about depression.
What Fairbairn did have to say about depression he adopted directly from Melanie Klein. He never articulated a theory of depression distinctively his own; and it is for this reason that what he has had directly to say on the subject is not nearly so compelling as the rest of his theory. As we shall see, he himself became noticeably disinterested in depression as a concept, and it all but disappeared from his later writings. Nevertheless, depression is an extremely important and ubiquitous issue; and, what is more, Fairbairn indirectly has a great deal to offer to our understanding of it. I intend to summarize what Fairbairn did actually write about depression and to examine what his other contributions offer by way of an implicit ‘Fairbairnian’ theory of this most significant clinical entity.
In the two instances in which Fairbairn took up the question of depression before the emergence of his pivotal object relations based theories in the 1940s –a case study in 1936 (1952) and the paper on aggression in 1939 (1994b)– he basically adopted the existing view that aggression and oral sadism were the main issues in the condition.
As I discussed in my review (1996) of From Instinct to Self: The Selected Papers of W. R. D. Fairbairn (Fairbairn, 1994a&b), Melanie Klein’s notion of "positions" had an profound effect on Fairbairn’s object relations theory. Klein had posited the existence of two positions, the paranoid and the depressive. These two developmental stages defined the two earliest phases of the infant’s object relations. Fairbairn quite predictably had difficulty with Klein’s paranoid position, predicated as it was on the death instinct; but he developed in its stead his own most pivotal concept of the schizoid position. The depressive position he adopted intact from Klein. He was profoundly influenced by the metapsychological nature of these positions: they were not biologically determined, zonally characterized stages of instinctual discharge; rather, they were fundamental patterns of interaction which characterized a person’s relation to an other. Fairbairn clearly felt the potential in this notion of positions for a developmental theory based on object relations rather than on drives. It is also true that Klein’s notion allowed him to shift the exploration of the origins of personality and psychopathology away from the Oedipus complex and back into the infant’s first year of life. Most importantly, of course, the concept of the schizoid position, which Fairbairn developed based on this theoretical departure of Klein, became the central factor in his understanding of later human development.
While in the early ‘40s Fairbairn quickly abandoned the drive based epigenetic developmental schema of Freud and Abraham, he retained a notion of the oral stage, since this stage, at least, was based on a relationship between a person and a real or ‘natural’ object, and could be rather directly construed as referring to actual relationship between the infant and its mother. He also accepted the division of the oral stage into
the early oral phase and…the late oral phase, when the biting tendency emerges and takes its place side by side with the sucking tendency. In the late oral phase there occurs a differentiation between oral love, associated with sucking, and oral hate, associated with biting. (1952, p. 24)
About these phases he wrote:
the emotional conflict which arises in relation to object relationships during the early oral phase takes the form of the alternative, ‘to suck or not to suck’, i.e. ‘to love or not to love.’ This is the conflict underlying the schizoid state. On the other hand, the conflict which characterizes the late oral phase resolves itself into the alternative, ‘to suck or to bite’, i.e. ‘to love or to hate.’ This is the conflict underlying the depressive state. It will be seen, accordingly, that the great problem of the schizoid individual is how to love without destroying by love, whereas the great problem of the depressive individual is how to love without destroying by hate. (ibid., p. 49)
Fairbairn noted that, in the late oral phase, "The object may be bitten in so far as it presents itself as bad. This means that differentiated aggression, as well as libido, may be directed towards the object. Hence the appearance of the ambivalence which characterizes the late oral phase." (ibid., p. 49). And, further,
the great problem which confronts the individual in the late oral phase is how to love the object without destroying it by hate. Accordingly, since the depressive reaction has its roots in the late oral phase, it is the disposal of his hate, rather than the disposal of his love, that constitutes the great difficulty of the depressive individual. Formidable as this difficulty is, the depressive is at any rate spared the devastating experience of feeling that his love is bad. Since his love at any rate seems good, he remains inherently capable of a libidinal relationship with outer objects in a sense in which the schizoid is not. His difficulty in maintaining such a relationship arises out of his ambivalence. This ambivalence in turn arises out of the fact that, during the late oral phase, he was more successful than the schizoid in substituting direct aggression (biting) for simple rejection of the object. …the depressive individual readily establishes libidinal contacts with others; and, if his libidinal contacts are satisfactory to him, his progress through life may appear fairly smooth. Nevertheless the inner situation is always present; and it is readily reactivated if his libidinal relationships become disturbed. Any such disturbance immediately calls into operation the hating element in his ambivalent attitude; and, when his hate becomes directed towards the internalized object, a depressive reaction supervenes. (ibid., pp. 54-55)
And he concluded in that paper that
no one ever becomes completely emancipated from the state of infantile dependence, or from some proportionate degree of oral fixation; and there is no one who has completely escaped the necessity of incorporating his early objects. It may be consequently inferred that there is present in everyone an underlying schizoid or an underlying depressive tendency, according as it was in the early or in the late oral phase that difficulties -chiefly attended infantile object-relationships. We are thus introduced to the concept that every individual may be classified as falling into one of two basic psychological types –the schizoid and the depressive. (ibid., p. 56)
All of these quotations are from two papers Fairbairn wrote in 1940 and 1941, and that is pretty much all he had to say about depression. He reiterated this basic view of the depressive position as late as 1951 (ibid., p. 163); but he never had anything further to add to these ideas about depression. So depression was viewed by him as a reaction in which hate and aggression are turned inward against the self when circumstances disturb the object relations of individuals of the depressive type. And this depressive type refers to someone whose basic endopsychic structure is founded on the ambivalence of the late oral phase of development, as opposed to being founded on a schizoid endopsychic structure.
Although Fairbairn never retracted this theory, there was precious little he had to say at all about depression as his theory matured. In his final, succinct summary of his theory in 1963, his only mention of depression is in his statement that the structure of the human psyche "represents a basic schizoid position which is more fundamental than the depressive position described by Melanie Klein," (1994a, p. 156) which certainly does nothing positively to embrace the theory.
While the notion of two positions representing, as Klein had believed, two basic underlying organizations of the psyche sounded reasonable, it never seemed to Fairbairn that the positions were of equal importance. Right from the beginning, he saw the schizoid position as far more basic and universal. Eventually he concluded that the schizoid position, representing as it did the fundamental state of the existence of split-off subsystems within the self, was the position that underlay all of human psychopathology. And if everyone was schizoid with respect to his underlying endopsychic structure, to whom then would be applied the label depressive? Consequently, Fairbairn began progressively to lose interest in the depressive position, until it all but disappeared from his theory. Moreover, the drive emphasis in the theory of depression as he inherited it from Klein and Freud led him to begin to distance himself from the concept of depression all together.
Beginning in 1944, Fairbairn began to express the opinion that the theory of psychic structure "had suffered from too great a preoccupation with the problem of melancholic depression." (1952, p. 84) He correctly understood that "Freud’s theory of mental structure is based in no small measure upon a consideration of the phenomenon of melancholia" (ibid., p. 90), but he mistakenly decided that it was this basis that led Freud away from a more object relations theory and toward a more Oedipus centered and drive-based notion of psychopathology.
It is true that the observations Freud made in "Mourning and melancholia" (1917) did lead to his developing his theory of the superego and ultimately to his tripartite structural theory. Fairbairn acknowledged that the theory of the superego was the place where Freud came closest to the idea of experience with real people in the world resulting in the formation of an active, functioning structure within the psyche (1952, pp. 60, 80, 153-154), and therefore represented the most object related arena of Freud’s theory. It is also clearly the jumping off point for all later object relations theories. Nevertheless, Fairbairn disagreed about its being the motive for repression, as he had developed a far more compelling explanation based on attachment in the schizoid phase. Thus Fairbairn took issue with the way "Freud’s theory of the super-ego…represents an attempt to trace the genesis of guilt and the instigation of repression to a common source in the Oedipus situation." (ibid., p. 93) He was led to conclude,
Freud’s theory of the mental apparatus was, of course, developed upon a basis of the depressive position; and it is on a similar basis that Melanie Klein has developed her views. By contrast, it is the schizoid position that constitutes the basis of the theory of mental structure that I now advance. (ibid., p. 107)
While I agree that Fairbairn was completely correct to insist on the schizoid position as the basis of psychopathology, and similarly that he was correct in his assertion that the depressive position ought not be accorded a similar status in the theory of psychic structure, it is my contention that it is unfortunate that these factors subsequently led Fairbairn to lose interest in the dynamics of depression as they relate to psychic structure. It led to conclusions such as the following about "individuals suffering from true depression or… individuals of a depressive type. So far as my experience goes…such individuals do not constitute any appreciable part of the analyst’s clientele." (ibid., p. 91) Such a statement could only be made because Fairbairn was excluding "patients suffering from anxiety states, psychoneurotic symptoms and character difficulties" (idem) from those to which depression was applicable.
Fairbairn had taken Klein’s notion of a paranoid position, separated it from its original foundation in instinct theory, and transformed it into his own notion of a schizoid position. This schizoid position, representing as it did the fundamental pathological outcome of the unavoidable ego splitting that was engendered by intolerably bad experience of the infant with its absolutely important attachments, became the cornerstone of his entire theory of development and of endopsychic structure, as well as of his theory of psychopathology.
In the case of the depressive position, Fairbairn simply left the concept as he originally inherited it from Klein. He accorded it equal metapsychological status with the schizoid position; and he then became disinterested in it because it could not support such a status in his theory. He accepted as fundamental the connection of depression to the aggressive drives and its association with Oedipal guilt; and he then proceeded to reject it because it was drive-based and Oedipus-centered. It is understandable that Fairbairn directly took exception to Freud’s explanation of repression in terms of this constellation; but instead of examining the issue of depression separate from this metapsychological notion, he simply maintained the association and became progressively disinterested.
Were Fairbairn to have separated depression from this drive-Oedipal constellation, he most certainly might have recognized the enormous role it plays in terms of his object relations theory. Had he been able to drop Klein’s notion of a depressive position and think about depression free from these theoretical underpinnings, Fairbairn would not have viewed it as a relatively uncommon or insignificant factor. Rather he would have viewed it as the ubiquitous and important element it really is in psychopathology.
I am proposing that, in a Fairbairnian theoretical context, it is not necessary or useful to understand depression as a position in the developmental organization of the psyche. Fairbairn’s theory of endopsychic structure is entirely adequate without any such addition –which is, of course, precisely why he became disinterested in depression viewed in this way. Nor is it necessary to link depression with Oedipal guilt or with internalization conceived of in terms of aggressive instincts. These are the connections that led Fairbairn to become actively antagonistic about the theory of depression. Rather, it is my contention that depression should be viewed as a very general mechanism of conservation of the endopsychic situation and stasis in the closed system of experiencing the world.
In this view, depression is a technique for avoiding or, at least, denying the existence of change. As I have written elsewhere (Rubens, 1992), the desire to deny change, and thereby to deny the experience of loss, is one of the deepest of human resistances. This is readily understandable from a Fairbairnian perspective, as it represents the ultimate closed system attempt to maintain the existing endopsychic situation.
Fairbairn himself provided some hints in this direction. While he insisted that depression was not an important psychoanalytic phenomenon, he did go on to write that "the familiar term ‘depressed’ is frequently applied in clinical practice to patients who properly should be described as suffering from a sense of futility." (1952, p. 91) He saw in the schizoid dilemma a threat of loss of the object (and of the self) regardless of whether the individual attempted to love the object or attempted to withhold that love, and thus "..the result is a complete impasse, which reduces the ego to a state of utter impotence. The ego becomes quite incapable of expressing itself; and, in so far as this is so, its very existence becomes compromised. …the characteristic affect of the schizoid state is undoubtedly a sense of futility." (ibid., p. 51)
It is quite obvious that the sense of futility Fairbairn was describing is what we know as depression. It is not based on a redirection of aggression or on Oedipal guilt. It is that state of hopelessness, powerlessness, and immobilization that derives from the individual’s inability to relinquish his absolute and immutable hold on his internal objects in the face of events that press for him to do so. On another level, it represents the general attempt to deny any change in the internal state of affairs. Because Fairbairn had assigned depression to a separate stage of development, he had to devise another name for it as it operated on the schizoid level. But his calling it by another name does not alter the fact that it is precisely what I am here defining as depression. And, once the metapsychological supposition that depression be viewed as a distinct and separate developmental position is abandoned, there is no reason why depressive reactions cannot apply directly to schizoid situations.
It is clear that this expanded Fairbairnian understanding of depression allows the view that, like his transitional techniques, depression can function across a broad spectrum of developmental levels. Also like the transitional techniques, the actual manifestations of depression will, of course, be different depending upon the level on which they are occurring. Fairbairn was correct to notice a distinct quality in the schizoid sense of futility that was unlike the manifestations of depression on later developmental levels; but he was wrong not to notice its underlying continuity with those other manifestations. Just as he insisted in his 1941 paper (1952) that it was an error to assign obsessive and hysterical techniques to specific developmental levels and that instead they could be viewed as existing at varying levels of development, so, too, can his work incorporate a notion of depression across varying levels of development.
Despite the similarities between the process of mourning and that of depression, Freud had understood that there was a fundamental difference between the two. He saw the work of mourning as that of the recognition, acceptance, and ultimate transcendence of loss: "mourning impels the ego to give up the object by declaring the object to be dead and by offering the ego the inducement of continuing to live." (Freud, 1917, p. 257) In depression, however, Freud viewed there being an ambivalence as to whether the work was attempting to sever the tie to the object or to maintain it: "Countless separate struggles are carried on over the object, in which hate and love contend with each other; the one seeks to detach the libido from the object, the other to maintain this position of the libido against the assault." (ibid., p. 256)
If we leave behind the drive-based emphasis on the aggression in this ambivalence, we are left with a distinction that is far more profound: sadness represents the healthy affective recognition and acceptance of loss, whereas depression represents the neurotic attempt to deny loss.
The phenomenological reality of loss in human experience is one of the most centrally defining facts of our finite lives. To be alive means eventually to die. To make an attachment always opens one to the possibility of having to mourn the loss of that attachment. Moreover, as I have written in a paper on tragedy,
the very process of living, that of growth and change, implies continuous loss. To move on to a new stage of life always involves abandoning some prior developmental level; to formulate a higher integration of one’s experience always involves relinquishing an earlier integration. (1992)
This growing, changing process is what Fairbairn called living in an open system way.
It was Fairbairn’s basic notion that psychopathology represented an attempt to live in a closed system. In 1958, he wrote
the maintenance of such a closed system involves the perpetuation of the relationships prevailing between the various ego-structures and their respective internal objects, as well as between one another. (1994a, p. 84)
His entire theory of endopsychic structure, about which I have written at length elsewhere (1984, 1994), was predicated on the formation of sub-systems of the self which attempt simultaneously both to isolate and to preserve certain aspects experience.
Fairbairn arrived at the notion that existence as a structure within the self means existence as a split-off subsystem of the self, created and maintained by repression, and owing its existence to the self’s inability to deal with some important aspect of its experience that it found intolerable. He termed the process of establishing such structures "schizoid," because the splitting and repression by which it is constituted invariably diminish the self’s capacity for growth and expression, and are therefore pathological. (Rubens,1994, p. 162)
These subsystems of the self are preserved within the psyche as crystallized, closed systems which strive for expression, but always in accordance with the same, unchanging pattern as the template upon which they were based.
Thus Fairbairn’s theory potentially provides an understanding of depression exactly along the lines that are here being proposed. To understand that depression has as its purpose the maintenance of an attachment not supportable in reality is precisely an idea that would fit with Fairbairn’s whole notion of closed systems. And Fairbairn’s notion of the nature of attachment in unconscious functioning provides a compelling basis for understanding the resistance to recognizing and dealing with the reality of loss.
Thus depression becomes something that one experiences in response to a loss –or a change– that threatens to affect the shape of one’s inner world. The loss may be real or imagined, external or internal, concrete or symbolic. Any change that does not fit with the expectations of one’s closed system can precipitate it. It does not matter if the change is in a positive direction. In fact, it is precisely changes in the direction of growth that often trigger a depression, because they most directly threaten the internal status quo.
Fairbairn’s theory specifically explained how new experience in a deeply important, affectively engaged relationship had the effect of loosening the attachment to the patterns embodied in the subsystems we hold split-off within our psyches; and he knew that "the maintenance of the patient’s internal world as a closed system…[was]the greatest of all sources of resistance." (1994a, p. 84) The defensive reaction to avoid or deny such change is best dynamically understood as depression in the sense here being discussed, since it not only describes the affective reaction to the threat of the loss of internal objects (and the accompanying fear of the loss of self involved with those objects), but it also explains the active resistive motive of that reaction. In this view, depression is a defense that actively attempts to maintain the stasis of this closed system.
If we examine the clinical manifestations of depression, its nature as a defense of conservation becomes more clear. To be depressed is to feel hopeless, helpless, and powerless in a way that insists precisely that nothing can be changed. The experience is that one is powerless to effect any change, helpless in the face of what is happening, and, therefore, without any hope of being able to deal with –or even survive– the loss that is occurring or threatening to occur. And thus depression leads progressively to a complete psychic (and often physical) immobilization, in which any meaningful action –or even continued living– becomes unimaginable. (It is not difficult to see why Fairbairn emphasized the sense of futility in this phenomenon.) Nevertheless, to the psychoanalytic mind such a configuration must suggest the wish that is contained therein: if nothing can be changed, then nothing will change. If I simply cannot tolerate what is happening to me, it will not happen. And, on perhaps the deepest level, if I refuse to live this new experience as new (Fairbairn would say in an open-system way), I can continue to live the old, closed-system experience of my inner object world.
Loss is an irreducible fact of the external world, however. It occurs despite all efforts to avoid it, and it is a reality despite all manner of attempts to deny it. Thus it is that the depressive is forced to retreat into the closed system of the inner object world. There he can cling to the belief that relationships, objects, and self states can be maintained in an unchanging, eternal way. Like Freud’s artifacts buried at Pompeii, they are "at once made inaccessible and preserved" (1907, p. 40) by their entombment. Like the lovers frozen in the world of Keats’ "Ode on a Grecian Urn," (1819) they are held perfect and undying for all eternity. In this inner world there is no death or loss, but neither is there any growth or change. Pompeii is a dead city; the lovers on the urn never consummate their kiss. The price of this eternity is the absence of vitality and life.
Although depression is a denial of change, the depressed person feels so overwhelmed by the ‘loss’ he is experiencing, that he becomes trapped in the experience in a way that refuses to resolve itself. I place the word ‘loss’ in quotes in the previous sentence because while the depressed person is virtually completely immersed in a preoccupation with ‘loss,’ he simply does not experience it as true loss. The reaction does not in any way accept the change of internal state that would of necessity eventuate from the acceptance of the reality of an actual loss. In fact, the depressed reaction actively strives to deny the reality so as to preserve that prior internal state. From Freud on it has been clear that while mourning (or sadness, as I am using the term here) involves an acceptance of loss that results in the person’s eventually moving on with the business of living, depression works against a resolution that enables one to go on with one’s life.
From this viewpoint, there is an inverse relationship that exists between sadness and depression. In so far as one is able to experience sadness, one is not depressed; and in so far as one is depressed, one cannot experience sadness. This is true because sadness is a reaction to the acceptance of loss, whereas depression is always a denial of loss. Clinically it is of the utmost importance to differentiate between these two similar-looking but diametrically different states.
The theory of depression being proposed here sheds some light on the old analytic saw that the emergence of depression in a patient in treatment is a positive development. From this view, it is clear that when an analysis has reached a point where some structural change may be in the process of occurring –or ‘threatening’ to occur– it is quite likely that the patient may resort to the defense of depression to forestall or deny that change. Since it is unlikely that such a defense would be mounted were no change ‘threatening,’ it is therefore reasonable to view depression as a positive sign in the course of a treatment. Clinically, it is extremely useful to be aware of this mechanism of depression as a defense against some specific progress in treatment, or other area of the patient’s life, because it enables one not to be dissuaded from pursuing the direction against which the defense is reacting. Whereas the depression makes the claim that things are going dangerously wrong in the patient’s life, it may be crucial to remain aware that this is true only from the perspective of the unhealthy desire to maintain the closed system. Such an awareness ultimately may enable analyst and patient alike to find the courage to endure at such moments.
Nevertheless, the truly most positive treatment development is not the emergence of depression –which, after all, represents a resistance to an impending change– but rather that of sadness, which marks the actual acceptance of change. This fact may underlie in a more positive way Freud’s rather pessimistic assertion that the end result of analysis was the replacement of neurotic misery by everyday unhappiness. (Breuer & Freud, 1895, p. 305) While depression is analyzable, sadness is not. This conclusion is in no way pessimistic, since sadness as we are here understanding it contains within itself the ultimate possibility of resolution, while depression specifically struggles to defy resolution.
It is interesting to note that the very thing that makes Fairbairn’s theory so conducive to this formulation of depression is partially hinted at in Freud’s original theory. Fairbairn insisted that it was the attachment to the internal bad objects –begun in the state of absolute dependence at the stage of primary identification– that was responsible for our reluctance to live life in a more open and healthy way. Freud, in "Mourning and Melancholia," concluded that it was the narcissistic element in object choices that predisposed one to depression. (1917, p. 249) Recalling Fairbairn’s definition of primary identification as "the cathexis of an object which has not yet been differentiated from the cathecting subject," (1952, p.34n) it is clear that both men recognized that the inability to experience sadness and loss is based on a primitive level of connection to one’s internal objects. Such connections do not permit loss without the threat of an accompanying loss of that portion of the self which is bound up with the object. And both men consequently knew that it is to avoid such loss of self that the depressed person retreats into his inner world, where he can deny the possibility of such loss.
Of course, Freud’s theory of narcissism was based on an instinct theory in a way that Fairbairn’s notion of primary identification pointedly was not. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating question why Fairbairn did not seize more directly on the object relations orientation inherent in this area of Freud’s thinking. It was, after all, in "Mourning and Melancholia" that Freud developed his famous notion of "the shadow of the object" falling on the ego (1917, p. 249), and the resulting notion of the formation within the self of a subsystem which he was eventually to call the superego. Certainly this notion of such a subsystem of the self having its genesis in an individual’s experience with people in the world and then proceeding to have an ongoing, albeit repressed, life within the psyche was an idea that profoundly affected Fairbairn. Although he was to reject the instinctual underpinnings of this concept, shift away from aggression and guilt in the explanation of its origin and substitute instead an emphasis on relationship and positive attachment, and move its timing from the time of the triadic Oedipus complex back to the dyadic relationship of the infant’s earliest experience, still, the compelling notion of endopsychic structuring therein contained was pivotal for Fairbairn. He did have to struggle mightily to differentiate his structural theory from that of Freud, and so he had to draw careful distinctions when it came to comparisons with Freud’s structural model. Nevertheless, here is one area where I believe his real need carried him in an unfortunate and misguided direction.
Instead of connecting to that object relations oriented thinking that was apparent in Freud’s theory of depression, Fairbairn chose to emphasize his differences from the drive theory and Oedipal orientation that was also linked to it. Unfortunately, since he never successfully separated these aspects from the theory of depression, he never made the connection to the possibilities that are herein being discussed.
It would be a mistake, however to overlook the contribution Fairbairn did make to the theory of depression as conceived on the level of "superego guilt" and aggression. Fairbairn was quite aware of the way anger at the object was turned inward as aggression against the self in depression. His theory accounted for this phenomenon on two levels. On the deepest level, it explained how a child would identify with and "take on" the intolerable badness of his objects in order to preserve their ‘goodness’ and availability to him. (1952, p. 164) Using his observations of sexually abused children, Fairbairn described how they would direct their anger and negative accusations against themselves, rather than against the more appropriate objects, upon whom, unfortunately, they were absolutely dependent. In this arena he implicitly understood the conservative role of depression in the attempt to avoid and deny loss. The fact that this operation occurred on the schizoid level precluded his recognition that it was depressive, however, due to his insistence that the term depression applied only to operations at a later stage of development And, at the later stage of development where he could understand this operation to be more directly associated with depression, Fairbairn developed his notion of the moral defense.
The moral defense reworks this manoeuvre of feeling ‘bad’ rather than ‘sad’ on a level once farther removed. In doing so, it increases the distance from the dangers of intolerable badness by introducing the concept of conditional badness. Instead of dealing with unconditional badness (that state in which the loving attachment itself seen as destructive), the child develops the notion of conditional badness, or moral badness, which allows him to operate on a less terrifying level. (ibid., p. 165) It then becomes possible for the child to avoid the loss of his parents’ goodness by treating himself as morally bad –an unpleasant situation, but in no way as horrifying as having to see himself as unconditionally, and therefore irredeemably bad. This state of affairs is how Fairbairn understood guilt and the self-directed aggression of Freud’s superego-based notion of depression.
On the level of the moral defensive, Fairbairn clearly understood the sort of defensive and conservative explanation of depression that I am more generally propounding. Depression on this level was precisely understood by him as being a technique for preserving the inner endopsychic situation and insulating the individual against having to deal more directly with its shortcomings. The particular manner in which depression manifests itself on these varying levels is different, but the underlying defensive purpose is the same.
Clinically it is worth a digression at this point to take up the consideration of neurotic guilt from the standpoint of our emerging theory of depression. Authentic, moral guilt is an extremely mature and healthy aspect of human functioning. The ability to feel deep remorse for transgressions one commits against one’s understanding of what is morally right and wrong is a developmental achievement of the highest order. This ability is quite distinct, however, from the neurotic expressions of guilt that so plague the discourse of depressed individuals. The Fairbairnian notion of depression that is here being elucidated gives immediate explanation to this phenomenon. The expression of neurotic guilt always represents a measure of self-flagellation (i.e., aggression directed at the self) that quite clearly is intended to allow the party in question to maintain the status quo unchanged in the face of some input or awareness that pushes in the direction of change. To wit, the patient who goes on about how guilty he is about his smoking/drug taking/infidelity/overeating/etc./etc. is not likely to be expressing the kind of real remorse that leads to changing the prevailing state of affairs. On the contrary, this self-flagellation is actually offered up as some form of penance to allow him to continue in precisely in the same fashion. Once again we see that because the reaction is based on a depressive dynamic, the intent is to preserve the existing situation; were it not so based, there would be far more hope that it could eventuate in the real action and change that depression is a defense against.
In conclusion, let me say that it was most unfortunate that Fairbairn accepted the metapsychological assumptions that placed depression in a competing role with the fundamental schizoid mechanisms that he came to understand as underlying all psychopathology. It resulted in depression being viewed by him as separate from his basic explanatory paradigm of object-seeking and active attachment and thereby deprived us of what he might have contributed directly to our understanding of depression in this light.
I have attempted here to develop a theory of depression based on Fairbairn’s general approach to psychic functioning. It is a theory that sees depression as a reaction against the awareness of loss or change. In this view, depression works at all times to maintain the closed system of the inner world, protecting the attachments therein at all costs. While, as Fairbairn demonstrated, the structure of this inner world is created and maintained by a process of ego splitting and repression, depression functions to insulate the closed world that was thus created from the loss and change that is a part of lived experience in the external world. Depression attacks a person’s sense of vitality, efficacy, and even will to live in order to enforce a sense of stasis and a feeling of inertia designed to reassure one that the inner world need not change because it feels like it cannot change.
Just as Fairbairn’s basic theory has enabled us to work directly with the active attachments that underlie other forms of psychopathology, so too does this Fairbairnian view of depression allow us to work with depression as it represents an active attempt to defend these attachments. Therein lies the tremendous power of this understanding as a clinical tool: it provides a way to penetrate beneath the defensive mechanism of depression to the neurotic closed systems that it defends. If depression is understood as the denial of loss in order to maintain the integrity of a closed system, it loses its ability to resist the process of opening up such systems. If the self-denigration and self-punishment of depression are seen as mechanisms designed to protect the relationships with bad internal objects, they cease to obscure the process of confronting the true nature of these attachments. If the helplessness, hopelessness, and powerlessness of the depressed person are recognized as attacks on that person’s positive capacity for growth at just those moments when growth is a possibility, it makes it less likely that they will succeed in undermining that process.
Such an understanding of depression is also in accordance with the more phenomenological realities of this clinical entity, for it explains how it can exist at every level of development and within any character style. I think it is an understanding Fairbairn would have liked.
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