By Ryan Smith
Hypomania is a personality style characterized by high energy levels, talkativeness and confidence, and a flight of creative ideas. Hypomanics are competitive and tend to have racing thoughts and a scattered approach to their own experiences and emotions. Unlike people who are truly manic, however, hypomanics maintain high levels of functioning. For example, while a manic writer might be so agitated by mania as to leave out words in his writing or speech, a hypomanic person can function at this elevated breakneck tempo without the quality of their work suffering as a result.
Since hypomania often has no obvious downsides, the personality style has been under-reseached. To this day, many psychiatrists do not acknowledge it as a problematic condition, since hypomanics often do well in life. Nonetheless, hypomania does tend to come with some definite downsides if one knows what to look for.
The psychoanalytic conceptualization of hypomania holds that hypomania develops as a response against moroseness, anxiety, and negative emotions. This hypothesis has not been borne out by empirical studies, that is to say, when one tries to find out whether hypomanic people are inwardly depressed or struggling with negative feelings, the reports tend to come up negative. But there is a good reason for this: Hypomania is a structural condition designed to ward off these very feelings.
One way hypomanics do this is by dissociation. Briefly put, dissociation means the dis-engagement of oneself from one’s experiences, both positive and negative. In the hypomanic personality, however, it is especially the dis-engagement from negative experiences that is prevalent. For example, if a hypomanic has been socially rejected or embarrassed himself, he might mentally disown those experiences. Typically the hypomanic will remember these experiences perfectly well; he has simply distanced himself from them in his cognition – it will be as if they happened to another person. Thus hypomanics may be said to be scattered in the cognitive integration of insight and introspection and identity with regards to their prior actions.
Just as hypomanics may disown negative experiences, they may also distort neutral or negatively-tinged experiences into positive ones. For example, the hypomanic may want to think of himself as being close friends with another person. But this other person doesn’t particularly like the hypomanic, so in conversation, the other person keeps the hypomanic at a distance. In most cases, the hypomanic will understand what is going on perfectly well – he is not delusional. But because this experience does not conform to the hypomanic’s positive self-image, he will supress this insight and distort the experience into a positive one. In psychodynamic terminology, this is known as positive cognitive distortions.
The hypomanic sees himself as upbeat and successful and is stimulated by competitiveness. To acknowledge that this other person with whom they wanted to get close actually rejected them would be embarrassing and fly in the face of their positive self-image. Therefore they distort the experience into something that fits better with that self-image. If asked about it, they will typically say that “the two of them had a good conversation,” or something similar, even though deep down, the hypomanic knows that was not really what actually happened. Compensation for these defenses can sometimes be seen in the form of over-consumption of food, drugs or sex. That is, the competitive instinct and positive self-image, which has been dented by negative social experiences, may be re-asserted through achieving success in the form of new sexual partners who confirm to the hypomanic that he is desired, or in the mastery over inanimate objects (such as food and drugs) that are commonly associated with pleasure.
As I said, hypomania is generally regarded as a positive or at least non-negative condition. Being hypomanic also means that a person experiences more happiness and joy in their lives. They can ride the emotional currents of the present moment and elevate these to a higher level of ebullience than is usually the case. Again, their elevated energy, mood and focus on competition mean that hypomanics may often do well in life. The American professor of psychiatry John D. Gartner has conducted a survey of successful American entrepreneurs and found that 100% of them agreed that they had hypomanic traits. That is, they thought fast, talked fast, had lots of scatter-brained ideas, didn’t dwell much on their failures and negative experiences, and were extremely self-confident and competitive. But on the other hand, they also had problems controlling their impulses and sometimes exhibited poor long-term judgment and made enemies without meaning to.
Hypomanics do not set out to make enemies, but simply tend to acquire them through their rash behavior and competitive social style. For this reason, hypomanics may remarkably often feel that the fault lies with the people who don’t like them, and not with anything they themselves did. In their minds, they simply “played the game” of life, and they are prone to regard it as petty and unfair when others hold their impulsive and sometimes inconsiderate actions against them. In short, they have a hard time understanding why other people dwell on such past experiences. As we have seen, one reason for this is that they themselves dissociate quickly and move on. “It’s in the past now – why worry about it?”