“I drink and eat in moderation,” a client told me. “I go to bed at a reasonable hour. I love my wife and kids. The only thing I binge on is irritability and restlessness. I’m a bundle of blue moods.”
His blue moods, as he described them, were not agonizingly painful, yet he was weary of them and fed up with “the heaviness that rises and falls throughout my day.” Rarely did he experience a day completely free of the malady. It didn’t feel like depression, he said, but rather more like an intermittent gloominess, underlying angst, or, at worst, bouts of anxious distress.
Fortunately, his affliction didn’t qualify as a disruptive mood dysregulation disorder. This psychiatric term describes a condition in which a person has angry outbursts that occur, on average, three or more times a week, involving verbal rages and physical aggression. Rather, his moodiness indicates a less serious condition called generalized anxiety disorder. This disorder involves frequent experiences of three or more of the following symptoms: irritability, restlessness, muscle tension, sleep disturbances, tiredness, excessive worry, and difficulty concentrating or mind going blank.
In its diagnostic manual, American psychiatry doesn’t offer much in the way of an explanation for why and how a person develops or acquires this persistent moodiness. The manual does say in passing, however, that the disorder has been associated with “negative affectivity (neuroticism).” The depth psychology to which I subscribe attributes persistent moodiness to neurosis and explains how it arises.
All neurotics are subject to pronounced moodiness. Their psyche is an inner battleground between self-aggression (from the inner critic or superego) and inner passivity (located in the unconscious or subordinate ego). Moodiness is just one of many symptoms of this inner conflict.
In our psyche, the unconscious ego (the seat of inner passivity) tries to deflect the self-aggression that emanates from the superego, but it does so ineffectively and often with compromises that shortchange the individual. Due to the unconscious ego’s weakness, the individual absorbs a great deal of the superego’s negative aggression. As a result, the individual experiences moodiness, anxiety, fear, distrust, and depression, along with other symptoms.
I say more about how moodiness arises, but first I want to discuss the idea that much of our inner conflict involves a dynamic interplay between self-aggression and inner passivity. We can see evidence of this inner conflict in current events and world history. In large part, history tells the story of how individuals, groups, and nations have initiated aggression and how others have defended against it, either defeating it or surrendering to it. Passivity invites aggression, whether from bullies in the playground or from unevolved government and business leaders.
This dynamic between aggression and passivity starts in our psyche and spreads out onto the playing fields of family life, community, culture, politics, economics, and international relations. Inner conflict in the psyche is shifted or transposed into social and political relationships, creating much of the world’s disharmony. Yet many people can’t see this obvious correlation between inner disharmony and social disharmony because they refuse unconsciously to see themselves objectively.
When individuals are neurotic, they can’t reconcile these two polarities—aggression vs. passivity—in their psyche. They often feel they have no choice but to be stuck in unwanted passivity or to be inappropriately aggressive. Unable to reconcile inner conflict, they become entangled emotionally in clashing aggressive and passive perspectives concerning the world and their place in it.
For example, it has been found that the supporters of the American presidential candidate Donald Trump are likely to have authoritarian inclinations. This means they’re easily excited and seduced by aggressive posturing, yet such emotionalism is a defense against (or cover-up of) the inner passivity they harbor in their psyche. In other words, passive, neurotic people, when they identify with an aggressive personality or political stance, become emotionally excited and feel empowered. The anger they express covers up their emotional entanglement in the feelings of helplessness and powerlessness that are accentuated in the United States by worsening employment opportunities for many working people. Nonetheless, many are determined to blame others rather than to recognize the contribution of inner passivity and self-sabotage to their economic predicament.
Let’s now return to the discussion of moodiness. As mentioned, it arises, even in mild-to-moderate cases, out of inner conflict between aggression and passivity. Certainly, other factors such as diet and exercise can affect our moods. Still, psychological issues are often involved in a person’s failure to exercise or to eat in a healthy manner.
An excellent explanation for moodiness was written by Edmund Bergler, M.D., a neo-Freudian psychoanalytic psychiatrist, in his book Principles of Self-Damage (Philosophical Library, Inc., New York, 1959, with editions by other publishers in 1974 and 1992). It’s quite remarkable and tragic that this knowledge has been available for more than half a century, yet recent psychological literature is still all over the map—exploring genetics, neuroscience, evolution, cognitive dissonance, cultural influences, social injustice, and toxic parenting—in an effort to understand the problem.
Here’s Bergler’s explanation of the origins of moodiness:
The dominant superego [inner critic] usurps the bulk of the neurotic’s aggressive energy; the superego of the normal individual has a comparatively small store of the individual’s aggression at its disposal. In normality, therefore, the individual retains command of sufficient psychic energy to allow for a vigorous defense against the superego’s torture, and for the external application of this energy to realistic aims and pursuits. The normal person is equipped with a weapon effective in both the inner and the outer battles; unlike the comparatively defenseless neurotic, he can never be routed on both fronts. His margin of safety suffices to keep his moods relatively stable.
The neurotic, however, possesses defensive weapons which never award him more than a partial victory. His disclaimers and alibis may be accepted by the superego on a temporary basis, but they are always being re-examined and rejected. Replacement without delay is essential; the victim desperately searches for a new defense, and then waits in tense anxiety for the superego’s judgment. His unconscious shifts from despair to fury to hope to despair reach the surface in a series of shifting moods. He is fully aware of the instability of his moods, and so is the objective observer.
All moods are surface reverberations of defenses offered to the superego. The frightened unconscious ego repeatedly pleads with the superego: “Will you settle for this alibi [defense]? The standard answer is a flat denial, and a substitute defense must be hastily found. As each new defense is made ready for the crucial test, it is dramatized, thus producing a corresponding mood in consciousness.
Bergler is saying, in other words, that moodiness and ‘the blues’ are rare and intermittent in relatively normal people. Such individuals remain in a state of well-being much of the time. They do so because their unconscious ego is robust enough to keep the inner critic’s aggression at bay. The neurotic individual, however, is too passive on an inner level. This person can’t resist the intrusiveness or bullying nature of the inner critic, and ends up defending himself weakly and ineffectively.
Bergler noted that unstable moodiness differs from clinical depression: The unconscious ego of the moody person is able to put forward defenses that have some staying power, whereas the depressed individual’s unconscious ego is silenced (at least temporarily) and is entirely vulnerable to the superego.
Principles of Self-Damage offers an example of a situation involving moodiness. A man is accused by his inner critic of being passive. Though the accusation is unconscious, the man becomes tense, gloomy, and moody. Soon, he produces an unconscious defense, contending that he’s not passive but adventurous and bold. His moodiness disappears and he suddenly gets up the nerve to phone a woman he recently met, asking for a date. She accepts his invitation to dinner, and he feels elated. He ends the call, still feeling fine. Soon, however, his self-assurance evaporates, and he falls back into gloomy self-doubt.
Both his moodiness and elation have been produced by his unconscious ego as it struggles to deal with his inner critic’s relentless expressions of derision and mockery. The balance of power passes briefly from inner critic (self-aggression) to unconscious ego (inner passivity) and back again, with each change mirrored in his conscious feelings, either excitement and elation when he is able to generate admirable behavior, or gloom and moodiness when he succumbs to his inner critic’s invasiveness.
When people begin to recognize the unwarranted intrusions of their inner critic, and realize how on an inner level they’re passive to their inner critic, they’re on their way to “upgrading the inner software” which programs this old, self-defeating dynamic. This leads to the discovery of one’s authentic self, along with freedom from symptoms such as moodiness.
Moodiness is just one of the scores of symptoms that I describe in my writings. I trace all these painful and self-defeating symptoms back to inner conflict, particularly the conflict between self-aggression and inner passivity. The depth psychology that exposes this inner conflict is, in my opinion, the royal road to self-knowledge, inner freedom, and enlightenment.