Depression and paranoia are two pervasive clinical problems that may cause serious suffering and deeply interfere with one's well being and quality of life. However, evolutionary models propose that these two conditions have underlying adaptative functions and should be understood within the dynamics of social ranking (Gilbert, 1992, 2001; Sloman, Gilbert, & Hasey, 2003). According to this approach, depression corresponds to an involuntary defeat strategy that may arise from loss or reductions in one's perceived ability to compete for social place (e.g., being rejected by a lover or for a job, feeling inferior to others because of personal qualities), i.e., perceptions of inferior social rank. So, defeat captures a sense of failed struggle, of being in an involuntary subordinate position, which links to feelings of helplessness, powerlessness and entrapment (Gilbert, 1992; Price, Sloman, Gardner, Gilbert, & Rohde, 1994; Sloman et al., 2003).
Fears related to in-group social rank where dominants can threaten and injure subordinates may give rise to paranoid fears. The evolutionary role of paranoia is then associated to its usefulness to detect threats to the self from potentially harmful others using the ‘better safe than sorry’ conditional rule (Freeman, 2007; Freeman, Garety, Kuipers, Fowler, & Bebbington, 2002; Freeman et al., 2005; Gilbert, 1998a, 2001; Gilbert, Boxall, Cheung, & Irons, 2005; Salvatore et al., 2011). Paranoid individuals tend to believe others hold negative intentions towards them and want to harm them, being generally suspicious and distrusting of others, what then leads to interpersonal difficulties.
Vulnerabilities to depressive and paranoid states may be linked to adverse experiences early in life, namely shame events, humiliating defeats and/or entrapping bullying experiences (Gilbert & Allan, 1998; Matos & Pinto-Gouveia, 2010; Matos, Pinto-Gouveia, & Martins, 2011).
Early interactions with caregivers, siblings and peers affect neurophysiological processes underpinning emotional maturation and regulation (Perry, Pollard, Blakley, Baker, & Vigilante, 1995; Schore, 1994; Siegel, 2001) and influence the emergence of self–other schemas (e.g., to see self as lovable and believe others are caring and safe versus to see self as inferior to others, believe that others are hostile and look down on the self) (Baldwin, 1992, 1997; Beck, 1987; Bowlby, 1969, 1973, 1980; Gilbert, 2003). These early experiences with others may then lay down emotional memories of being loved, wanted, valued and accepted by others or of being rejected, unwanted, threatened, criticized, subordinate or alone (Gilbert, 2003, 2007). So, these emotional memories of self–other interactions are crucial to our self-identity, relational schema and relationships with others, and emotional regulation (Baldwin & Dandeneau, 2005; Mikulincer & Shaver, 2005; Pinto-Gouveia & Matos, 2011; Schore, 2001). Affect memories may work at an explicit or implicit processing level (Baldwin, 1992, 1997; Baldwin & Holmes, 1987; Gilbert, 2010).
An important type of emotional memories is shame memories. Shame experiences occur early on in our interactions with significant others and continue throughout our lives. Early shaming rearing experiences (where one experiences the emotions of others being directed at oneself) are recorded in autobiographical memory as conditioned emotional memories and operate as traumatic memories, involving intrusiveness, hyperarousal and efforts to avoid shame (Matos & Pinto-Gouveia, 2010). When triggered, they can affect body memory and the ‘felt sense of self’ (Brewin, 2006), and guide attention, emotional and cognitive processing, determining the activation of defensive strategies/behaviours (e.g., fight, flight, submission; Gilbert, 2007; Matos & Pinto-Gouveia, 2010; Matos et al., 2011). Furthermore, these threat memories can texture the whole sense of self and become central to one's self-identity and life story (Pinto-Gouveia & Matos, 2011) and have a major impact on who and how we engage socially (Gilbert, 2007).
Several studies have shown that recall of aversive early experiences is associated with a range of psychological problems in adulthood, especially depression (Gilbert, Cheung, Grandfield, Campey, & Irons, 2003; Perris, 1994; Perris & Gilbert, 2000; Stuewig & McCloskey, 2005; Webb, Heisler, Call, Chickering, & Colburn, 2007). Particularly, recent research has found that shame traumatic memories from childhood and adolescence are related to shame feelings in adulthood and moderate the impact of shame on depression (Matos & Pinto-Gouveia, 2010). In addition, Matos, Pinto-Gouveia and Gilbert (2012) reported that shame trauma memories were significantly associated with paranoid symptoms, but not social anxiety, even when controlling for current external and internal shame.
The self-conscious emotion of shame emerges from our evolved abilities to be aware of ‘how we exist for others’ as a response to the social threat of being unattractive. So, key to the experience of shame is external shame, related to how one experiences oneself as living in the minds of others (e.g., as inferior, inadequate, worthless, bad). In external shame, the world is experienced as unsafe since others are perceived as harsh, critical and hostile and may reject, criticize, harm or even persecute the self. To deal with external shame, people may engage in defensive maneuvers, with the behaviour orientated towards trying to positively influence one's image in the mind of other (e.g., by submitting, appeasing, displaying desirable qualities, avoiding; Gilbert, 1998b, 2000a, 2007).
However, the internalization of external shame can result in seeing and evaluating the self in the same way others have, that it is flawed, inferior, rejectable and globally self-condemning (negative internal models of self and others; Gilbert, 1998b, 2002a; Mikulincer & Shaver, 2005). Internalized shame is then linked to complex memory systems (e.g., previous shaming episodes; Kaufman, 1989) and to negative self-evaluations and feelings (Tracy & Robins, 2004), which are partly related to one's imaginary audiences created through experiences with others (Baldwin, 1997). Therefore, external and internal shame are closely linked, given that both are important for social functioning and shame experiences usually involve their interaction, fuelling one another (Gilbert, 2007; Kim, Thibodeau, & Jorgensen, 2011).
Shame, either externally or internally focused, has been associated with increased vulnerabilities to psychopathology, namely depression (Andrews, Qian, & Valentine, 2002; Cheung, Gilbert, & Irons, 2004; Matos & Pinto-Gouveia, 2010) and paranoia (Gilbert et al., 2005; Matos et al., 2012).
One of the major defenses to (external) shame is the internalized shame response, where one adopts a subordinate, submissive strategy associated with self-monitoring and self-blaming (Gilbert, 1998a, 1998b, 2002a). In fact, research has shown that shame is highly associated with tendencies to behave submissively, inhibit anger expression, self-monitoring and self-attributional styles in an effort to avoid aggression and conflict with powerful hostile others or appease them (Allan & Gilbert, 1997; Gilbert, 1998a, 1998b, 2000a).
From early (shame) experiences to submissiveness
Early shaming and devaluing experiences can then locate the child as unattractive and in an inferior rank position, setting the child up to view themselves as subordinate, having poor status and attractiveness in the eyes of others (Gilbert, Allan, & Goss, 1996).
Evolutionary theory, specifically social rank theory (Gilbert, 1992, 2001; Gilbert, Allan, Brough, Melley, & Miles, 2002; Irons, Gilbert, Baldwin, Baccus, & Palmer, 2006), considers the child–parent relationships as power relationships and focuses on down rank threats and submissive behaviour. Thus, when children are frightened of their parents and feel forced into unwanted or involuntary subordinate positions, they may adopt a variety of submissive and ‘low rank’ defensive behaviours (Gilbert, 2000b; Gilbert et al., 2002; Gilbert et al., 2003).
Therefore, submissive behaviour is a basic defensive strategy common to animals and humans (MacLean, 1990; Gilbert, 2000b) and is associated with dominant-subordinate hierarchies (Allan & Gilbert, 1997). In humans, the consequences of losing social rank or being allocated a lower rank against one's wishes (i.e., involuntary subordination; Gilbert, 1992) can involve defensive emotions (e.g., anger, shame) and entail primitive social defensive behaviours (e.g., submissive behaviours of escape, passive inhibition). Moreover, human subordinate behaviours can involve either seeking closeness or seeking/keeping distance (Birtchnell, 1993). Besides aimed at signalling no threat and avoiding conflict and aggression from the other, subordination in humans can involve complying with others or appear friendly when one wants to be dominant, to appease others and avoid being excluded from the group (Allan & Gilbert, 1997; Gilbert, 2000b).
Submissive displays involve behaviours such as backing down quickly if challenged, eye gaze avoidance (e.g., subordinate nonhuman primates always avoid eye gaze with dominants), fear grinning and not confidently making claims on resources or advertising oneself. As mentioned before, there is much in submissive behaviour that is mirrored in shame displays, e.g., backing down and wanting to hide or escape if challenged, eye gaze avoidance and lack of, or inhibition of, confidence, (Gilbert, 1998a, 1998b, 2000a). In addition, a shame display seems to have a similar purpose to that of a submissive display: inhibiting and reducing attacks from other and avoid losing social status (Keltner & Harker, 1998).
Research has suggested that a fearful subordinate/submissive style, particularly involuntary submissive behaviour, is highly linked to depression (Allan & Gilbert, 1997; Gilbert & Allan, 1998; Gilbert, 2002b). In fact, depressed people tend to see themselves as inferior in comparison with others, to behave submissively in conflict situations, and to feel trapped and defeated (Gilbert & Allan, 1994). Furthermore, submissive behaviour was found to be associated with paranoid beliefs and ideation and social anxiety in mixed clinical and student samples (Gilbert, 2000a; Gilbert et al., 2005).
The Current Study
Taken together these theoretical considerations and empirical findings, this study intended to explore how emotional memories, shame and submissive behaviour in adulthood are related to psychopathology, particularly whether they are differently associated with depressive symptoms and paranoid ideation.
The first aim of the present study was to explore how emotional memories were related to submissive behaviour in adulthood. It is known that recollections of feeling subordinate and acting in a submissive way in childhood contribute to submissive behaviour (Allan & Gilbert, 1997). However, little is known about the influence of shame traumatic memories on these basic defensive behaviours. We hypothesized that both emotional memories would be linked to submissive behaviour. Second, we sought out to understand the relationships between external and internal shame and submissive behaviour. We expected that individuals with higher levels of shame would engage in submissive behaviours.
Finally, the main goal of this study was to investigate how emotional memories, internal and external shame, and submissive behaviour are distinctively related to depression and paranoia. Thus, we test a mediational chain path model for the relationships among emotional memories, external shame, internal shame, submissive behaviour, and depression and paranoid beliefs (Figure 1). In the theoretical model, we predicted that shame traumatic memory and recall of threat and submissiveness in childhood would indirectly impact upon depression and paranoid beliefs through their effect upon external shame, internal shame and submissive behaviour. Also, we test whether emotional memories indirectly impact upon submissive behaviour through their effect upon external and internal shame. In turn, we hypothesize that external and internal shame would indirectly impact upon depression and paranoid beliefs through their effect upon submissive behaviour.
Figure 1. Theoretical model for the mediational chain between emotional memories, external shame, internal shame, submissive behaviour, and depression and paranoid beliefs. Key: IES-R Total = Impact of Event Scale-Revised; ELES Total = Early Life Experiences Scale; OAS = Other As Shamer Scale; ISS = Internalized Shame Scale; SBS = Submissive Behaviour Scale.
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Recent studies have shown that shame traumatic memories influence cognitive and emotional processing and are related to psychopathology, specifically depression, anxiety, paranoia and current shame feelings (Matos & Pinto-Gouveia, 2010; Pinto-Gouveia & Matos, 2011; Pinto-Gouveia, Castilho, Matos, & Xavier, 2012). Moreover, emotional memories of threat and feeling subordinate in childhood and submissive behaviour in adulthood are both associated with psychopathological symptoms (Allan & Gilbert, 1997; Gilbert et al., 2003).
The current study investigated the relations among emotional memories, shame traumas, current shame feelings and submissive behaviour on depression and paranoia. Following previous research on the role of early negative rearing experiences and shame memories to the emergence of shame in adulthood (Andrews, 2002; Claesson & Sohlberg, 2002; Gilbert & Gerlsma, 1999; Gilbert et al., 2003; Matos & Pinto-Gouveia, 2010; Matos, Pinto-Gouveia, & Gilbert, 2012), we began to explore the relationship between emotional memories and shame feelings in adulthood. Results showed that the emotional memories evaluated were significantly correlated with shame, but it was especially shame traumatic memory that was strongly linked to external and internal shame. So, individuals whose shame memories reveal traumatic characteristics and who recall feeling frightened of their parents and having to behave in subordinate ways in their family tend to believe they exist negatively in the minds of others (e.g., as unattractive, worthless, inadequate) and to perceive themselves as inferior and undesirable.
The present study also aimed at exploring the relationship between emotional memories and submissive behaviour. In accordance to our hypothesis, we found that emotional memories of threat and submissiveness and shame traumatic memories were significantly associated with submissive behaviour. These results suggest that individuals with memories of feeling threatened and subordinate in their family and shame traumatic experiences tend to behave more submissively in their relations with others.
As expected, both types of shame were correlated with submissive behaviour, particularly internal shame. It seems that the experience of the self as inferior, worthless, defective, inadequate or bad in its own eyes along with the perception that one exists negatively in the mind of the other (e.g., to see self as inferior to others, thinking that other look down on the self) can trigger submissive behaviours to compete for social acceptance and avoid losing social status.
Regarding psychopathology, both emotional memories were related to depression, although shame traumatic memories showed more expressive associations with depressive symptoms. As expected, current external and internal shame were strongly linked to depressive symptoms, with internal shame revealing the highest correlation. Interestingly, for paranoia, positive correlations were found with both emotional memories variables, external and internal shame, and submissive behaviour. Shame traumatic memories, external and internal shame showed the strongest associations. Thus, individuals with emotional memories of being shamed, devalued, subordinate or threatened by their parents, who see themselves negatively and believe to exist negatively in the mind of the others and who tend to adopt a subordinate attitude, seem to see others as hostile, powerful and harmful, with negative intentions towards the self and feel they are in the attentional field of others.
Taken together these results and the aforementioned hypothesis, we tested a path model in which we investigated a meditational chain among emotional memories, external and internal shame, submissive behaviour, depressive symptoms and paranoid ideation. Path analyses results show that shame traumatic memory and recall of threat and submissiveness in childhood predicted elevated depressive symptoms through increased external and internal shame. So, current shame feelings fully mediated the effects of emotional memories upon depression.
In regard to paranoid ideation, we found that early emotional memories of shame, threat and submissiveness predicted great paranoid ideation both directly and indirectly, through greater external shame. That is, external shame partially mediated effects of emotional memories on paranoid beliefs. Furthermore, whereas external shame and submissive behaviour revealed a direct effect on paranoid ideation, internal shame only predicted paranoid beliefs indirectly, through submissive behaviour. So, submissive behaviour fully mediated the effect of internal shame on paranoid ideation.
In addition, early memories of threat and submissiveness and shame traumatic memories predicted an increased submissive behaviour fully through heightened internal shame. That is, internal shame fully mediated the effect of emotional memories upon submissive behaviour. External shame had no significant impact on submissive behaviour. Moreover, the impact of emotional memories on paranoid ideation seems to operate both through their effect upon external shame and also through their indirect effect upon submission, which in turn fully mediates the effect of internal shame upon paranoid ideation.
These findings are in line with previous research emphasizing the importance of the quality of early interactions with significant others to the construction of self-identity and self–other schemas and thus to the emergence of the self-consciousness emotion of shame (Claesson & Sohlberg, 2002; Gilbert et al., 2005; Gilbert, & Gerlsma, 1999; Gilbert et al., 2003; Matos & Pinto-Gouveia, 2010; Matos et al., 2011). Hence, shame, threat, subordination and devaluing experiences in early life may lead to self-perceptions of being inferior (in a low rank position), subordinate, unattractive and unvalued in one's own eyes and in those of the others. These perceptions of inferior social rank may then give rise to shame feelings and to the subsequent activation of submissive defenses, in order to minimize harm from others, avoid conflict and appease others. Thus, these data are in line with Gilbert's theoretical model (2003; Irons & Gilbert, 2003) suggesting that children who are frightened of their parents and feel forced into unwanted or involuntary subordinate positions and who went through severe and traumatic shame experiences in childhood or adolescence may adopt various submissive and ‘low rank’ defensive behaviours. Our results add to this view by suggesting that these negative emotional memories seem to foster negative perceptions of the self as inferior, subordinate and powerless (i.e., internal shame), which in turn may trigger submissive defenses to keep the self safe by signalling no threat and prevent harm or attack from others.
The evolutionary and biopsychosocial model of shame (Gilbert, 1998b, 2007) postulates that the experience of not being able to create positive images/feelings in the mind of the other creates a sense of the world as unsafe and leads people to engage in defensive strategies. These findings support the idea that one of these major defenses is the internalization of shame where one adopts a subordinate, submissive strategy associated with self-blaming and self-monitoring in an effort to minimize harm and promote social approval.
A key finding was the indirect effect of shame traumatic memory and recall of threat and submissiveness on depression fully through external and internal shame. So, it seems that shame memories that function as trauma memories and recollections of feeling threatened and subordinated within family may promote a perceptions of the self as inferior, inadequate, defective, worthless, unattractive in the mind of the others and in one's own eyes. These devaluating self-perceptions and feelings may in turn render one more vulnerable to enter defeat and entrapment states in face of difficult life events. These data are in line with the evolutionary model of shame and depression that conceives depression as a defensive response to defeat states, perceptions of being inferior to others, feelings of entrapment and powerlessness (Gilbert, 2000b; Gilbert & Allan, 1998; Gilbert et al., 2002). These results are also consistent with recent empirical studies on the role of shame on depression vulnerability (Cheung, Gilbert, & Irons, 2004; Gilbert, 2000a; Pinto-Gouveia & Matos, 2011; Pinto-Gouveia, Castilho, Matos, & Xavier, 2012).
Of note was also the finding that early emotional memories impact upon paranoid beliefs both directly and indirectly through external shame. In other words, it seems that, on the one hand, memories of shame traumas, threat and subordination experiences in childhood may influence the emergence of negative relational schemas linked to perceptions of others as critical, hostile and dominant, and thus may hold malevolent intentions towards the self. In contrast, it seems that this association between these adverse emotional memories and paranoid ideation also operates through the impact of such negative experiences on promoting a negative sense of self as existing negatively for others, which in turn may increase one's vulnerability to beliefs that others are harsh and powerful and may want to harm the self. These findings are in line with the evolutionary models of paranoia (Freeman, 2007; Freeman et al., 2005, 2002; Gilbert, 1998a, 2001; Gilbert et al., 2005; Salvatore et al., 2011) and give further support to recent research showing that shame memories that function as traumatic ones and external shame were particularly related to paranoid ideation (Matos et al., 2011).
In addition, the indirect effect of shame traumatic memories and recalls of threat and submissiveness on paranoid ideation also operated through internal shame, which had an indirect effect upon paranoid beliefs through submissive behaviour. These results suggest that emotional memories of shame, feeling threatened and forced into a subordinate position by one's parents may lead to negative self-directed thoughts and feelings, of being inferior, defective, inadequate (i.e., internal shame), which in turn may activate defensive outputs, such as submissive behaviours. These defensive/safety strategies function as a way to protect the self against damages to one's self-image and possible criticism and attacks from others. In line with previous research (Freeman et al., 2005; Gilbert et al., 2005), we found that these perceptions of inferior social rank associated with submissive behaviours may increase one's focus on being vulnerable to rejection and attacks from others, which might contribute to the occurrence of paranoid ideation. Key to our findings is the confluence of these variables (emotional memories, external shame and internal shame, and submissive behaviour) in the prediction of paranoia. These results extend previous findings on the role of shame and shame memories in the development of paranoid symptoms (Gilbert et al., 2005; Matos, Pinto-Gouveia, & Gilbert, 2011; Pinto-Gouveia et al., 2012).
In conclusion, our results point to relevant differences in how negative emotional memories, shame and submission impact on depression and paranoia. Specifically, in depressive symptoms, it is the internalization of early experiences of shame, threat and submissiveness into beliefs that one exists as an unattractive social agent in the others' minds and into perceptions of the self as inferior, worthless and powerless that heightens one's vulnerability to enter depressive states. However, in paranoia, not only shame traumas and recollections of threat and submissiveness directly influence paranoid beliefs but also these memories promote external and internal shame thoughts and feelings and submissive defenses, which in turn increase perceptions of the self as vulnerable in face of others who hold malevolent intentions towards he self.
We hope that the data offered here helped shed light on the importance of emotional memories, shame traumatic memories, shame and submissive behaviour to the understanding of the nature of depression and paranoid beliefs.
Although the present study has some limitations, it intends to understand more deeply the differences between depression and paranoia by exploring the relationship between emotional memories, shame traumatic memories, shame feelings and submissive behaviour, and their contribution to depressive symptoms and paranoid beliefs.
Our findings have some implications for therapy. First, it points to the importance of using specific intervention strategies to target shame when dealing with depressed patients. Thus, for depression, it seems particularly appropriate to put in the clinical picture issues related to negative images of the self and the self as seen by others (Depue & Morrone-Strupinsky, 2005; Gilbert, 2005; Gilbert & Procter, 2006).
Regarding paranoia, our findings highlight the importance of working with external and internal shame, as well as with emotional memories of shame, threat and submissiveness in childhood, and suggest the need to help the patients developing assertive behaviours that may increase social acceptance and approval and may decrease paranoid fears.
Limitations and Future Research
There are a number of limitations in this study. First, this is a cross-sectional study, and although we used a robust statistical procedure that tests presumed causal relations among variables, no strong causal conclusions can be drawn from our results. Future prospective studies should further clarify the causality and direction of the relationships among these variables. Also, our participants belong to a particular social group (general community population), age and gender. It remains to be seen how far our findings replicate in other populations, such as clinical samples, particularly with depressive and paranoid patients. Future research could look at the similarities and differences between several psychopathological diagnoses that have the existence of paranoid beliefs as a common feature (e.g., paranoia, paranoid personality disorder, paranoid schizophrenia). Nonetheless, this study might contribute to a better understanding of the underlying mechanisms that differentiate depressive and paranoid psychopathology, improving the state of art in this domain.