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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Winners and Losers

Competition is a fact of life; the desire to win at games, get the highest grade in the class or bring home a blue ribbon from the county fair is a feeling most of us can understand.  Playing sports provides an outlet for competitive urges; watching your favorite professional teams allows us to compete vicariously.

Competitive urges may also pervade our lives in many other areas:  Who has the bigger house?  Whose kid got into the better college?  Who drives the nicer car?  Who has the more prestigious job?  Who is better-looking or fitter?  Who is more popular, smarter, wittier?  People regularly make such comparisons and often feel in competition with their friends and acquaintances, whether or not they realize it.  As long as it’s not a preoccupation or source of great distress, this is “normal” — that is to say, competition is everywhere.

Competition becomes toxic, however, when you add the element of triumph.  I don’t mean that word in its positive sense, as in “His victory was a triumph of self-discipline and fortitude.”  The triumph I have in mind goes hand-in-hand with the humiliation of others.  In this sense, when you are victorious it means there must be a contemptible loser.  “Personal best” doesn’t apply in that instance; seeing others go down to defeat is a major part of the gratification.  Feeling superior to and better than those losers is the goal.

I think this feeling is more commonplace that you might expect.  Why, after all, do so many people tune in to reality-based TV shows like “American Idol” or “Project Runway,” where week after week, the “losers” are dismissed from the competition by contemptuous judges, often in extremely degrading ways.  A very large part of the viewing public must derive satisfaction from witnessing this humiliation, no doubt identifying with the triumphant winner or the sneering judge.

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