The Undervalued Self, a book review

Aron, Elaine N. (2010) The Undervalued Self: Restore your love/power balance, transform the inner voice that holds you back, and find your true self-worth. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

I requested this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program because Aron’s earlier book, The Highly Sensitive Person, had proved invaluable to me in understanding myself and several members of my family.  I hoped The Undervalued Self would be similarly useful; in that, I was disappointed.

The book begins by presenting the concepts of Ranking (aka power) and Linking (aka love/relationships) and how they might contribute to the Undervalued Self (aka low self-esteem).  Next Aron outlines Six Self-Protections we use for dealing with low rank followed by a discussion of how Traumas from Childhood and Adulthood  (as well as prejudice, sensitivity, and insecure attachment) can lead to our low self-ranking.  The next three chapters deal with techniques for healing (Linking with others, Linking with the Innocent (aka the “inner child”), and Dealing with our Inner Critic (aka Superego).  Finally, two chapters deal with Relationships.

Following Aron’s suggestion for “dealing with your inner critic”, I will accompany my criticisms with “four comments on what was good” (see p. 163).  The book provides a helpful new way of looking at “low self-esteem” through the concept of “the undervalued self.”  The analysis of the possible causes of the undervalued self, including trauma, prejudice, and sensitivity clearly shows why “positivity” and “affirmations” actually make many people feel worse instead of better.  The techniques for creating balance between power (aka “ranking”) and relationships/love (aka “linking”) seem useful.  The language of the book is generally accessible.

Unfortunately, the book contains many of the pitfalls of most “self-help” books: long catch-all subtitles, vague (sometimes all-encompassing) definitions, pseudo-scientific analyses invoking evolution and genetics without any clear scientific backing, oversimplification of concepts, attempts to make it seem as if anyone and everyone can and should benefit from this book, the use of buzzwords and popular concepts many of which are merely “new” terms for old familiar concepts (old wine, new bottle), and, my personal favorite, implying that any resistance to the ideas in the book is a sure indicator that you need to use it.

Unlike most self-help books, The Undervalued Self recognizes that not every wound can be self-healed.  Unfortunately, the caveats about what situations require a therapist are a bit buried under all the seemingly simple techniques for do-it-yourself fixing.  This attempt to appeal to the current anti-expertise/”everyone’s an expert” zeitgeist combines with quite a few everyday analogies which don’t seem very accurate (e.g., using the book is like baking a cake, the internet as linking not ranking) to make the book seem overly aimed at a “popular” audience.  Anyone expecting a bit more substance is likely to be disappointed.

Of all these areas of concern/complaint, the misuse of evolution/genetics was most annoying to me.  Even if I grant something like “ranking” or “linking” or “empathy” might have some evolutionary and/or genetic basis, that does not imply that the trait or inclination would be universal across the species or that the need for it would not show variability across individuals.  I don’t believe Aron’s argument actually hinges on this presumed evolutionary basis, so it is even more annoying that it is dropped into the discussion willy-nilly as if it is convincing proof.

I should probably say something about the checklists and exercises in the book.  The checklists seemed designed to indicate that nearly everyone needs to read and use this book; in one case checking even a few items was an indicator, in another the instructions virtually guarantee a “True” answer to almost every question.  The exercises, including active imagination, journaling, inner dialogues, working with dreams, seem straightforward enough; most readers of this book should be able to follow the instructions.  I might even go back to some of them myself.  I’m just not convinced that the purposes and steps are described in enough detail to really get people to explore the difficult issues underlying them (e.g., letting down protections related to trauma, recognizing the experience of trauma in the body).

Finally, some structural issues, in case the editors of the book are reading this review:

  • the first three heading levels within each chapter are all centered (Level 1: centered bold caps, Level 2: centered bold, Level 3 centered italic) which made it difficult to sort out the structure within each chapter
  • the personal examples (e.g., “Jake Wakes Up . . .” “Myra’s Inner Critic” etc.) should have their own unique style heading (or be set off in some other way), to distinguish them from the more analytical sections around them
  • many of the exercises (which one might want to come back to after reading the whole book) are buried within the text; putting them in a box or highlighting them in some other way would be helpful
  • some of the chapters (especially Chapter Six) need major restructuring to make their structure easier to follow;  (e.g., Chapter Six has two very short sections sandwiching a very long section with many subparts, this center section could easily have been divided into two or three major sections that would have made the whole chapter more clear)

In summary, if you are someone who suffers from low self-esteem and other techniques have not helped, or someone who has experienced trauma but is resistant to psychotherapy or for whom psychotherapy hasn’t worked, you might find this book helpful.  My review on LibraryThing will have 3 out of 5 stars.

Your Brain On Cubs—A Review

Your Brain on Cubs: Inside the Heads of Players and Fans (2008) Edited by Dan Gordon. Washington, DC: Dana Press

Cubs fans are perfect subjects for psychological study. We stick with our team despite 100 years of heartbreak. We rationalize with talk of curses. We analyze what it would take to have that perfect team who would make all our pennant dreams come true. Any book purporting to examine not only our fanatic brains, but also the inner workings of hitters and pitchers, should be a “natural” for us. As a die-hard Cubs fan and a cognitive psychologist, I thought this book would “touch all my bases”. Unfortunately, I was disappointed from both perspectives: much of the baseball in the book was not really about the Cubs and most of the science in the book was not about baseball.

The book contains seven chapters covering: the social-cognitive and neuroscience basis of fan loyalty; expertise and the brain; the neuroscience of hitting; the psychology of superstition; performance enhancing drugs; handedness; and the psychology of the euphoria of winning and the agony/depression of losing. These chapters vary in the degree to which they report actual research on baseball fans and/or players. Some seem to be pure speculation about how research in a particular field might apply to baseball. Others use research on other sports or the movements and processes that are part of baseball and try to extrapolate to the actual experience of playing or watching a game. Although most of the authors seem to be enthusiastic about baseball, and some even include moving personal stories about their connection to baseball and/or the Cubs, they vary in their ability to knit the psychological research and the game of baseball into a convincing presentation. Not all of the authors are trained psychologists, so some of the articles read more like magazine pieces than science. Other chapters read like a basic overview of someone’s specialty with a few baseball references inserted for this publication. Others seem to be stretching to find any real connection at all. The best chapters (e.g. Kelli Whitlock Burton and Hillary R. Rodman’s “It Isn’t Whether You Win or Lose, It’s Whether You Win: Agony and Ecstasy in the Brain”) integrate the experience of baseball throughout the discussion of the research and acknowledge when they are extrapolating (e.g., after describing parallels between fanship and religious faith including brain studies on religious subjects reciting psalms, they note “Ritual recitation of ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’ has yet to be studied.”—LOL).

I must single out one chapter that I found rather troubling. Bennett Foddy’s analysis of performance enhancing drugs and baseball “Risks and Asterisks: Neurological Enhancements in Baseball” argues in favor of the use of performance enhancing drugs. After discussing the physiological effects (emphasizing the positive and underplaying the negative) of a variety of substances in what could serve as a how-to manual for getting high, Foddy provides an “ethical” analysis using an equation based solely on benefits to the players (e.g., there are no poor MLB players so everyone can afford to take drugs = home runs = $$) and benefits to the spectators (e.g., fans want entertainment = home runs = $$) leaving out any discussion of players as role models for little leaguers, the message sent to young people by the use of performance enhancing drugs, and how the drug use filters down to the minor leagues (where there certainly ARE poor players and not everyone is equally able to afford to take drugs). The fact that Foddy holds a fellowship in bioethics may explain something about the sorry state of medical bioethical analysis today.

By far the biggest problem with the book is actually an editorial issue: the reference style. Even a science book written for the “general reader,” as this book claims to be, needs to be clear about the difference between pure speculation and statements based on scientific research. For many of the statements in Your Brain on Cubs, this distinction is impossible to determine, primarily because of an editorial decision to put all the references in the back of the book. As a scientist, when I read a statement such as “There is sufficient evidence that people integrate their personal identities with their social identities.” I expect to see it followed by either an article citation or a footnote leading me to a specific citation. In this book, there are no such indications of which statements are backed by research; instead, the references for each chapter/article are listed at the back of the book in alphabetical order. Most of the articles do not provide enough information within the article itself (e.g., researcher names) to be able to link specific statements/claims to a particular reference on the list. In fact, I suspect that most of the chapters were written in the standard scientific style and then the references were removed.

Once I located the references buried at the back of the book, I discovered another problem: most of the references are not about baseball at all. Of the 142 references listed, only 18 were specifically about baseball, 13 about other sports, 5 about music; the remaining 106 references are general psychology or neuroscience references. Perhaps the research just does not exist, in which case perhaps sufficient justification for this book is also lacking.

Your Brain On Cubs neither diminished my love of the Cubs nor helped explain it. I recommend readers buy a ticket to a baseball game and spend their time there instead of reading this book.