About 5.7 million American adults experience the particularly burdensome affliction known as bipolar disorder. Psychiatric experts are uncertain as to its origins, yet depth psychology does have a theory to explain one possible cause.
Depth psychology is usually not effective for people with schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders. Yet people with bipolar disorder, while they sometimes have psychotic breaks, usually return to a fully functional state between episodes. At such times these individuals can strengthen themselves and become more stable by learning self-knowledge that pertains to their affliction. Researchers pursuing medical and neuroscience investigations of bipolar disorder can also sharpen their science by considering the influence of these psychological dynamics.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy, in combination with medications, is known to help bipolar sufferers cope with their affliction. This therapy is advice-oriented, while depth psychology tries to uncover the influences of inner conflict and help to resolve that conflict. Understanding the deeper psychological factors in bipolar disorder can help sufferers because the knowledge, when absorbed, enhances the individual’s intelligence and strengthens self-regulation.
Psychoanalysis has identified a condition in the human psyche that it calls inner passivity. This passivity can be understood as the lingering effect of infantile helplessness. All of us, not just people with bipolar disorder, are to some degree influenced by it. The condition causes adults to cling to an emotional-mental identification involving self-doubt and helplessness. This passivity is attributable, as well, to the many childhood years that we all spend experiencing ourselves as dependent and subordinate. In adults, this passivity still lingers in our psyche (unconscious mind) where it occupies a kind of no-man’s land that has not been claimed or even recognized by our intelligence or consciousness.
Inner passivity describes the internal mental-emotional position that people most often represent in the psychological conflict between inner aggression (as represented by the inner critic or superego) and inner passivity (as represented by the unconscious or subordinate ego). This unconscious part of our ego battles ineffectively and defensively on a daily basis against our harsh superego or inner critic. The inner situation compares to a courtroom drama where we face an aggressive cunning prosecutor (inner critic) while being represented by a weak inept defense lawyer (inner passivity). The existence in our psyche of this primal conflict between aggression and passivity has never been proven or disproven scientifically. Yet, as experiential knowledge, it has largely been ignored as mainstream psychology abandoned what was deemed unscientific. (See, “Finding Inner Longitude.”)
This primal clash in our psyche between aggression and passivity may be a factor in bipolar disorder. To explore this idea, we can start by looking at bipolar disorder’s symptoms. (It’s not necessary here to distinguish among bipolar I disorder, bipolar II disorder, and the other subsets of the disorder because they share essential similarities at the level of the unconscious mind.) Bipolar disorder features mood swings between a manic phase and a depressive phase. According to the depth-psychology model presented here, the manic phase—in its display of pseudo-power, hyper-activity, and inappropriate aggression—is an unconscious reaction to inner passivity. This reaction also serves as a psychological defense against one’s recognition of the deep emotional identification or resonance with inner passivity. Other common symptoms of inner passivity include self-doubt, indecision, fear, and feelings of being overwhelmed.
Naturally, the bipolar individual is unable to physically sustain the huge output of energy required to maintain the manic phase. He or she soon collapses back into passivity, as represented by the depressive phase. Here the individual, now even more emotionally entangled in the passive side of the inner conflict, is swallowed up in an emotional swamp, an inner no-man’s land where he or she is unable to muster enough strength, energy, power, or vision to thrive or flourish in a healthy way.
Again, let’s look at some symptoms to illustrate how, in the bipolar-sufferer, passivity and aggression appear to play off one another in a way that is painful and self-defeating. Let’s first look at the symptoms from the manic phase, since this phase is itself a reaction to (and defense against recognition of) the deep identification and emotional resonance with inner passivity. Individuals in the manic phase can feel heightened self-esteem or grandiosity, a decreased need for sleep, loquaciousness, excited hopefulness, racing thoughts and surges of creativity, purpose and drive, and aggression. All of these symptoms, in being so fleeting, exhausting, and illusory, fail the test of being true aggression and power. Yet illusion and manic pleasure, though third-rate gratifications, are sufficient to serve, at least on a temporary basis, as defenses that cover up the underlying passivity. (People are almost always in denial of inner passivity and defend vigorously against recognition of it.)
On the depressive side of the conflict, the individual experiences a significant loss of energy, diminished ability to think or concentrate, indecisiveness, depressed moods (feeling sad, empty, hopeless, or suicidal), boredom, and insomnia. All of these symptoms show evidence that the individual has collapsed back into the passive side of the inner conflict, the original default position.
Consider the actions and words of a boy, James (diagnosed with bipolar disorder), who is reading aloud a story and speaking to his mother. Note the rapid swings here between his mania, as expressed aggressively, and passivity:
When his mother asked a question, the roil of frustration that nearly always seethes just under James’s surface, even when he is happy, sloshed over. . . “If you listened on the first page, it says it!” he scolded her, then collapsed hopelessly beside the coffee table. “You don’t get anything. Now I lost my place. Forget it. I give up.” He crossed his arms on the table and rested his head in them. Mary [his mother] waited quietly in her chair. Sure enough, a minute or two later James began reading us a list he had concocted of 50 ways to get rich. The next time his mother spoke, he bellowed: “I wasn’t talking to you! I’m not reading it now!” He threw the paper down and stalked out of the room.
It’s quite possible that bipolar disorder is a depiction or representation of the irrational part of the infantile mind. A primitive dimension of the infantile mind reverberates with the intense contradiction between the reality of being profoundly helpless and the illusion, induced through megalomania, of being all-powerful. (Read, “A Chaos Theory of the Mind.”) The bipolar individual may be expressing, as an unresolved conflict, this infantile aspect.
It’s very important to understand how the aggressive or manic side of the conflict serves as a psychological defense. As mentioned, the manic side is both a symptom of inner passivity as well as a defense that covers up realization or acknowledgement of this passivity. The rules of our psyche call for us to cover up (or defend against recognition of) the ways that we can be deeply identified with the passive side of the inner conflict. So the bipolar individual produces a defense to cover up his or her emotional affinity for this passive, negative side. In a typical example, the unconscious defense takes this position: “I’m not indulging in feeling powerless or helpless, or identifying with myself through those feelings. Look at how much pleasure (mania) I have when I’m energized and feeling powerful. That proves I don’t want to feel weak.” This claim of the defense, of course, is false: The individual is determined to continue to experience the unresolved passivity because it has become an emotional attachment, or an emotional default position in the psyche, or a major ingredient in one’s self-identification.
Our defenses are unstable. They often have to become more extreme or self-damaging in order to maintain their effectiveness. In the case of bipolar disorder, this can lead to psychotic episodes when the individual “ratchets up” the illusion of having power. A psychotic break can be associated with an illusion of “transcendence,” or a flood of megalomania or omnipotence, whereby one has the impression of having escaped the bounds of human limitations to become god-like.
Some people do recover from this psychological affliction through conventional treatments which include drugs, therapy sessions, and support groups. Yet, as my clinical experience attests, they can recover more quickly and also go on to become emotionally stronger than ever when they understand the nature of their affliction in terms of inner passivity.