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The Undervalued Self: Restore Your Love/ Power Balance, Transform the Inner Voice That Holds You Back, Find Your True Self-Worthby Elaine N. Aron
Elaine Aron follows up her bestsellers on the highly sensitive person with a groundbreaking new book on the undervalued self. She explains that self-esteem results from having a healthy balance of love and power in our lives. Readers will learn to incorporate love into situations that seem to require power and deal with power struggles that mask themselves as issues of love. From the bedroom to the boardroom, her strategies will enable us to escape feelings of shame, defeat, and depression; dissolve relationship hostility; and become our best selves. With Aron's clear, empathetic writing and extraordinary scientific and human insight, THE UNDERVALUED SELF is a simple and effective guide to developing healthy, fulfilling relationships, and finding true self-worth.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
"Elaine Aron's newest book, The Undervalued Self, is the centerpiece of a new psychology of liberation that is must reading for all of us--the timid and the bold alike. She carries her keen insights on human nature over from her bestseller, The Highly Sensitive Person, to this new domain of advising us how to free ourselves from the many constraints that limit our potential. She guides us on a path to discovering new joys and fulfillment in our personal and professional lives."Philip G. Zimbardo, author of The Time Paradox and The Lucifer Effect
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The Undervalued SelfRestore Your Love/Power Balance, Transform the Inner Voice That Holds You Back, and Find Your True Self-Worth
By Aron, Elaine N.
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2010 Aron, Elaine N.
All right reserved.
Ranking, Linking, and the Undervalued Self
Much of what we do every day is to compare ourselves to others and to strive for respect, influence, and power. That is, we rank ourselves among others. Equally often we link with others by expressing affection, caring, and love, to feel connected and secure. At times we combine the two, for example, by using our rank in the service of a link when we want to improve another’s life, as when we teach or advise someone or parent our children. Ranking and linking are always with us.
Sometimes we are conscious of these activities and sometimes not. Either way, ranking and linking play a role in almost all of our personal relationships and problems, including the problem of undervaluing ourselves.
When we undervalue ourselves, we are ranking ourselves too low. Often we drop into an all-or-nothing feeling of worthlessness or shame as we identify with a part of our personality we would otherwise avoid — the undervalued self. This self is out of touch with reality; it is inaccurate in that it underestimates. Whether we are trapped in that self for a moment or for a lifetime, we lose opportunities and suffer greatly.
While ranking is the source of the undervalued self, the right balance of ranking and linking offers the best solution for it. As you become more aware of how you rank and link with others and see the deeper, mostly unconscious and instinctual reasons why you undervalue yourself, you can often avoid tapping into this self with surprising ease. And when you cannot, this awareness is even more essential for dealing with the undervalued self.
Ranking and linking have been observed in the behavior of all higher animals, but researchers have only very recently begun to recognize these activities as the two primary innate systems guiding all of our social behavior. The phrase “linking and ranking” captures the breadth of what we sometimes mean by “love and power.” Love is one part of the broader behavior called linking; ranking is what actually determines power. “Ranking and linking” was first used as a term in political psychology in 1983 by Riane Eisler and David Loye, and the importance of the ranking-linking interconnection was picked up again in the early 1990s in social psychology, but since then the term has rarely been used.
Separately, however, topics related to power and love have always been a major focus of research on human and animal behavior. I myself have researched them separately. But I woke up to their intimate connection as I addressed the problem I see in almost all of my therapy patients: low self-esteem, leading to a lack of healthy close relationships. I realized that although my patients wanted love or linking, they were always seeing power or their rank in relation to others.
While ranking is an integral and even valued part of our lives — for example, we enjoy sports and friendly competition, and we willingly compete for jobs, promotions, and even future life partners — it has the potential to make us feel bad about ourselves in a variety of ways if we let it color our entire social viewpoint. We must all deal with defeat eventually, and, as you will see, defeat naturally affects our overall sense of self-worth and triggers a temporary depression. So if we see life as a series of competitions and comparisons, we are going to suffer more downs than ups. If we mostly rank high, the inevitable defeats will only feel worse.
Of course, we do not want to eliminate doing well or being on top, but our drive to rank high can blind us to ranking’s other aspects. Besides depression, we feel other negative “self-conscious emotions” after a failure or defeat, such as shame, and these are highly unpleasant. Support from friends and family helps, but the more you rank inappropriately, the fewer strong links like this that you will have.
Many of us do rank too much, partly because of our social environment but largely because of serious defeats in our pasts that amounted to trauma. These bias us toward being vigilant to prevent future defeats and humiliations, so we often see ranking even when it is not present. We cannot heal the effects of these traumas without the tools that come with a full understanding of ranking and linking. Whatever the cause, most of us need more linking and less ranking in our lives, and we cannot create the right balance without being able to see ranking and linking clearly.
WHO MAKES YOU FEEL GOOD? WHO MAKES YOU FEEL BAD?
Throughout this book you will find exercises and self-tests to help you understand how ranking, linking, and the undervalued self operate in your life. Keep a journal just for this purpose, in which you record your answers for easy reference. The first exercise is to make two lists: one of the people who usually make you feel good when you are with them and another of people who make you feel bad. (A person can also be on both.) Leave space between the names, because you will return to these lists to make notes.
Notice that almost all the people who make you feel good are those with whom you have a link — anything from a warm, friendly hello or occasional talk on the phone to a link of love that is central for both of you. Almost all the people you feel bad around are those by whom you feel ranked — encompassing everything from a vague sense of being judged to an acknowledged all-out competition that feels as if it is about deciding who is the better person. Linking relationships leave us feeling good about ourselves and others. Relationships that are largely about ranking tend to make us more anxious about our worth and far less happy. Your lists illustrate in a personal way how much ranking can be associated with unhappiness.
THE DANCE OF LINKING AND RANKING
Ranking refers to our place in a social group or hierarchy. Power is closely related to ranking in that it results from high rank. A gentler way to think of power is as influence over others, which can take many forms, including being respected by others.
Linking is our innate balance to ranking. We are drawn to others, enjoy them, want to know and help them if we can. Love is simply linking amplified.
All day we try to strike the right balance between linking — giving and receiving friendliness or concern — and ranking, working to gain others’ respect through our influence, competence, business acumen, fame, fortune, or the quality of our friends and allies. Others seek a higher rank through their appearance, possessions, or membership in a respected group. We often feel that the balance is not right in ourselves or others, and usually there seems to be too much ranking. In some situations we are constantly thinking about our rank or are expected to know it. At other times we may not consciously think about it. In some settings we would prefer to believe there is no ranking. But in any group of two or more people, ranking is always present, even if only in the background. To strike the right balance rather than be pulled by circumstance requires conscious effort.
Even without conscious intent, most of us try to counteract the potential unpleasantness of ranking by maintaining a sense of equality. For instance, in competitions we try to remain good sports and follow fair rules. In business we honor contracts and stay cordial.
In friendships, too, ranking has to be dealt with. We know who has more money or a more respected job. But we share rather than compare. We split the bill rather than adding up who had what. If one gives a compliment, the other tries to return it soon afterward. In time, close friends may lose track of who owes what, and priority is simply given to the one with the greater need. That’s the essence of linking.
Important Definitions for Linking
Linking: Your innate tendency to be drawn to and affectionate with others, to be interested in them and want to help them when you can.
Love: A more distilled form of linking based on a powerful attraction to someone, which leads to a desire to be near the person, know him or her intimately, meet the other’s needs as much as possible, and enjoy the other’s efforts to meet your needs. It is as though you include the other in yourself.
Altruism: A selfless love for others whom you may never meet, sometimes extended to all of humankind and felt as compassion when others are in need.
Linking and ranking dance together in many ways. Ranking can sometimes serve the goals of linking. Parents, teachers, supervisors, and politicians have high rank and the power that goes with it, but ideally they use their power in the service of linking, love, and altruism. We do not mind those people of higher rank enforcing certain rules or going off to meetings to talk about us because we know they are trying to help. But we consider power to be abusive if it gives no consideration to the needs of others. Ranking also serves linking when we use it to add spice to a compliment: “You were clearly the most intelligent of the bunch.”
Linking can serve ranking, too, as when we form alliances to gain what the group wants, with no intention of having the link last. Linking can be hidden behind ranking, as when a professor and student, employer and employee, or even guard and captive try to ignore their attraction to each other. And ranking can hide within linking, as when one person controls the lives of others “for their own good.”
A common and troubling aspect of ranking occurs when it creeps into your attempt to link and triggers the undervalued self. For example, you meet a friend for lunch and receive the good news of her promotion. You want to feel joy for her, and perhaps you do, but you also rank yourself against her, perhaps quite unconsciously, and feel miserable at the realization that you have not been promoted in five years. In a sense you are no longer having lunch with your friend. You are having lunch with your undervalued self.
Important Definitions for Ranking
Ranking: Your innate tendency to see and improve your position in a social hierarchy, to be a separate and distinct individual, and to try to demand fairness.
Power: The influence you have over others according to your rank in a hierarchy. Power can be exerted physically or psychologically in ways that are harsh or gentle, obvious or sly.
Power in the Service of Linking: Using your rank and power to meet the needs of others as well as or instead of your own needs.
Abusive Power: The use of power for entirely selfish purposes.
Linking in the Service of Ranking: Forming friendly alliances purely to raise your rank and gain more power for yourself or for all involved.
YOUR INNATE TENDENCY TO HAVE AN OVERALL SENSE OF SELF-WORTH
I have said that too much ranking leads directly to the undervalued self, and knowing exactly how that happens will help you avoid that path. As social animals, we have evolved to live in groups to better ensure our survival and well-being. Groups transmit knowledge from generation to generation so that each person does not have to reinvent the stone axe or the computer. A group protects all of its members, sees that everyone gets what he or she needs to survive, and keeps selfishness in check. Those of our ancestors who spontaneously reacted in ways that kept them in good standing within their group were better off than those who did not so react. We still have those spontaneous reactions, even when they occasionally no longer serve us or others well. We can learn to override them, but first we need to know what they are.
If you lived in a single group, as our ancestors did, you would have a particular status in a defined pecking order. The higher you were, the more influence you had in group decisions. If someone challenged you or wanted to rise above you in the hierarchy, there would be a confrontation. One of you would win; the other would have to back down. To avoid dangerous mistakes, you had to have an instant, often unconscious sense of your overall strength, social support, confidence, skill, intelligence, and other traits. Further, if you had been defeated recently or often, it was far better to err on the side of undervaluing yourself. After all, the best bet is that the future will repeat the past. Better to save your energy and not fight. So your overall sense of self-worth often errs on the low side.
However, today we live in many groups — family, groups of friends, colleagues, teammates. In each of these we are ranked on different qualities at different moments and rarely need to decide if we are in some overall sense better than someone else. In these groups the innate tendency to have an overall sense of self-worth has become a handicap, in that within any one situation it will always be inaccurate to some degree.
Definitions Regarding the Undervalued Self
Overall Self-Worth: Your sense of your capacity to win in a confrontation, regardless of the specific abilities needed in a particular competition.
Defeat Response: The tendency to respond to defeat with depression and shame, making it more likely that you will accept a low rank rather than continue to compete.
The Undervalued Self: The part of you that develops from the tendency to avoid defeats. The more past defeats you’ve had, the more vigilant this part of you is. You see ranking even when it is not there, and then you rank yourself so low that you are not a contender.
Your Innate Response to Defeat
Along with the strategy of taking defeat seriously and erring on the side of undervaluing ourselves, we have another innate tendency, the defeat response. You can see this response in animals: when they lose, they slink away, looking depressed and ashamed. They seem to feel hopeless and to have lost interest in life, and their bodies show all the physiological indicators of depression. This sudden drop in enthusiasm means that they will not continue to care about their rank, feel confident, or endanger themselves with further fighting.
You have the same innate response to defeat: shame and depression. When you lose, you tend to feel down. You lack energy, enthusiasm, and confidence. You also tend to feel ashamed, to believe that your core self is no good. When you lose big, you may feel depressed and ashamed for days. If you felt you were rejected, your shame and depression can take the form of shyness. That is, you fear additional social judgment and defeat.
If you have lost very heavily or very often or when you were very young and impressionable, you feel powerless, worthless, ashamed, shy, and unenthusiastic most of the time. Feeling that it all must be your fault, you undervalue yourself chronically. Such feelings are the essence of a major depressive disorder, which is often the result of the “self-conscious” emotions that arise in ranking situations.
The Self-Conscious Emotions
As social animals, we come equipped with self-conscious emotions, which determine how we behave around others in specific situations. These emotions make us act quickly to secure or resecure our place in a group. Pride, guilt, anxiety, the depression just described, and shame are called the self-conscious emotions because they arise from our view of our overall self-worth. Of course, anxiety and depression can arise in nonsocial situations, but we feel them most often as a response to social interactions.
These emotions vary according to individual temperament and upbringing, but we all feel them to some extent. Often they are not very adaptive, again because we no longer spend our entire lives in one group. Maybe you live with a roommate (even two people constitute a group), work in another group, play basketball in another, and so forth. Yet we often take the strong emotions that developed in one group into the other groups.
These feelings often arise from a much earlier group, the family or a play group. Or they may come from a group in which you recently suffered a defeat. Maybe you text-message someone for a date and she declines. Soon afterward you walk into a job interview, not feeling very good about yourself. You think it goes poorly. Then, in an evening softball game, your impulse is not to risk swinging your bat, and you strike out. You did not want another failure, yet that is just what happened because unconsciously you took your anxiety about defeat from one place to another.
Pride is the positive self-conscious emotion, what we feel when we have a high rank or move up in rank. When we feel proud, our self-worth sparkles and we feel confident about any future confrontations about rank. When others see our pride, our rank may rise even more or help to maintain a high rank.
However, pride has a downside. If pride contributes too much to our overall sense of self-worth, it can lead to overconfidence, causing deep depression and shame when we eventually overstep and fail at something. In fact, shame is particularly intense when pride precedes failure. Another potential problem is that when we feel proud we have less empathy and compassion for others. In research studies, those who felt proud rated themselves as similar to others of high rank but saw little in common between themselves and those who were lower or weaker.
We feel guilt when we know we have done something wrong but have the potential to undo it, make it up to the other, be forgiven, offer a good excuse, or otherwise limit the results of our action. In the moment, guilt can lead to feeling worthless and undervaluing ourselves, a necessary reaction that will motivate us to do all that we can to make up for our error. Once we act, the group will accept us again and we can stop feeling worthless. Guilt usually does not last long because it is about our actions, not our very being.
Guilt was a very important emotion for our ancestors. If group members who were strong and good hunters did not feel guilty about taking the best meat for themselves, the mothers, children, and elderly would have gone hungry. Thus groups with members who felt guilt survived. Today, too, family members are usually made to feel guilty if they do not call home or show up for weddings. But when a member is in trouble, a strong family will take care of him or her. Guilt will see to that if love does not.
Anxiety and Shyness
Most anxiety occurs when we are worried about being defeated. Even when we fear snakes or tornados, we are in a sense fearing defeat. The most debilitating and unreasonable anxiety is usually social, however, and specifically about ranking, our status in a group. Are we about to drop in rank? Are we at risk of being confronted and defeated? Might we face total rejection?
Shyness is one manifestation of social anxiety. Shyness is the fear of being observed and judged, which could lead to a drop in status. Both anxiety and shyness are increased by an undervalued self, and being anxious or shy can then cause us to undervalue ourselves more. “I’m too shy — I totally lack confidence.”
Anxiety and shyness can become permanent contributors to the undervalued self: 40 percent of people say they are shy in almost every social situation. Again, we take these social emotions from one group, where we probably were defeated or judged, to groups in which we have not yet been judged. Hence we are mostly anxious when we have no reason to be. However, anxiety and shyness can be self-fulfilling in that people do tend to rank others lower if they seem anxious or shy. These social emotions have become maladaptive.
I have said that depression is often a response to defeat (although it can occur in other situations, since it involves the depletion of neurotransmitters, which can occur due to any stressful experience). Again, depression after defeat serves to keep us safe from physical injury or the loss of rank that might occur if we continued to fight. Today, however, the risk of physical injury during a ranking conflict is small. In contrast, the risk of damage to health and relationships through depression is large, making this response far less adaptive now.
If you think about the times you have felt depressed, you may be surprised to observe that most of them did involve a sense of defeat. It has been known for years that both depression and general anxiety are more likely to occur after stressful life events, but new research finds that depression in particular is associated with humiliation. Also, the high levels of cortisol associated with stress and anxiety are found only when the stress or fear is of being negatively evaluated by others.
Many people who have experienced a number of defeats and separations, especially in childhood, suffer from chronic depression. The cause may be defeats by other children, but more damaging are defeats by adults with whom children should feel a secure link but don’t. In that case, the adult’s high rank and power will not be experienced as being in the service of linking and helping the child, so when the adult has his or her way, the child repeatedly experiences defeat and depression. These defeats can lead to a lifelong sense of hopelessness and worthlessness — a truly undervalued self.
Along with depression, shame occurs instinctively after a defeat, but it also occurs in other social situations. Shame is the sense that our core self is worthless, flawed, and no good, so it is the emotion that most reinforces the undervalued self. Like depression, it causes us to accept the lowest rank, stay there, and be glad just to be included.
Shame is the most potent and painful of the self-conscious emotions; our brain registers it as if it were physical pain. Because it is so painful, shame is the greatest protection against allowing ourselves to be thrown out of a group. A brief moment of shame, like the zap from a cattle prod, shapes us up very quickly. We go back to behaving the way others expect us to. Embarrassment, a milder, short-lived feeling akin to shame, gives us a similar sense of being out of sync with social expectations and forces us to change quickly so as to get back in line with the group.
When our ancestors lived in a single group, shame kept them safe from engaging in useless fights or being exiled. But these days, when we operate in multiple groups, shame can actually decrease our safety, because feeling totally worthless in all situations and all groups causes anxiety, lack of confidence, and poor performance. For example, research finds that people who focus on doing well perform better than those who focus on not doing badly. And performing well and feeling good are what keep you included in many of the groups you belong to.
Carol Fails an Exam and Feels Utterly Ashamed
Carol had studied for weeks to pass her social-work licensing exam. Part of it was an essay, and because a wrist problem made it difficult to write by hand, she was allowed to use a personal computer cleared of any files related to the exam.
She thought she did a good job, but a week later she received her score: 21 points out of a possible 100. Carol plunged into such despair that she could not eat or sleep. She just wanted to be numb. She was so ashamed that she could not tell anyone for some time.
After she finally confessed to a friend and then to her family, she felt a little better. When she was around people who believed in her, she was reassured. However, being alone was truly unbearable. All she could feel was the pain and horror of how awful she was because of her poor performance. She was the only one in her study group to fail, so she was sure that this proved she was extremely incompetent. She felt totally stupid and worthless.
As her therapist, I knew this woman to be very bright, highly conscientious, and, in particular, well prepared for this exam. How could she have scored so poorly? I finally convinced her to go through the humiliating ordeal of asking to see her test.
The exam committee e-mailed her what she had written. The essay began well, but after a few paragraphs it became jumbled. Carol immediately realized that early on she had saved her rough draft on the disk they had given her, but she had mistakenly saved the much longer final version on her computer’s hard drive. The committee could see this was what must have happened. Once she submitted the correct version, her revised score was 96.
In Carol’s experience we see so well how the defeat response of depression and shame can put us through completely unnecessary torture. Carol belonged to at least five groups besides the group that took the licensing exam. She had a group of friends, a family group, a work group, the group of all the people who breed and show Labrador retrievers (her passion), and, with me, a group of two. And as a therapist, I knew her well enough to promise her that she was not worthless or stupid. Those were five groups in which she ranked high. Yet she felt completely defeated, depressed, and ashamed because of one “failed” test in one group. These feelings caused her to give up rather than explore why she failed the test and to withdraw from those who loved her because of her sense that she should be excluded from all human contact for her shameful performance.
It would never occur to anyone who knows Carol to shun her for her score on this exam. However, the truth is that when faced with a similar failure in one important area of our life, we might all react as Carol did. Do we have to react this way? At least we can react less intensely if we learn to recognize the effects of the innate aspects of ranking and linking.
LINKING AND LOVE
Linking can be automatic, little more than good manners. “Good morning, how are you, have a nice day.” It serves to show that you are not feeling hostile, that you are ready to cooperate with the other person. This sort of linking greases the wheels of social life and helps us work together with few ranking conflicts. Or linking can be more focused, for example, an upsurge of genuine joy at seeing or being with someone you adore. You want to know what is going on with this person, to be helpful, and to allow the other to help you. Love is an intense version of these same reactions to another person.
Countless studies show that linking relieves group tension, reduces stress, and increases well-being and longevity. Often the only reason that people work is to continue providing for and linking with those they love. And the camaraderie found in linking with coworkers can be the only joy people receive from their work. In fact, in study after study, the biggest factor in job satisfaction is the quality of the social relations at work.
Love, again, is more intense and mysterious. We use the same word for desperate, obsessive love; passionate sexual love; companionate married love; unrequited love; love between parent and child; love between friends; and selfless love for all beings. But when I talk about love in this book, I have something specific in mind. First, I mean love between two people who know each other, which often begins with a sudden strong attraction. As yet, no one knows for certain how we choose the particular person we do, but it does seem to be innate to focus on one person at a time.
However love comes about, a desire develops to know this person completely, to be part of the other and have the other be part of you, so that you can revel in his or her reality. You spontaneously want to fulfill the other’s needs as much as you can, as if the other’s needs are yours, and you are comfortable letting the other meet your needs.
Notice the phrases “as much as you can” and “as if.” There are still differences between the two of you — different preferences and therefore potential conflicts. There is a clear boundary where you leave off and the other begins. In these ways, at least, ranking is present. Like overlapping circles, you are each inside the other, yet separate. This type of love is almost always mutual, and it involves both giving and receiving. (Even between parent and child this reciprocity occurs over their lifetimes.)
Ultimately, linking and love lead to a variety of feelings — joy, guilt, pleasure, grief, frustration, curiosity — but primarily they lead to feeling very good. They give us the pleasure of connecting with others through joking, compliments, and exchanges of concern. They truly make life worth living.
Jake Wakes Up to the Linking and Love in His Life
Jake was a levelheaded guy, brilliant with computers, but not particularly skilled at linking. He was seeing me in therapy because he had recently moved to our area and did not make new friends easily. Above all, he wanted to marry, but he was anxious when it came to dating. Although he was trying, he was either being rejected or having to reject. As both types of rejections mounted, I noticed he was going out less and less, and I worried that he was moving from anxiety to a sense of depression and shame. When we discussed it, he admitted that he didn’t think anyone he liked would ever be attracted to him.
I noticed that Jake often talked about Cheryl, who lived in his building. They had met when a fire alarm went off early one evening, and they were the only two residents clutching cats and wearing bathrobes. They found it funny and started greeting each other in the hall.
After a few more months I heard Jake say he had looked after Cheryl’s cat and plants while she was on vacation. He even joked that he had introduced her cats to his and that they got along surprisingly well. And one time she had come to his door at five in the morning to borrow milk because she could hear he was up. He described Cheryl’s stopping him on the stairs to ask how he was and their spending an hour talking. I mentioned that he seemed to enjoy these encounters, but Jake said it wasn’t “like that.” He even thought they “just used each other.” He was seeing ranking instead of the linking that was actually happening.
Still, a few months later he referred to her as “my friend Cheryl.” Jake was beginning to see linking. Hoping to nudge this along, I asked him later in the year if he found Cheryl attractive.
He said, “She doesn’t think of me that way. She goes out on a lot of dates.”
I asked him, “Is it that you’re afraid to think of her ‘that way’ and spoil whatever you have?”
He nodded glumly. I hoped I had helped him see how ranking stood in the way of his growing link.
One day Jake was looking ecstatic for a change. He had been chatting with the building manager when Cheryl passed them. The manager whispered to him that Cheryl had told a neighbor that one of the best things about the building was Jake. In fact, Cheryl had said she had a crush on Jake. As he told me this, I could see him finally allowing himself to risk falling in love.
A year later Jake and Cheryl were married, and, yes, the building manager was invited to the wedding.
RANKING AND POWER
For many of us, the subject of ranking and the power that results from high rank seems less charming than linking and love. However, both linking and ranking will always be with us and, when used appropriately, ranking can be enjoyed. Ranking and power fulfill our desire to be separate, stand out, get our share, be noticed, enjoy the respect of others, and have some influence. We all have those innate desires, and fulfilling them brings pleasure that can be measured physiologically.
The higher your rank, the greater your influence or power. Power covers an enormous range. We may have power because, for example, we are in a certain position, either earned or assigned; because we are physically more threatening than others; or simply because people find us knowledgeable or nice to be around.
Of course, power and rank can change. If we are challenged or we challenge another, we may win or lose. Or we may be promoted or demoted by others. In some groups ranking changes often because rank is very flexible, earned or deserved according to the situation. Sometimes we drop in rank because we have poor ranking skills. For example, if we try but fail to make a person who is lower in rank do something, our own rank drops. And even if we succeed, we may drop in rank if we had to use harsh methods. When a high school teacher punishes an entire class with extra homework because a few kids are continually acting up, the teacher finally feels in control again, having regained her “proper” rank. However, her true rank has been diminished, not improved, because she could not manage the disruptive class members in any other way.
Although ranking does not create as many general good feelings as linking, knowing our rank does spare us the unpleasantness of having to learn again and again who stands above us. Imagine going to work and having to begin every day by figuring out who is in charge. In the case of sports, ranking actually becomes a source of great pleasure. We gladly strategize and sacrifice for the chance to feel the thrill of a quick change in standing, and fans obviously love doing all of this vicariously. Gambling, making risky investments, and dating provide similar high excitement for some people. “How’d you score?” “What’s he betting?” “What’s it selling for today?” “Who’s she seeing now?”
Ranking in the Service of Linking
In spite of their natural drive to enjoy power, many people feel uncomfortable when they have power or think about seeking it. People who are basically altruistic, cooperative types especially avoid power. When these people gain or are given power they usually become more altruistic instead of more selfish. They want to use their rank in the service of linking of others, whether they know these others or not. In fact, this tendency holds true for most of us while we are in roles such as parenting, teaching, managing, counseling, or mentoring.
Perhaps more than any species, humans simply love one another a surprising amount of the time. They love enough to give others their time and energy and even their lives. It is common to see people using their resources, and whatever other influence they gain from their rank, to help those who are not kin and who could not possibly help them personally. Scientists now offer an explanation for this type of selfless love. They have shown that very often groups survive better if they have mostly altruistic members. As I said when discussing guilt, in the old days altruistic behavior — behavior that helped everyone survive — meant sharing your meat. Today group survival is about teamwork on the job and family loyalty at home. Altruism can be passed down genetically or culturally as moral values, but however it happens, it helps survival. Groups made up entirely of freeloaders and obsessive rankers are less likely to make it to the next generation.
Most groups include a mixture of altruists and selfish types. So the group in which altruists can control the freeloaders and the selfish high-rankers will have the best chance of survival. For millions of years, the majority of people have been trying to control the few selfish individuals in their midst in order to elevate the welfare of all.
Altruism need not end with members of our own group, however. Our ability to be altruistic and to feel compassion for those who are weaker rests on our ability to empathize, to grasp how another person feels. Altruism can extend to everyone, because we all can imagine how others feel even if they are on the other side of the world. Of course, ranking can extend far, too. We can feel superior to people we have never seen. In fact, thinking that our own group is superior to other groups has led to most of the world’s ills. Thanks to the media, however, we know so much about what is happening to others across the globe that I like to think empathy is pushing us toward seeing all people as part of our group.
If the power resulting from ranking is not tempered by linking or a cultural tendency toward altruism, it becomes abusive. The powerful person pursues goals that take no account of the needs of others and often controls people without their realizing it. Because ranking is an innate response, we all have the potential to abuse the power of high rank. For example, in experiments, when a person is merely given a seat behind a desk and expects another person yet to arrive to be seated in the chair of lesser status, the person behind the desk will make decisions that are not good for the person not there yet, such as who will be given the easier tasks.
Power without concern for others is often wielded through harsh methods: ridicule, cheating, even physical threats or injury. But some of the worst cases occur when an abuser uses “gentle” methods, such as being sweet and beguiling to get his or her way, or makes “rational” arguments that shame people into ignoring their feelings. “All you have to do is give up your petty self-interest.” Abusers of power may want you to see linking by saying “I’m doing this for your own good” when it is really for their good. A favorite method of the tyrant is to persuade the citizens that only he can protect them from attack by some other group, focusing everyone on this outer threat while he and his cronies enjoy the resulting power.
However abuse happens, it is pure selfishness, and when it causes great harm and is cold-blooded — not the result of a momentary desire for revenge or a passion to win — then we think of it as evil.
Why do some people go berserk with power? They may have a genetic tendency toward psychopathy. If this tendency is seen during childhood, very skilled parenting and teaching can probably prevent its full expression except in the most extreme cases. Even more often, people who abuse power have learned from their parents that giving love is weak or risky, so power fills the void left by an absence of linking. Or, siblings are not taught to manage their jealousy, so that one dominates another brutally and abusive power becomes an obsession for both. At school, abuse occurs if bullies are not controlled by teachers. Their victims may become so focused on revenge that when they do gain power they go crazy with it, sometimes with a gun.
Some situations will bring out abusive behavior in almost anyone, as when an abusive leader uses coercion or the fear of exclusion if those lower in rank do not conform and be equally or more abusive to those below them. This happens in instances of genocide and in prisons where guards are encouraged to mistreat prisoners. The usual norms that insist on the appropriate use of power disappear, and people are suddenly capable of massive evil, although in a sense they are committing evil deeds because they are afraid of losing their link with others in their group.
Linking in the Service of Ranking
Linking is sometimes used constructively in the service of ranking. For example, you might declare solidarity with your coworkers and join a union to raise your rank in relation to management. Or two people might join forces to help each other study for an exam. They share knowledge generously while they do this, but during the exam itself they strive individually to do as well as possible.
It is invaluable to learn to recognize when linking is being used in the service of power, whether for good or ill. If it is for good, you should be prepared for the linking to lessen or end once the goal is achieved, which may seem sad, but it’s very natural. If the linking is really for the other’s selfish purposes, you can see beneath the veneer and refuse this fake link.
Our rank is our own, determined by who we are, separate from all others. We have our own attitudes, preferences, and possessions. We have our own schedules and our own work. We have our own personal space. In short, we have boundaries, which we want to keep as they are. The higher our rank, the more we are able to maintain our own boundaries rather than having to give way to others’ attitudes, preferences, schedules, or demands. Those who undervalue themselves naturally have trouble keeping their boundaries.
The lower your rank, or the lower you think it is, the more those with higher rank can ignore your boundaries and influence you to do what they want. If they ask for your time and energy, you will probably feel you have to give it. You feel that you must show them respect, but they do not have to do the same. They look at you directly, but you may feel the need to lower your eyes.
Anger is the emotion we feel when our boundaries or wishes have been violated. Those who undervalue themselves usually express their anger too little, when in fact, if they did express it, their boundaries or wishes would be respected. It can be unpleasant to feel angry, and often counterproductive to express it fully, but it can have many good effects when used well. Showing anger reminds others to obey the rules expected of everyone. It lets someone you care about know when he or she is distressing you. And it helps you stand up for yourself in a conflict, so that the resolution will be a good one for all involved. Expressing anger is futile, however, if you rank very low, because others will usually ignore your demands. In fact, being angry and demanding when it is inappropriate or ineffective can lower your rank even further.
Melissa Wakes Up to Ranking and Power at Work
Melissa, freshly graduated from college, was very angry about a situation at work. A photocopier had been installed near her cubicle, and its loud noise and the talking that inevitably went on around it were driving her crazy. She wanted to complain, but when a coworker who was a friend of hers had complained about a similar situation, not only had nothing changed, but his complaining was mentioned in his next performance review. She was shocked and angry that their company was so inconsiderate of its employees.
I pointed out gently that business is by nature competitive. The company she and her friend worked for would not treat her with the same consideration as her wonderful family did. Rather, it would attend to the bottom line and do only what was needed to keep their best employees happy and productive. From what I had gleaned, she was one of their stars, but her friend was not.
I suggested that Melissa, who frequently undervalued herself, might get better results if she made her request in the context of her most recent achievements, highlighting her high rank among her coworkers. I coached her to point out that maintaining her current level of quality work would require considerable concentration, and thus, to keep her work error free, it would probably be best to move her away from the copier.
After having this talk with her supervisor, Melissa was moved to a quieter space, and she happily realized the power that comes with high rank.
Linking Trumps Ranking
Although ranking and power are important factors in our daily lives, and they definitely dominate in many situations, in the end linking trumps ranking because of its biological, emotional, and spiritual importance. The big advantage of being a social animal is that we bond, helping one another stay safe, rear young, find good food, recover from sickness or injury, play or practice, and think things through. As I have said, altruism can be even more important to survival than “survival of the fittest.”
Look around you. We cooperate in order to live in communities, make things, and govern ourselves. The ultimate linking phenomenon may be the Internet, with its e-mail, chat rooms, blogs, friendship networks, dating services, and free idea exchanges. The Internet certainly can be a competitive place in many ways, but we can’t deny that its essence is linking, not ranking.
Our day-to-day efforts, too, are usually not just for ourselves but for the sake of those we love, as well as those we do not even know. Our love for others can transcend all ranking. Spiritually, selfless love is at the center of all the great religions, which teach that doing for others is its own reward. No religion and few philosophies have ever suggested that ranking, thinking of your own needs first, is the path to happiness.
THE VALUE OF ATTENDING TO RANKING AND LINKING TOGETHER
By now you are probably seeing ranking and linking everywhere, and they are everywhere. Every member of a group understands unconsciously how each member ranks and who is linked to whom. But to heal the undervalued self, you must become conscious of ranking and linking. By understanding how they intertwine, you can see which of the two is at work in a situation. If someone speaks as if in one mode but is actually in the other, you need to recognize that, rather than seeing ranking — or linking — when it is not there. If you see the two as having nothing to do with each other, you are far less free to choose between them.
It takes a little effort to keep both ranking and linking in mind as possibilities, because we tend to see each one as a separate force operating in one broad class of situations but not in any other. We try to resolve ranking and power issues at work in order to do better in our careers, but our problem there may be failing to link or to see offers to link coming from others. Away from work, our focus is on linking to improve close relationships and make friends, but your particular relationship issues may be more about your own low rank — feeling unattractive or unintelligent, failing to stand up for yourself, or feeling controlled by another.
Humans can be quite subtle about linking and ranking. We can use “I love you” to control someone, while “Do what I tell you” can be an expression of love. We also do a lot of ranking and linking in our heads, which especially leads us to undervalue ourselves. Often subconsciously, we imagine and play out our fears over and over, seeming to validate all sorts of wrong assumptions about our worth based on past experience or simply inadequate information. Putting the focus on ranking and power at the wrong times, whether you do this a little or a lot, can spoil the good things in life, such as connecting with others, living up to your full potential, and being successful. You are designed to link, to love. And you are designed to have appropriate influence, take pleasure in competition, and feel comfortable when given authority. Above all, you are designed to choose what will work best in a situation, so learning to recognize accurately the ranking and linking in your own life is the first step to correcting problems created by the undervalued self.
WORKING WITH WHAT YOU HAVE LEARNED
Having learned how ranking and linking make up the foundation of the undervalued self, you are ready to look at how you approach these two. Read the following lists and place a check mark next to each statement that is true for you.
I know how to help people express their deepest feelings.
I often surprise the people I like with gifts and favors.
I know how to get people to stop feeling self-conscious.
It’s very easy for me to let someone else help me or take care of me.
I know how to make a relationship more intimate.
I know how to stop arguments.
When I meet people, I expect we will like each other.
When I am the only one with food, I either offer to share or do not eat in front of the others.
There are several people in my life with whom I can have deep, intimate, honest conversations.
When I am speaking to people, I look them in the eye and smile if it is appropriate.
When I disagree with or do not like someone, I still fully understand the person’s perspective and know what he or she is feeling.
When I feel bad, I can count on certain people being able to make me feel good again.
I do not fear failure when I begin something.
I have a clear sense of when someone is using power over me for my own good.
When I do well, I can really feel proud of myself.
When I fail at something important and feel worthless, some part of me knows I am not really worthless.
I don’t think I get any more depressed than the next person when I fail at something important.
I have ways of getting over my depressed feelings after a failure.
If someone says or does something nice, I can usually tell whether it is sincere or just to get me to do something.
I can take criticism gracefully.
I can speak up in a group of strangers if I have a good idea.
I can manage public speaking.
If I’m well prepared for a performance or competition, I feel confident.
I am able to speak up and defend the boundaries I have set.
I can recognize, at the time, when someone is using me without concern for the harm it may do me.
I can form alliances to ward off abusive power.
I can leave an abusive relationship before I am damaged by it.
The fewer items you checked on the linking and ranking lists, the more you have to gain from this book. If you checked a disproportionate number of items on one list compared to the other, this book will also help you correct your ranking-linking imbalance.
Choose the Right Company
Fortunately, no innate or learned tendency, even the defeat response, is beyond remedy. Just as you can suppress a reflex like blinking your eye when putting in eye drops, you can learn to be flexible in engaging your self-conscious emotions when you choose to do so, and you have one way to do that right now.
Go to the journal that you began for this book and look at the two lists you made at the start of this chapter, of the people who make you feel good and those who make you feel bad. You might want to use your contact list or address book to add anyone you may have missed. Cover up the list of people who make you feel good. Now you are looking only at the people who make you feel bad about yourself, the ones who create a ranking mood in you. Notice how your mood drops. Now cover the list of people who make you feel bad about yourself so that you see only those with whom you link. See how your mood and your confidence lift. This shows one way that you can consciously shift out of an innate response — in this case by shifting the people you are with or are thinking about.
Looking More Closely
Beside or under each name on the two lists, make notes of your ranking and linking observations about these relationships. Do any of your ranking relationships feel abusive? Or does the person use power to do what is really best for you? How many of your linking relationships are at the level of love? Within a linking relationship, do you see some ranking? Within a ranking relationship, do you see some linking? Your goal is to become better at seeing the ranking or linking beneath the surface of relationships.
Think about some exceptions to the usual pattern of feel-good goes with linking and feel-bad goes with ranking. For example:
Is there someone on your feel-good list with whom you have a ranking relationship? Why might this be? A person higher in rank can make you feel good about yourself by praising you or simply reporting accurately on your work. You might be enjoying an alliance that is working for you, even though you know it is not a lasting friendship but is only in the service of both of you gaining a higher rank. Or you might be in a ranking relationship in which you have the higher rank and are enjoying another’s respect or your own power or influence.
Is there anyone on your feel-bad list with whom you thought you had a good linking relationship but now realize it is actually mostly about ranking? For example, does the person often make you feel inferior, ashamed, or powerless? Or do you not enjoy the other’s company because you feel superior, bored, or unable to respect this person’s ideas or beliefs?
Does anyone seem to belong on both lists, making you feel both good and bad? Is this a case of you or the other person using ranking in the service of linking? Or linking in the service of ranking?
Focus on those you love. Presumably they are on your feel-good list. But do you ever rank yourself with them in the sense that you worry that you need or love them more than they need or love you?
Would you like to strengthen your link with anyone on the feel-good list? How might you do that, even today?
Looking at the ranking relationships you have with those on your feel-bad list, does anyone abuse his or her power over you? If you rank higher than someone on the list, why does this person make you feel bad? For example, is your higher rank too much responsibility, is the other too needy, or does it bother you generally to have power?
Choose the Right Groups
Make a list of the groups you belong to: family, clubs, teams, social groups, coworkers, and so on. Include two-person groups such as friends or life partners. You can also include important groups from the past, such as your high school class, and those in which you do not know all the members, such as your organization, your generation, or your ethnic group. In other words, list all of the groups that have a strong influence on how you see yourself. Now underline the groups that make you feel good about yourself. Next, circle the one that is most influencing your overall self-worth today. If that influence is negative, focus your attention on the group that makes you feel best about yourself right now.
Identifying Ranking and Linking in a Typical Day
Think back to yesterday. Choose a few memorable interactions and describe how much linking and ranking you felt in each, using rough percentages. The numbers don’t need to be specific but should express how much linking or ranking you felt in each interaction. Also, if it was a ranking situation, consider whether you were undervaluing yourself.
For example, when you woke up and greeted the person with whom you live, perhaps you felt 90 percent linking. This is always a good start to a day. It would be 100 percent linking if you didn’t always worry a little that he thinks you look awful when you first get out of bed. You know this is probably undervaluing yourself — he doesn’t look that great either.
Next, when you drove to work, you had mostly competitive feelings or conflict with other drivers — 80 percent ranking — although you slowed down for one person desperate to change lanes and later someone did that for you. You did not undervalue yourself.
At work you exchanged greetings with a coworker who is still hurt that you replaced him as the boss’s favorite, through no fault of your own — 70 percent ranking. Although you have the higher rank now, you feel a little guilty, even ashamed, so there is some undervaluing of yourself here.
You had a meeting with your boss. The two of you get along terrifically — 50 percent ranking, since he’s your boss, and 50 percent linking. You did not undervalue yourself when with him.
You spoke with a client you thoroughly enjoy — 60 percent linking, but 40 percent ranking because you cannot afford to lose this account, so you tend to act as if you agree with her much more than you actually do. But you felt successful and did not undervalue yourself.
You had lunch with a close friend — 90 percent linking. It would be 100 percent linking except that you felt a little uncomfortable afterward. The two of you take turns paying, but you could not recall who had paid last, and she joked that you always conveniently forget. You often feel ashamed in some way after seeing her. You now wonder if this relationship isn’t more about ranking than you thought, because she regularly triggers your undervalued self.
You went to the gym after work and felt like the most unhealthy, unfit person there. You felt 100 percent ranking and can see that you were undervaluing yourself.
Excerpted from The Undervalued Self by Aron, Elaine N. Copyright © 2010 by Aron, Elaine N.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Elaine Aron, Ph.D., is recognized internationally as one of the leading scientists studying the psychology of love and close relationships. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Time Magazine, and National Geographic, and she has appeared on national morning shows on many networks. She is the author of The Highly Sensitive Person, The Highly Sensitive Person in Love, and The Highly Sensitive Child. She divides her time between New York and San Francisco.
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