Possible Mechanisms of the Development of Depressive Self Schemas

What are the mechanisms by which interpersonal experiences such as a lack of care might lead to depressive cognitive structures? Within the context of having a depressed mother, Goodman and Gotlib (1999) named a variety of factors that may be linked to the development of negative cognitive structures, such as modeling negative cognition and interactions, and exposure to depressive behaviors and affect. Similarly, D. A. Cole et al. (2001) pointed out the relevance of the "looking glass" hypothesis for the development of depressive cognitive structures. Originally proposed by Cooley (1902) and by Mead (1934), the looking glass hypothesis suggests that the view of oneself is constructed by the perceptions of others of the person, and the communication of these perceptions. In the child who is developing a schema of the self, negative experiences like a lack of care and rejection by attachment figures are likely to generate personal themes of derogation and unworthiness that become deeply encoded in self-structures. Also deeply encoded are concepts linked to the experience of disrupted attachment such as representations about the behavior of significant others. In the terminology of attachment theory, these experiences should not only determine the schemas, or working models, of oneself, but should also determine how one is inclined to see others, as well as the expectations of how to interact with others.

Attachment disruptions are almost certainly characterized by the experience of negative affect. It is thus important to note that during critical maturation periods, cognitive structures are not the only neural networks that are developing. The affective structures with which we are all born (see LeDoux, 1996, 2000) are also in the process of becoming more differentiated and developing associations to other structures (see Jordan & Cole, 1996). As these cognitive and affective structures collaterally develop, connections between them almost certainly develop in such a way that negative cognitive self-structures become closely linked to negative affective structures. Negative affect is thus associated with unfavorable conceptions of the self. Hence, the depressive self-schema does not only represent a negative view of the self, but also a connection to negative affective structures.

If attachment disruptions are brief and secure attachment interactions are reestablished, then negative cognitive representations are likely to be limited and more weakly associated with negative affective networks. Alternatively, if the attachment process is more problematic, then such connections between negative self-representations and negative affect should become more extensive and more strongly linked. Thus, if negative emotion-producing events related to the self are numerous, particularly traumatic, or chronic, they will have a correspondingly profound effect on the development of, and connections between, representations of the self and others, and on the experience of negative affective states. The soon-to-be vulnerable to depression person thus develops a schema of the self as unlikable and unlovable that is strongly tied to the experience of negative affect.

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