Introjection is a psychological process—sometimes used defensively—that is commonly seen in depression in which a person unconsciously takes external threats and ascribes them to internal processes. As a result, even when pain is the result of some external force, it is assumed to be coming from within. Therefore, people who are depressed often experience external negativity and attribute it to internal factors, to themselves; they often feel that they are bad, morally reprehensible, hopelessly flawed, and defective. Many people who are depressed often feel unworthy of the love they seek and deserving of the punishments and rejections they receive. They often view themselves negatively and will take responsibility for negative things that happen, regardless of whether or not they are to blame.
In Mourning and Melancholia, Freud (1917) describes depression as unmetabolized mourning; it is grief over a loss that has not been processed, which results in a cycle of depressive symptoms. Rather than acknowledging that the lost object is gone and withdrawing his libidinal investments, a melancholic person will psychologically maintain the lost object’s existence by introjecting it and attributing its negative qualities to his own ego (Freud, 1917). For example, if a woman gets angry with her romantic partner and threatens to leave him, the anger that is directed at him and the loss that will be incurred if she leaves pose a serious threat. Rather than accept this loss or respond to her hostile accusations with his own destructive rage, he may instead direct his feelings of anger, hurt, sadness, and disappointment inward; it is not his partner whom he hates but himself. It is not she who has let him down but his own failings.
These self-deprecating remarks are often heard in the lamentations of depressed people who take on all of the flaws of those whom they desire and love but cannot have. McWilliams (1994) describes this incorporation of the lost other and the suppression of anger in terms of adaptive defenses. The loss of a love object, whether it is a primary caregiver or any other meaningful relationship, is often interpreted as abandonment. In order to maintain hope, a person who is depressed often takes in all the negative attributes of the other, leaving an idealized image of the lost object. Although it seems counterintuitive, this is actually adaptive in several ways.
First, it prevents having to come to terms with a reality in which the love object is actually harsh and malevolent. Therefore, the idealized relationship is still attainable. Second, by ascribing all of the negative attributes to the self, the person who is depressed gains control. The lost object was justified in his or her rejection, so if the individual can just be better, he or she can once again become worthy of the other’s affections. The decision was rational and the result of calculable, predictable factors rather than the chaos of whimsy or fickle changes of heart. If an external attribution were made as the basis of the rejection, the individual would lose all hope of regaining control of the lost object’s perceptions and feelings, because no amount of internal change will alter their rejection. In this way introjection is adaptive and serves a selfreinforcing function of maintaining depression.
This tendency to idealize is not limited to lost objects. When people view themselves in such a relentlessly critical manner their inadequacies are magnified, and they inevitably fall short of their rigid standards, especially in comparison with others.
Because their self-esteem has been reduced in response to their experiences, the admiration with which they view others is correspondingly increased. Self- perpetuating cycles of holding others in excessively high regard, then feeling diminished in comparison, then seeking idealized objects to compensate for the diminution, feeling inferior to those objects, and so on, are typical for depressive people. (McWilliams, 1994, p. 233)
Ironically enough, in this way introjection preserves a sense of safety and faith in the world at the individual’s expense; as Freud (1917) says, “in mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia, it is the ego itself’ (p. 246). However, this can be quite damaging because it utilizes splitting, which dichotomizes people and things into parts; they are good or bad, perfect or hopelessly flawed, idealized or unacceptable, one to be admired and pursued—but never attained—or one to be rejected and deprecated for their sinfulness, with the depressed individual always falling into the negative category. This process contributes to the extreme guilt and negative feelings felt by some who are depressed. They are often hyperaware of every flaw, mistake, and shortcoming they possess, so much so that their perceptions are skewed toward this exaggerated perspective of themselves. Conversely, they may view others as superior to themselves and overlook any indications of flaws so as to maintain this overly idealized image, which only reinforces their sense of inadequacy.