“What negative belief are you struggling to confirm?”
I had written this question to myself months ago and have reflected on it recently. Though I wrote it myself, the question has changed as I think about it. The popular use of “negative” usually has connotations of bad, undesirable, pessimistic, or cynical. In behavioral psychology, however, “negative” is often used more formally with the meaning of negation or subtraction.
Carl Jung often used a word, “enantiodroma,” which is highly useful and yet has fallen out of use; I suspect in part because one cannot be sure how to pronounce it simply by looking at it. Enantiodroma is the psychological tendency of a thing to become its opposite. Taoist thought speaks to this as well — extreme weakness becomes strength, extreme strength becomes weakness. In part I think of this as the natural consequence of dualistic thinking. Though I often work with binaries in my thinking, a binary is an imperfect means of separating and analyzing phenomena that co-occur.
A negative belief might look like: “I am not a failure.” “I am not like my mother.” These beliefs are rebellious in the reactive sense. At the core is a certain level of fear or anger that drives us on, that fuels denial of what is, and limits our capacity to simply be in the world. The dilemma of such a belief is that it states itself as an absolute, which makes it fragile. Any sign of failure is enough to collapse the whole. That means I am constantly wary, whether I recognize it or not, for signs of failure, and working myself to death to avoid the possibility. My question to myself highlighted this dilemma. One cannot completely confirm or refute an absolute belief, no matter how much we struggle.
“I am not (racist/sexist/heterosexist/etc.)” is a belief that fuels a great deal of defensiveness and blindness to privilege. When someone begins with “I don’t mean to sound racist,” one can safely bet money that what’s about to follow is a baldly racist statement that the speaker is psychologically unwilling to own and explore. The sorrow is that this denial often makes the conversations more unworkable and painful. If one were to simply step away from the absolutes and acknowledge that we live in a society built upon systematic discrimination and that we are going to have racist, classist, sexist thoughts, we could have more open conversations. We could say, “I know this sounds racist” and unpack the belief, preferably without inflicting it upon a person of color.
I have found some utility in such negative thinking combined with a willingness to acknowledge and accept incongruities. There have been times when I noticed a reaction coming up in me, an urge to throw a tantrum or act jealous or start sulking when I didn’t get my way, and I had the thought, “I don’t want to be that person.” In those moments of consciousness, I was able to stop the behavior. I may not have known exactly what person I wanted to be, but knowing who I did not want to be was enough for the moment.
A difficulty of negative belief is why movements that emerge only as reactions to prevailing norms often experience a period of suffering and floundering after the first success. Knowing what you are against is not as powerful or motivating as identifying what you are for.
Positive belief could be that which actively identifies and includes something: “I am a writer” or “I believe in justice.” This takes a strong stance and moves toward desire. Positive beliefs can be painful, like “I am a disappointment to my parents.” When I chose a positive belief and move toward it, energy and inspiration follow, even when I push against resistance. Beliefs function best when we engage will and act upon them. I can simply say to myself “I am a writer” and let that statement lie fallow and unused, or I can face my life and ask, “If I am a writer, then what must I do?” The answer, of course, is write. “If I believe in justice, then what must I do?”
One of the difficulties of a positive belief is that, when unconscious or unexplored, it warps our perception such that everything in our lives seems to confirm it. If I think of myself as a disappointment, my mind will hone in on every misstep, every argument, every frown, every piece of evidence that validates me as a disappointment. I may behave in ways, semi-consciously or unconsciously, that are disappointing. I become fixated on the conflict of seeking validation vs. experiencing disappointment. To say who I am is this attribute, this particular problematic way of relating, is to put myself in prison. The key to freedom is in myself, but I have decided it is my parents who must free me by no longer being disappointed. Therefore I must behave in ways that do not disappoint them, only I cannot because all I think I am to them is disappointing.
If we are not consciously choosing, honing, and acting upon our beliefs, then our less helpful beliefs tend to act through us. Returning to the topic of enantiodroma, I realize we can phrase any belief positively or negatively, and that any belief too firmly or loosely held can be detrimental to growth. Exploring my stated beliefs helps me to explore my underlying attitude to these beliefs. Am I acting in accord with what I say I believe? Can I accept that I have incongruities between what I say and what I do? When I recognize these incongruities, am I willing to look again at my beliefs or change my behavior?