Thursday, August 15, 2013

HSP Learning: Elaine Aron's "The Undervalued Self:" An Undervalued Book?

At a recent presentation in Walnut Creek, California Elaine Aron shared that one of her recent books, "The Undervalued Self," has not been selling all that well... at least not in the US. Evidently it is doing quite well in other parts of the world... as an example, she mentioned that just 7,000 copies (as of this spring) have sold in the US, but 36,000 in South Korea.

I was very surprised to learn this because when I read it I concluded that it was possibly Elaine's most important and significant book, maybe aside from her "original" book The Highly Sensitive Person. Elaine, herself, also believes it's an extremely helpful tool for HSPs, and was surprised. Getting this piece of feedback from the workshop left me wondering whether her fans-- being HSPs-- had perhaps been "avoiding" the book because the words "HSP" or "Highly Sensitive Person" weren't in the title.

It just doesn't make sense to me-- this is a REALLY USEFUL book. Anyway, I wanted to take a few moments to talk about this book-- which is part of my personal list of "5 books I recommend to all HSPs."

This book was a very long time in the making. I first became "acquainted" with it when Elaine announced it as her "newest project" at the California HSP Gathering in June 2003. Back then, it had a working title of "At The Crossroads of Love and Power."

The basic premise of the book-- which is based on many years of research done by Elaine and her husband Art, who have spent decades studying how people relate, connect and love each other-- is that human beings have two fundamental "orientations" or strategies in life: "Ranking" (centered around power) and "Linking" (centered around Love and connecting).

Power is about "competing" and how we "rank" ourselves (and others) in social systems... be that at work, in families, in primary relationships. The focus of "power" tends to be hierarchical, i.e. "I'm smarter than Bob, but not as smart as Carol," or "Jenny has more social influence than I do, but I have more influence than Carl."

The other approach is "Love." Love of centered around "connecting" and "cooperating," and is also referred to as "linking." What Elaine discovered in her research is that there is actually a huge correlation between the "linking" strategy and being a Highly Sensitive Person.

"The Undervalued Self" may not be directly about HSPs (it can be relevant to anybody), but it does speak directly to HSPs. As a group-- or "demographic"-- uncommonly many of us face issues surrounding various ways in which we "diminish" ourselves in the world. We are generally uncomfortable in the domain of "ranking" and having to "compete" for our place-- many HSPs even outright reject having a "need" for it in their lives, citing a number of reasons... which Elaine also identifies and explains in the book. And when you combine a general dis-ease with the ranking strategy with a potential non-supportive or even abusive background... we tend to "rank ourselves too low" most of the time.

Now, this may sound like nothing more than "self-esteem, renamed," but there is far more to it than that. Most self-help books simply address the issue of self-esteem and go from there. In "the Undervalued Self" Elaine explores how our innate natures (especially as HSPs) influence the way we gain (or lose) self-esteem.

Being an HSP who "rejects" the need for ranking really does NOT serve us well! We may rationalize that we're "taking the high road" by avoiding hierarchical thinking, and that it "serves" the idealistic part of us that believes everyone has "equal rights"... but actually, we're just avoiding looking at the inevitable: ranking is a necessary part of a functional life. Denying it is a bit like declaring "I don't NEED sunshine!" just because our skin burns easily in the sun. What we need to do is learn to be in the "sun" appropriately, not avoid it altogether.

So what exactly does an "Undervalued" self imply?

Again, this is where the book really IS for-- and about-- HSPs-- and so important for may of us. We experience things very deeply. And because we tend to be soft spoken and "cooperative," we often feel overwhelmed by confrontations. We may feel doubtful that we can emerge from a confrontation (or competitive situation) positively. We have doubts, and perhaps back down, in the (alleged) interest of preserving a "connection." But we still feel "defeated" and may end up internalizing that negatively... and are more likely to simply accept a "low rank," rather than actively compete for the spot that reflects where we actually belong. This is something many HSPs have experienced in the workplace, for example, getting passed over for promotions and ending up "underemployed." We become truly "undervalued" when we engage in a pattern of actively "avoiding defeats." In other words, we don't even compete for that promotion, because we (believe) "know" we won't get it, anyway, so "why bother."

The book is an excellent exploration of how "ranking" and "linking" work, then on how to identify the ways in which we undervalue ourselves, the rationalization we use (Elaine calls them "the Six Self-protections"), how to silence our inevitable "inner critics" and finally on how to build stronger relationships that will lead to healing that "Undervalued Self."

We HSPs are marvelous people with many gifts to offer the world. Although it may be an uncomfortable-- and even scary-- journey, it's important that we learn how to let our lights shine... rather than "hide them in the closet" somewhere.

One of the questions... or "observations," if you will... that came into my head and led to this post was this: "Do we, as HSPs, question and avoid competition SO much that we will even go as far as to not support a book that brings that very avoidance into question, as a life strategy?" Perhaps that's a stretch, as far as reasoning goes... but it's also precisely one of the points Elaine brings up in the book. It doesn't always serve our best interests to actively avoid all things competitive; all things "ranking." Instead, we must seek a healthy balance.

"The Undervalued Self" is an excellent guidebook for that process... I highly recommend it! The link in the little box below is to Amazon... as you can see, copies of this book have become fairly inexpensive-- and I think you'd get a lot out of it. And don't worry, just because it says "buy now" you will NOT have to buy something-- the link is just to Amazon's descriptive page with more information, reader reviews and more.

As an aside, I would like to invite you to visit the HSP Notes Bookstore, which has 100's of handpicked books chosen with HSPs in mind... most are in my personal library, in addition to numerous others that were recommended by fellow HSPs.

Talk Back: Have you read "The Undervalued Self?" If yes, what did you think? If no, how come? Was it a book you thought about "getting later?" 

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  1. Peter, thank you bringing this up.

    I was at the recent talk Elaine gave in Walnut Creek (SF Bay Area). She did express disappointment that this book has not reached a bigger audience since she considers it her gift not only to HSPs but everyone who is in need of therapeutic assistance. In it she offers her best techniques and advice to help guide you through the process at your own pace, knowing well that many cannot afford actual therapy or will not go to it for whatever reason. The book is a great tool, but does require work on your part if want to get anything out of it. Some of us may not be ready to face our issues, but this is a gentle way to ease into them at your own pace. I have read tons of 'self-help' books over the years and I consider this one of the best. And it does speak directly to HSPs since they are the majority of her private clients.

    HSP did not appear in the title because the publisher wanted her to write a book that could reach a wider audience. Also note the way the publishing industry works is that if a book does not show signs of taking off in sales fairly immediately, the publisher abandons it quickly in favor of other speculative projects. In other words it does not get promoted further.

    Personally I think HSPs in general prefer to read something that tells them how wonderful they are, rather than how to face their problems if they have them. So a book like this perhaps has less appeal.

    We have tried to start several discussions over time on The Undervalued Self on the Tribe forum but they didn't last very long. But some good sharing did come up. See:

    You can read a synopsis of Elaine's recent talk, including remarks about therapy for HSPs and The Undervalued Self, at:

    1. Thanks for the additional information!

      I just feel it's a shame this book hasn't gotten more "play" as it seems like a brilliant piece of insightful work... probably Elaine's most important book, aside from "The Highly Sensitive Person." Among other things, it helped me move past my own knee-jerk "anti competition" sentiments, towards a more balanced perspective.

  2. I have not read this book because I hadn't heard of it. Thanks for your review of it. I do plan on reading it.

    I definitely identify as an HSP and was just terminated from a job. I believe the fact that I told them that I was cooperative rather than competitive was one of the factors that may have contributed to my termination. I am healing from it as I didn't see it coming.

    Perhaps this book will shed some light on how to thrive in our world which is so competitive.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting! Competition simply "exists," as a core part of human nature. In order for us to thrive as HSPs, our best bet is to learn to USE the system" to our advantage so we can (hopefully) change it for the better... rather than "FIGHT the system," which usually just results in us being worse off than when we started.

    2. Competition can be a healthy thing in the right context. Doesn't mean you need to destroy your opponents to succeed. Effective competition has elements of cooperation, working as a team, and respecting your opponents as worthy players not to be denigrated. This kind of competition brings out the best in people, not the worst.

      In my career path I have had trouble with authoritarian bosses and have quit or been fired because I cannot authentically work under this kind of rigid ranking hierarchy. Treating people like objects to be manipulated does not work.

      On the other hand, with bosses who gently encourage you and guide you there is much more a sense of mutual cooperation. Under this kind of boss, who knows how to supervise people by bringing out the best in them and treating them with respect, I have thrived.

      The thing about ranking and linking is that they are not mutually exclusive. You need to find the right blend and balance to be effective in the world.

      HSPs tend to under-rank themselves. Narcissists and Type-A personalities tend to over-rank themselves.

      You were probably in the wrong work environment to begin with. Good luck with your next opportunity for a better one.

  3. Thanks for posting this! I will buy this today.

    1. Pretty much everyone I have been in touch with seems to have gotten a lot from the book... it does ark people to do some "inner work," but I found it well worthwhile.

  4. Ranking and status are socially constructed, that is, they reflect certain values that are dominant in a society. Those with great wealth or high social status are ranked higher than, for example, individuals who dedicate themselves to serving others (teachers, counselors,etc.). This is a societal bias that individuals don't necessarily need to buy into. That we may adhere to prevailing values for awhile probably reflects our need for acceptance by the group. Later in life, the importance of the group and its acceptance may fade and we feel more freedom or autonomy as individuals and can "see through" the biased nature of ranking and the values that ranking systems serve.

    Yes, ranking exists everywhere...but being able to take apart and understand ranking may help us gain a perspective and, to some degree, be able to detach from some of its more oppressive aspects.

  5. I have been reading it for 6 months. Really! It is a deep book, but one of the best I have read. It appears the book is like its title.."Undervalued " :P

  6. I read this book and found it very powerful. It helped me understand how I was relating to others - we are human and we want to fit in. But when we take our square peg and jam it in a round hole, we find ourselves less than satisfied with our experience. This book teaches us how to find the square hole that our square peg fits into. The others may not be HSP - but we can find a way to relate to them that is healthier for us. Being part of the 20% of the population (or thereabout) means that we must bend and flex - not the other 80% of the population. The world does run by ranking and linking - that is how humans connect and interact. There are times when ranking is necessary and other times when linking is more appropriate. This book teaches us about these constructs and how to apply them as to make our journey through life more satisfying and rewarding. The book does apply to all people, however, it definitely has a valuable message for people who are HSP - we experience life a little more intensely and may have a greater challenge living in this ranking/linking world - unless we read this book and learn what to do to bend and flex in such a way as to increase the quality of our connections with others.

  7. I am currently reading "The Undervalued Self" though I prefer the title "At the Crossroads of Love & Power".
    I find it tremendously helpful. One early aha moment occurred when Aron explained how central ranking is to being human. One professor asked me a few years ago "why is everything about power to you, Monica?" I had no idea. Now I understand. With my mom leaning towards narcissim, and me being HSP, I developed a deep inner need to be "okay" and constantly am concerned with my rank/power. This is a beautiful manifesto for understanding what's going on in a deeper level as we try and free ourselves from our inner habits. I'm currently reading the sections on inner work. I reached a second profound aha moment in the book yesterday in the chapter on the Protector-Persecuter. Dr. Aron is taking seriously the inner terrors we have and helping us navigate how those voices interact with our "innocents" inner selves and helping them interact better. This is complex and profoundly liberating. I only wish I could talk with other HSPs with narcissistic parents who have also read the book!

  8. I was searching a book like this. Thanks for providing it. i will buy it as soon as possible.Life Coach

  9. Thank you, Peter. THis is a really good overview of a great work-book. I found it very useful in working with own traumas, and inner sub-personalities, as well as own self-protection strategies. I call this book recisely a work-book, that is why probably for some readers this is not an "easy read" by fire-place. This book makes you work and face your reality, instead of avoiding it. However, I found it difficult to apply some Jungian techniques (speaking with one's innocence), as some things which evolve may require presence of an actual therapist to help you through traumatizing things, which may surface unexpectedly...


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