One of the most fascinating areas of psychology is personality psychology. Psychologists have debated for years about exactly what defines a person’s personality. In particular, volumes of research have been written on the so called “trait” terms that we label ourselves and each other with.
For example, if I were to say that I’m “assertive” and “self-confident” or that I’m “shy” and “withdrawn”, I would be using trait terms. We all use these terms, and many others, constantly. And we think we know what they mean. It’s a problem, though, when we try to match up specific behaviors with specific trait terms. The association is usually pretty low. For instance, exactly what behaviors is the word “shy” supposed to describe? Well, no two individuals seem to agree. In this case, as in others, the real value of the trait term is questionable.
One of the interesting outcomes of my depression research is that individuals actually seem to define themselves - in effect, to define their personalities - not through “trait” terms, but through their personal interests.
Most significantly, our personal interests seem to be areas that we perceive as our “strengths”, as our “power”, as our control over our environment; in other words, as our ability to “dominate”.
Simply, our personal interests represent those behaviors in which we can safely and “humanely” exercise dominance, and by doing so, feel free from threat - most importantly, the threat of negative inner dialogues. We all have at least one thing we are very good at or know a lot about. This then becomes a means through which we can exercise a positive kind of strength, a positive kind of dominance.
Apparently, however, those of us who have more of these areas of confidence - in other words, more personal interests - are also more resistant to the sorts of negative inner dialogues that trigger the submission response. Why?
Because the flip side of the submission response, the dominance response, is being triggered instead.
Let’s briefly look at these six areas of personal interests.
The first is objects. Human beings define themselves very strongly through the objects they possess. Most of us have family mementos or prized possessions that mean a lot to us. These objects can be automobiles, homes, a book collection, a computer, a CD collection….the list is truly endless. The point is, most of us have objects that we value, that we spend time looking at, touching, or thinking about. And ordinarily these objects are of such interest to us, that we know a lot about them and are interested in learning more about them.
Second is activities. These are the things we like to do: swim, ski, read, watch TV, pursue a hobby, build something, create something, cook, or be with friends. Activities play a very important role in the way we define ourselves. In fact, when most people think about personal interests, they are primarily thinking about activities.
Third is places. We all have places that mean a lot to us, such as our home, or even a particular room. Maybe it’s a city, or a neighborhood, or a particularly interesting building. For a lot of the young persons I’ve surveyed, it might be a place where they like to be with their friends.
Fourth is people. Most of us know one or more individuals who mean a lot to us, most often friends or family members. People we’ve never even met can also mean a lot to us, such as well known persons in history, or sports, or entertainment.
Fifth is skills. This is an area in which a feeling of dominance can be very strong. Skills essentially includes anything we’re really good at or know a lot about.
Someone might know a lot about history, or be a great skier, or be an outstanding chef, or a great auto mechanic, or know a lot about music. The development of skills, taking pride in these skills, and actively pursuing these skills, is crucial, my research shows over and over, in helping to avoid the triggering of the submission response.
Finally, sixth is beliefs. Personal beliefs were very important to the persons I surveyed. Beliefs can involve either a religious or philosophical framework, depending on one’s perspective.
Not surprisingly, most of us with severe depression simply do not have interests in each of these six categories - especially interests that they actively pursue. I am well aware that when we are undergoing a severe depression, there is a tendency to become extremely passive. The feeling of depression is so agonizing, that the last thing most of us care to do, or care to think about, is pursuing an interest. In fact, the opposite usually occurs. Ironically, feeling depressed and thinking about our depression can become our most consuming personal interest.
It is often said that overcoming depression is a matter of will power. For me, this is meaningless. We can’t just say: “I’m going to decide, here and now, not to be depressed anymore.” Any depressed person can tell you that if it were just a matter of will power, there would be no such thing as severe depression. Because nobody has the will to get rid of his or her depression more than a depression victim. But a workable strategy is required to make this happen. The “will power” takes care of itself.