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Tomkins Topics

Tomkins' theories applied to various aspects of life and work

The Depressive Posture

Excerpt from:
Emotional Rescue: Shame and the Depressive Posture in George Eliot
by Joseph Adamson, McMaster University, June 29, 2009

Vulnerability to both shame and the longing for approval and love is the core of what Silvan Tomkins has called the “depressive posture,” one that is found frequently among certain types of highly creative personalities. As Tomkins describes the depressive’s relationship to the other, as first formed in the parent-child dyad, the parent shows great affection and love to the child but also alternately distances her with shame, anger, and contempt when she is perceived as offending or falling short, thus creating a strong corrective identification with the parent. Thus arises a magnified greed for both love and respect, in which the latter become fatefully tied to achievement. The depressive, as Tomkins writes, “will work hard and long to keep the loving eyes of the other on himself.” However, for this very reason, the intense wish for achievement, almost by necessity, is frequently breached by the intolerable spectre of failure and depression, “the terror,” in Tomkins’s words, “of evoking contempt rather than love and respect, and so being plunged into hopeless depression” (AIC III: 322, 330).

Affect and Script

Tomkins’s theory of affect is, as he describes it, a bio-psycho-social theory. It starts with a view of the affect system as a set of innate programs activated by neural stimulation and working in tandem with other systems within the human organism. These programs are transformed by learning and therefore subject almost from birth to complex interpersonal and social determinants as well as to the contingencies of individual response. Tomkins elaborates a quasi-dramaturgical model of personality to describe these complex transformations. As he sees it, the individual is involved, from childhood on, in the open-ended creation of her own personality as she tests out and chooses the myriad scripts by which she responds to her environment. Scripts are essentially improvised rules for predicting, interpreting, and responding to specific types or families of affect-laden scenes. These strategies are compressed and stored in memory in a habitual or skilled way, and are experienced as unconscious for this very reason; at the same time, scripts are open-ended and progressive in their development, and are capable of significant change over time. Fundamental to script theory is the recognition that human beings themselves think and act according to theories, sets of hypotheses and corresponding schemes about how best to respond to exemplary scenes, scenes which are significant and memorable precisely because they are infused with dense affect, positive and negative. “Through scripts,” Tomkins writes, “a human being experiences the world in organized scenes, some close to, some remote from, the heart’s desire. He does not live to think or to feel but to optimize the world as he experiences it from scene to scene” (AIC 4:9).

The Depressive Posture

The depressive posture, as Tomkins understands it, is a variety of nuclear script developed as a response to magnified scenes of shame and distress. Nuclear scripts, the core or nucleus of an individual’s personality, are devoted to the solving of problematic nuclear scenes, scenes “which are conjointly believed necessary to solve but are nonetheless insoluble” (Exploring Affect 376) and which therefore affect the individual in a particularly compelling way: “A nuclear scene is one or several scenes in which a very good scene turns very bad. A nuclear script is one which attempts to reverse the nuclear scene, to turn the very bad scene into the very good scene again. It succeeds only partially and temporarily, followed invariably by an apparent replay of the nuclear scene in which the good scene again turns bad” (p. 376). Such good scenes—for example, the prospect of victory over painful scenes of sibling rivalry—inevitably become idealized scenes, irresistibly seductive and yet impossible to fulfill. Thus they come to “matter more than anything else, and they never stop seizing the individual. They are the good scenes we can never totally or permanently achieve or possess” (AIC 3:96). Tomkins uses as an illustration the classic triangular scene (either due to the arrival of a sibling or the presence of the father) in the family romance. The male child who loves his mother excessively can neither totally possess her (given an unwanted rival) nor totally renounce her. He is often destined, however, to keep trying and, characteristically, to keep failing. Why does he not learn then that he would be happier to make his peace with both his mother and with his rival? Many human beings do just this, but to the extent to which the male child can neither possess nor renounce, he remains a perpetual victim. (AIC 3:96)

Shame and Distress

In the depressive posture or nuclear script the two most important magnified affects are shame and distress. Shame is unique as a negative affect because it lends itself to repairing the damage done to the good scene of communion or interest. Only occurring in the context of positive affect, activated by and magnifying any temporary impediment to interest or enjoyment, shame leaves the individual torn between the wish to remove herself from the object of interest or communion and the equally powerful wish to return to it. Thus the depressive, Tomkins argues, is implicitly oriented towards the other, even when protectively hiding and isolating herself out of shame, for the underlying wish remains, ultimately, to recover the good scene of joy and excitement: to enjoy and be excited by others and for them to enjoy and be excited by oneself. Such a posture, he postulates, is the outcome of a socialization which is both loving and controlling or demanding. As Tomkins describes the depressive’s relationship to the other, as first formed in the parent-child dyad, the parent shows great affection and love to the child but also alternately distances her with shame, anger, and contempt when she is perceived as offending or falling short, thus creating a strong corrective identification with the parent. There consequently arises a greed, a magnified wish for both love and respect, in which love and respect becomes fatefully tied to achievement, and the wish for both must be satisfied: love without respect, respect without love, neither is enough to sustain the depressive on its own.

Shame arises only in the context of a strong bond with the other. You cannot be ashamed, per se, unless you find the other exciting or enjoyable in some way, and you wish to maintain that bond . . . if you see a face where shame is dominant, one thing you may be sure of is that it is a positively-oriented human being, either one given to much love or much excitement. The shame response tells you that for the time being there has been an experienced impediment to that affluence. Thus the damage-reparative scripts map extraordinarily well to the dynamic structure of shame as I understand that affect to be. So if you have a script which speaks of a return to a promised land, as was true for Marx, and as is true in nuclear reparative scripts based upon sibling rivalry, then you know that bond, which was damaged by shame, is always believed to be reparable and recoverable. That is a very optimistic view of the human scene. (Exploring Affect 392-93)

Paradise and Exile

When a child has been intensely loved, she feels all the more shame and distress when she incurs the parent’s anger or contempt and is criticized or distanced. For the depressive, there is exile but also the prospect of paradise, the irresistible seduction of love and respect regained. As Tomkins suggestively puts it, the child is not banished from the garden, but “driven into that corner in the Garden of Eden which is hell in heaven” (AIC 3:322). Contrary to the psychoanalytic insistence on the link between depression and orality, Tomkins insists that what the depressive aims at is not oral gratification but a maximizing of “the twin affects of excitement and enjoyment simultaneously in others and in himself and in minimizing the anguish and humiliation and the attenuation of all effort which occurs when the positive communion is ruptured” (AIC 3:322). The child experiences the rejection and distancing of the parent’s criticism and contempt as an intolerable state of exile, and thus craves the intense positive affect that is recovered when the parental face again shines upon the self.

Depressives beget depressives

As an adult the depressive often finds himself relating to his own child or to others in the way he himself was socialized: “So is forged the depressive dyad in which there is great reward punctuated by severe depression. The depressive creates other depressives by repeating the relationship which created his own character” (AIC 3:325). As a grownup he now seeks to win love and respect, either like the depressive child, by doing something that keeps the rapt eyes of others on him, or, like a depressive parent, by exercising control of others and showing concern for them and their success or failure. Not surprisingly, then, depressives predominate among particular types of creative people, “such as the great actors, the great educators, the great jurists, the great statesmen, the great writers, in short, among all those who are concerned conjointly with man, with control of man, and with excellence in goodness or in achievement which excites man” (AIC 3:325). A relationship with the depressive, which is never an easy one:

The depressive, like his parent before him, is not altogether a comfortable person for others with whom he interacts. As a friend or parent or lover or educator he is somewhat labile between his affirmations of intimacy and his controlling, judging, and censuring of others. His warmth and genuine concern for the welfare of others seduces them into an easy intimacy which may then be painfully ruptured when the depressive readily finds fault with the other. The other is now too deeply committed and too impressed with the depressive’s sincerity to disregard the disappointment and censure from the other and is thereby seduced further into attempting to make restitution, to atone, and to please the other. (AIC 3:325)

This combination of disapproval and love defines the depressive dyad, in which, as Tomkins observes, “there is great reward punctuated by severe depression. The depressive exerts a great influence on the lives of all he touches because he combines great reward with great punishment, which ultimately heightens the intensity of the affective rewards he offers others.” (AIC 3:325)