A boulder sits atop me, pressing down so that each breath is labored, the weight crushing. At least, that’s what it feels like as depression deepens its hold. My mind is a maelstrom, dark thoughts rapidly swirling and worsening. Each thought, uninvited and unwanted, forces its way in, darker and more destructive than the last. Worst of all, is that it is unending. The darkness that pervades my mind has been there for as long as I can remember and seems as if it will always be there. A dark companion to join me through all my days.
Yet, the world lightens, the boulder is lifted, and I feel wonderful and free. The world has become bright and full of hope, whereas just hours before the darkness seemed endless.
This is how it always goes.
A wave of depression will hit and, while I am depressed, I can’t remember ever feeling anything else. I may sometimes cognitively know that I am not always this depressed but it doesn’t click in my mind. It seems like yet another lie of my desperate mind. The depression is so consuming and pervasive that all of my thoughts and memories are tainted. I look back and all I can see is depression. Looking forward is bleak and hopeless.
While I’m in this state, my husband will try to help me through it. He’ll remind me that it isn’t always this bad. Sometimes I can acknowledge that I’m not always super depressed but I see it as being not depressed maybe five percent of the time and crushingly depressed 95% of the time. He always looks at me baffled, because, apparently, my crushing, awful depression only eats up 10-15% of my time. This has left me bewildered, unable to understand how my perception of these things is so far off.
Then I came across the concept of emotional permanence.
Most of us are familiar with the concept of object permanence (objects continue to exist even when not observed). We often note the lack of object permanence in infants and how it will affect their reactions to things. Emotional permanence is a similar concept applied to emotions.
Emotional permanence is the ability to understand that emotions continue to exist even when they cannot be observed. This can take on many forms.
A lack of emotional permanence (EP) can have a strong effect on interpersonal relationships, as is often seen in those with borderline personality disorder. For example, when the partner of a person who lacks EP expresses anger or frustration over something, the person lacking EP may quickly become very distraught because they are unable to reconcile that their partner can both love them and be angry with them simultaneously. Once love is not actively being shown, it effectively ceases to exist in the mind of someone lacking EP.
For example, my husband and I will be relaxing together and something will lead me to suspect he’s mad at me so I’ll ask him. He’ll assure me that no, he’s not mad at me he’s just in pain etc. I’ll be fine for a few minutes, reassured that he’s not mad at me. However, the longer we sit there not speaking, or him speaking with a tone in his voice that sounds like something is wrong, that reassurance fades away until I can’t feel it and can barely remember it. So I ask again. This continues again and again, often until he is actually peeved with me for being asked so many times. It’s not that I don’t believe him when he assures me that he’s not mad, but that I can’t hold onto that. If the trigger that led me to think he was mad (flat voice, facial expression, etc) continues without consistent reassurances that he’s not upset with me, then I struggle to hold onto the reassurance.
A deficit of emotional permanence can also affect a person’s internal experience of emotions separate from the reactions of others. This is where my lack of emotional permanence most affects me. When I am not actively experiencing an emotion, it is as if I have never felt that emotion.
For instance, when I am happy, I know cognitively that I have been depressed many times and can list off what I experience during those times due to a great deal of analysis of my depression over the years, but that’s it. All I have are the words to somewhat describe the feeling. Even still, my words are often more based off of outward symptoms and vague analogies and an accurate representation of the feeling. The words feel hollow to me, as if I were describing someone else’s experiences rather than my own.
When I am depressed, this becomes all the more magnified. While depressed (or angry or any other negative emotion), my ability to cognitively acknowledge other emotions significantly diminishes. Not only can I not recall the feeling of other emotions, but I struggle to even remember that I ever felt anything else. Even if I was happy earlier in the day, things warp within my mind to seem as though I have always and will always be depressed. This tends to worsen the depressed state which in turn makes it more difficult for me to acknowledge other emotions leading to a worsening spiral of awfulness.
Because struggles with emotional permanence are difficult to pinpoint from an outside perspective and those of us who struggle with it are often unaware that that is what is going on, there are very few resources related this concept. Aside from the reassurance that comes with understanding my own mind, I haven’t been able to figure out much in the way of coping skills thus far. I’m thinking a mood journal would have the potential to be useful as it would show that the emotion I am currently feeling isn’t the only thing I have ever felt. However, my executive dysfunction makes maintaining something like that very challenging so I’m not sure how well I could keep up with it.
Do you have a lack of emotional permanence? Any ideas for coping with the challenges it brings? Chime in below in the comments.