A Psychodynamic Perspective on Idealization

Many people are dominated by a powerful fantasy and they usually have no idea about it or the way it affects their behavior.  It often lies behind difficulties with procrastination, the inability to follow-through, apparent lack of motivation and many other problems.   It has to do with the ideal life, the one these individuals feel that they should be leading.

How would you like to live on an island where anything you needed automatically came to you without effort, even before you recognized that you needed it?  You wouldn’t have to strive for anything, or feel frustration about the struggle.  The climate would be perfectly mild, too, never varying more than a degree or two in either direction.  Virtually nothing painful could touch you because the island would be perfectly safe and hold no inherent threats, protected from the rest of the dangerous world by a buffering sea of tranquility.

Welcome to the womb.  While the intrauterine world isn’t as perfectly serene as I paint it, compared to the shock of childbirth and everything that comes afterward in life, it seems ideal.  The fantasy that one could have such a perfect existence during one’s lifetime, though unacknowledged, is widespread; the expectation that one should have such a life lies at the heart of many severe psychological problems.  I’m not suggesting that people consciously think this way, but the internal demand that life be perfect often controls them anyway.

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Self-Hatred and Self-Criticism


[I expand upon the themes expressed below in two later posts, one about shyness and self-hatred as defenses against vulnerability, and another concerning the role of unconscious anger and refusal in self-loathing.]

Browse the self-help aisle at the bookstore, or comb through the online material about self-esteem, and you’ll mostly find advice on how to take “conscious control of your self-talk,” to stop negative self-statements and replace them with affirmations, to love yourself, to conquer this or that experience, etc.  In an earlier post, I discussed why such verbal techniques don’t work, but even for those people who do find them valuable, I’d like to suggest a different way of approaching this issue.

These other techniques tend to view “negative self-statements” as if they were something almost alien to the person:  internalized parental criticism we must identify and reject; perfectionistic standards imposed upon us by advertising, our peer group, society at large; mental tape loops that reflexively repeat horrible things about us, almost like a critic-virus implanted in our brains.  Instead, you may find it more useful to “own” the critic and  take a look at what it is that you (and not somebody else) actually expect.

Let me give a personal example.  I play the piano, and sometimes when I’m confronting a new technical challenge and get frustrated, I can come down hard on myself.  If I listen closely, I’ll be saying things like, “You’re a lousy player.  What’s wrong with you?  You should have mastered this piece already!  You’ll never be any good.”  Those thoughts aren’t merely critical.  They reflect attitudes and expectations I’ve struggled with my entire life:  1.  I should be able to master things quickly and easily.  2.  Learning should not involve frustration.  3.  I want to be the best at what I do; anything less is without value.

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Your Plan for a Person

Most of us have goals and aspirations for the sort of person we’d like to become.  Our ideal self-image is a reflection of the values we hold; it shows us the person we’d be if we were always able to live up to our own standards.  When we succeed, it builds our self-esteem, but when we fail, it has just the opposite effect.

Some people, particularly those burdened with basic shame, often aspire to an ideal self intended to deny underlying damage; it’s a kind of lie about what is underneath rather than a fulfillment of internal values.   From my earliest days in psychotherapy, my therapist would refer to it as my “plan for a person” — the well-educated, well-traveled, sophisticated, multi-lingual artsy-type guy I aspired to be, to disprove how badly I felt about myself, my damage and my depression.  Ugly Joe, as I think of him.   I’ve seen many similar patients during my years of practice; on an unconscious level, they all felt a kind of hopelessness about the extent of their damage and believed the only solution was to fabricate a “new and improved” self from the ground up.  These people had all suffered early emotional trauma of an ongoing nature.

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