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Belief and denial

Understanding how a healthy relationship between belief and denial can be created is complicated. Lots of things can throw this out of balance.

One is belief intoxication — the process that occurs when a person is "captured" by his beliefs, attributing success entirely to them and any ideology that might lie behind them. While belief undoubtedly contributes to success, other more mundane factors — help from other people, perseverance, skill training and even blind luck — are equally important.

Belief intoxication is a sign that a fragile identity is seeking more solidity. This attractive "short cut" to a sense of solidity inspires a person to consume the identity associated with his belief, embracing uncritically the behaviors others sharing that belief prescribe in order to secure their approval. This is an entirely different process from discovering identity — facing the world, bravely trying things, mostly failing, incorporating reflection and feedback, adjusting and then trying again.

Consuming identity leads to an inflated sense of self — the foundation for identity leans too heavily on belief rather than belief measured against experience.

Ironically, consuming identity undercuts genuine self-belief, a quieter but more solid factor at the core of the successes a person achieves. Self-belief emerges slowly over time: through the countless hours a musician practices before his concert; through a parent humbly accepting his child's perspective when he's gone off course; through a worker sustaining the courage to consistently confront a harassing boss. Belief is part of this equation but is kept in proportion to other qualities.

Consuming identity also lays the groundwork for living ideologically: the next great "system" is substituted for self-discovery. The focus necessary to achieve success is wrongly equated with a narrowness of perspective prescribed by others. The ongoing process of discovering identity, on the other hand, means a person gives his best effort and, if he fails, doesn't exaggerate that failure into falsely concluding he is an unworthy person. Unresolved narcissism is the main culprit driving people to consume identity, because consumed identities are based on external approval and shame avoidance rather than internal discovery.

When belief intoxication runs the show, denial is also affected. The healthy denial necessary to, say, alter one's diet when training for a marathon, inflates into a self-punitive attitude. This reflects the self-loathing at the core of narcissism. When self-loathing projects itself outward, it often takes the form of contemptuous viewpoints expressed about others the person doesn't agree with or like. An example of this behavior is the vitriolic, venomous judgments frequently espoused by self-appointed media "analysts." When self-loathing is directed inward, it can find a home in depression, anxiety and — at the extreme — suicide. When the healthy manifestation of denial — appropriate restraint — becomes punitive, it serves as an excuse for people to avoid self-examination.

When the relationship between belief and denial is distorted, one more serious consequence results: the impact that a person's striving for success has on others is pushed to the side. The career climber convinced he should be CEO may begin his pursuit in an energized, focused manner. If that focus narrows to the point where he willingly tramples his colleagues on his way to the top, will he even notice? If so, can he stop, reflect, adjust? When the answer to both these questions is "no," awareness of the broader community is lost.

It's a consequence we can no longer afford if we intend to build a more cooperative, respectful, and compassionate world.

Greg Jemsek, local therapist and author of "Quiet Horizon: Releasing Ideology and Embracing Self-Knowledge," will speak at the Ashland library Tuesday, Oct. 25, at 7 p.m. www.quiethorizon.com

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