Book Review | The Undervalued Self
Author: Elaine N. Aron, PhD
TO LINK OR TO RANK, THAT IS THE QUESTION. Perhaps, as Dr. Elaine N. Aron suggests, the answer is to do both, at the appropriate times and for the appropriate reasons.
Dr. Aron is a psychotherapist, researcher, and lecturer in the field of psychology, with special interests in highly sensitive persons and in the love/power balance in relationships. THE UNDERVALUED SELF provides a convincing explanation of why human beings encounter relationship difficulties when the love/power balance is inappropriate for the parties, usually because of early traumatic experiences that taught each person to submit to those more powerful and to undervalue the self in order to survive. When traumatized during a time of innocence, humans develop self-protective behaviors and attitudes in order to avoid future defeats and their accompanying shame; but these self-protections are maladaptive and harmful when used in situations that are not threatening and dangerous. Mired in these self-protections, we incorrectly see many situations as involving rank and we act to avoid having our own worth ranked below that of others. But being trapped in ranking mode inhibits our attempts to link with others, and links are the mechanism whereby we gain validation and healing as well as energy and joy. Via the various actions recommended by the author, individuals can mitigate the disabling effects of early trauma and make better decisions about future interpersonal conduct, resulting in freedom to enjoy both love and competition without fear and shame.
This book provides a psychotherapy-based theoretical framework for the author’s premises, but its primary difference from most offerings in the self-help genre is its set of recommendations and actual instructions for specific curative actions. The discussion of self-protections may remind those with a social science background of our study of defense mechanisms back in the day. But this volume trumps Psych 101 with its emphasis on action: it specifically teaches the reader how to engage in â€œactive imagination to conduct a dialogue with one’s innocent self and heal early trauma; it coaches the reader in the use of linking to establish rapport with and support for another; it provides clear guidelines for becoming attuned to the feelings and needs of others, and for allowing others to give similar feedback and caring to oneself. It provides step-by-step assistance and line-by-line cues as we relearn communication skills and attempt to link meaningfully while refining our ranking tendencies so they are constructive, not harmful. By the time one has performed the book’s exercises and learned their lessons, those self-protections are less insistent and more adequately under the reader’s control.
If there were a continuum of self-help books from touchy-feely on one end through tough love to just shut up and take your meds on the other end, this one would appear nearest the touchy-feely side. The author writes with knowledge and expertise, meticulously citing studies and sources, but also with great compassion. The reader/patient therefore becomes willing to attempt some rather probing self-examination, rigorous writing assignments, and even some scary exercises because the author herself is so credible, kind, and trustworthy. The gentle approach serves to reassure the reader that following the prescribed activities will be okay. The material in THE UNDERVALUED SELF does instruct the reader in some degree of self-treatment; however, the author also provides advice about when to enlist professional help instead of relying solely on the book’s self-help tools. She even appends advice entitled How to Find a Good Therapist.
The author makes some passing references to brain trauma as the result of low rank and an undervalued self, but does not get into specifics such as the effects of psychological trauma on brain chemistry or hormones, implications for the prescribing of psychiatric medications, or under what circumstances trauma to the mind may or may not be reversible. She makes the point that to some extent our undervalued selves and self-protections are impossible to eradicate completely, and emphasizes that our goals should revolve around maximizing our linking and minimizing destructive ranking. But it would be very interesting to know her views on, for example, the physiological impacts of early psychological trauma, or introducing modern medications into the therapeutic mix. Even a brief discussion on the purely medical aspects of low self-worth, depression, and related disorders would be helpful as the reader attempts to place this work into the context of today’s treatment of mental conditions.
When you read this book, be sure to do the exercises included. The author’s instructions and rationale are clear. To read ahead without doing the homework included is to risk feeling left behind when the topic shifts in a subsequent chapter. But in any case, if you have any inkling that your love/power balance may be out-of-whack, DO read this book. It is a loving and intelligent gift from a thoughtful and experienced clinician who really, really does want you to feel better and who is adept at helping you do just that. Thank you, Dr. Aron.
A hearty THANK YOU! to Hachette Book Group for providing a review copy of this book.
This review reflects the tastes, perceptions, and opinions of one person only and may be entirely wrong from another person’s point of view. Please read the book yourself and decide.