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Elaine Aron, Ph.D.

Elaine N. Aron Ph.D.

Ranking and Linking, For Better and For Worse

Forget affirmations: low self-esteem is instinctual, so use another instinct.

This blog, "Attending to the Undervalued Self," is the result of years of puzzling over the ultimate foundation of our universal emotional problems. One answer I addressed in The Highly Sensitive Person: Evolution has made about 20% of us more susceptible to both the good and bad things in life.

Innate temperament cannot be the whole story, however. Research (and my own experience as a therapist) finds that low self-esteem underlies most depression, anxiety, and failed relationships. Yet in spite of our focus on raising self-esteem, we have had little success. In fact, research (Wood, 2009) low self-esteem is in a sense natural, one result of our instinct to rank ourselves among others finds that repeating self-affirmations, the most common self-help treatment, only increases low self-esteem in those already feeling bad, as many hapless souls have found.

Finally, it dawned on me that low self-esteem is about power and influence, the result of rank. Like other social animals, we constantly rank ourselves among others--competing and comparing. We always know everyone else's rank in the social hierarchy while trying to maintain or raise our own. Just as often, however we are linking--liking or loving certain others, so that we want to be near them, get to know them, and meet their needs if we can. Ranking or linking, all the time, and when in one, we are usually not in the other.

Many blogs offer theories about Tiger Woods' adultery, all of them true in their way. It is all too familiar--so many powerful men we have otherwise admired, most notably certain U.S. Presidents, have preceded Tiger. The bottom line for their troubles is that fate kept them mostly in ranking mode. It's the life of politicians, athletes, those fighting for justice, and anyone else in the public spotlight for long. Research on power tells us that anyone on top inevitably thinks less about others' welfare. You can make a conscious moral decision to use power in the service of others, but there will be slips, especially in personal life, where we just assume linking will predominate. Then there is sincere remorse. Ranking got them.

Ranking is automatic and useful. Imagine every day having to figure out who's best at each job, including President. But linking brings far more comfort and pleasure. The trouble with ranking is being challenged. At some point we all experience defeat. Then we have, like all social animals, what researchers (Sloman & Gilbert, 2000) call the Involuntary Defeat Response, which is to become depressed. We "turn tail," looking and feeling like there's "no fight left in us." This ends the challenge, protecting both sides from further damage. When you are defeated, you also undervalue yourself for a while, again keeping you out of conflicts.

Humans rehearse challenges in imagination. Except perhaps at the peak of your powers, you will imagine some defeats. This is especially true if you have had a recent defeat, a big one, or a childhood of experiencing power without love. Are you often stuck in ranking? Then you are often undervaluing yourself. It's natural. No wonder raising yourself in the self-esteem ranking is not the answer. To get out of ranking, switch to linking, my next blog entry.

Something you can do right now: Recognize ranking and linking better. List those special people with whom you feel best, and those others with whom you feel worst. You and the people on the first list are mostly linking, right? Those on the second mostly engage you in ranking, even if this is supposedly a loving relationship. You know who to be around more.


About the Author

Elaine Aron, Ph.D.

Elaine Aron, Ph.D., is a research and clinical psychologist, and the author of The Undervalued Self, The Highly Sensitive Person, and The Highly Sensitive Child.