Affecting the minds and emotions of others and the development of experiences of self

Let us take a closer look at the social relationship regulators of PA and NA and how these are related to the development of self-schema. Evolutionary theorists point out that much of our social behaviour is designed to affect the minds of others and particularly their feelings towards us. Gilbert (1989, 1997, 2001b; Gilbert & McGuire, 1998) suggested that internal models of self-worth are (in part) built up from experiences of successfully stimulating positive emotions in the minds of others. This process begins early in life, perhaps even from the first facial communications between infant and parent. For example, a mother's smile can induce a smile in the infant. Not only does the mother's smile activate PA in the infant, but also the infant's response involves the activation of various neural pathways of affect and psychomotor movement to produce the smile (Schore, 1994,2001). In effect, the parent is stimulating and coordinating the maturation of various neuropathways and, in so doing, is sensitising certain types of PA- and NA-linked behavioural strategies in the child.

There is little doubt we have evolved to be highly sensitive and to respond with PA to the affection and approval of parents and peers (MacDonald, 1988). We do not (in the first instance) learn to respond to such signals with PA but are biologically set up to do so, and these early automatic responses become the sources for later self-schema (Greenberg & Pascual, 1997). But note that how a child is able to create PA and NA in a parent will feed back into internalised PA and NA about the self. Imagine Jane, a 3-year-old, drawing a picture, and then proudly holding it up for Mum's approval and admiration. Mum responds by kneeling down and saying, 'Wow—that's wonderful. What a clever girl.' Now, in this encounter, Jane not only experiences her mother as proud of her (she has generated PA in her mother), but also has emotions in herself about herself—she feels good about herself. PAs become associated with confident display and self-expression (in this case, a drawing). The triggering of PA in the self from having stimulated the positive emotions in others can then build into positive schema of the self: 'I am someone others like; therefore, I am likable.'

Suppose, however, Mum responds with, 'Oh no, not another of those drawings. They're all over the house, making a mess.' Clearly, Jane has failed to generate positive emotions in her mother but has instead inspired NA and is then unlikely to have good feelings about herself. Her head may drop, and she moves away, possibly in a state of disappointment and shame (Gilbert, 1998a). If such experiences are frequently repeated, internal models of the self will be linked to a history of failures in eliciting positive feelings in others (and/or generating negative feelings) and shame in the self. Such emotional experiences will then regulate the development of self-other schema and the organisation of PA and NA in the self, expectations of being able to elicit positive (valuing) attention from others, and risks of rejection and criticism (put-downs).

To offer another example, if a child experiences physical abuse and fear in interactions with her father, the typical way she automatically behaves around him may be with anxiety and submission-avoidance. From these patterns of activation, she may develop conditioned defensive responses to 'men in authority'. Thus, when dealing with 'men in authority', her stress-defence system is primed with biases in information processing (sensitivity to any threat signal from certain men) and a readiness to behave defensively with anxiety, submission inhibition, or avoidance. At this point, no high-level cognitive schema are necessary, and associative learning, based on repeated threat ^ evolved defensive behaviour activation (such as fearful submission), is sufficient to explain the behaviour (Gilbert, 1992). However, as she becomes able to observe and make sense of her own reactions (fear of men in authority and poor assertive behaviour) and the (social/cultural) implications of being abused, she may develop (reinforce) notions of herself as (say) submissive and weak or bad. Her schema developed from experiences of being threatened and frightened, as she had to take (evolved) defensive actions (submit) even before she could articulate a sense of a self as 'weak or bad'. In other words, we can develop a schema of being weak, lovable, etc., by how we have in the past (and recently) automatically felt and behaved in certain situations.

In this example, it is not that people develop a schema of 'self as weak' and then behave submissively, but, rather, they first behave submissively (automatic triggering of a fear-submissive responses) and then gradually articulate these automatic reactions into self-schema. This is to ask, what does it mean to be a person who feels and acts like this or has had these experiences of abuse? These meaning systems can be superimposed on more basic strategies. So, for both PA and NA, schema generated in interpersonal contexts (failure to elicit PA in others and/or having to respond from an early age to threats, criticism, and abuse) can be as much explanations of why we behave as we do, as causes.

In terms of schema development, as noted above, subordinate positions are not necessarily anxious positions if one sees more powerful or dominant others as helpful and benevolent.

Indeed, for such individuals, one might accentuate approach behaviours. Therefore, what various forms of abuse can do is to develop schema of more powerful-dominant others (and one's parent is always more powerful in the first instance) as hostile, exploitative, or unhelpful. As Liotti (2000) discusses, there may be intense ambivalence that produces approach avoidance conflicts with parental figures. These experiences, then, are 'system setters' that set up ourpsychobiological systems with the potential for making discontinuous jumps into defensive strategies.

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