Defense Mechanisms V: Idealization

Once again we have a concept familiar to most people.  Idealizing a new love interest, hero worship, excessive and unwarranted optimism — these experiences all depend upon the process of idealization.  They also illustrate the point I tried to make in my last post, that these individual defense mechanisms we’re discussing are to a degree artificially distinct categories and don’t occur one-by-one.  Idealizing a loved object involves denial of the parts of reality that undermine perfection.  Extreme optimism involves denial of our doubts or questions about the future.  Both processes involve splitting to some degree, where the perceptions or ideas that might lead to a more nuanced view are projected outside.

The process of idealization may take aim at several different objects:  self, experience or another person.  I’ll discuss each one of those processes separately, but first I’d like to say something about what drives idealization.  In graduate school, one of my professors once told us, “The worse the object, the more the need to idealize it.”  I don’t remember which professor said it, and whether he was quoting from another theorist, but the expression has remained with me for nearly 30 years.  In this sentence, the word “object” is used in its
theoretical sense, to mean another person — as in, “the object of my affections.”  Given the emphasis on the mother-infant relationship in my training, I’m quite sure this professor meant that the experience of having a grossly deficient mother is excrutiating for the infant; the more intolerable that pain, the more likely he or she would be to defend against it either by idealizing the actual mother or escaping from her into a relationship with a perfect one in fantasy.

If you pursued the latter defensive strategy, you might spend the rest of your life looking for a perfect object to love.  As described in an earlier post on love junkies, you might cycle in and out of infatuation, believing you have finally found The One this time, only to succumb again to disillusionment.  I’m sure this phenomenon will be familiar to most of you.  Another way of conceptualizing that process is that the person uses the heady and idealized feeling of being in love as if it were a kind of drug to ward off pain.  Perfect love as the antidote to other unbearable emotions.  (Just don’t call it an “addiction”; if you’ve been reading my site for a while, you know how I feel about the thoughtless way people use the language of addiction to describe everything.)

One of my clients, Kay, for several years dated the same two men in rotation.  She’d spend an idyllic weekend with Rod and decide he must be her soul-mate.  Then a week later, he’d begin to grate on her nerves and she’d “realize” that Danny was the right guy instead.  The honeymoon period with Danny would eventually wear off, of course, and back she’d go to Rod.  And on and on.  Helping her to have a more realistic relationship with a man, and with her own pain, was extremely difficult.  She kept me and our work together at a great distance through her preoccupation with these two men, and the continual dilemma over which one to choose.

My tendency to idealize some people, as well as certain experiences, was (and can still be) quite strong.  As a child, togetherness in my family was an infrequent and unhappy experience; the only vacations we ever took were three-day weekends to camp in the Sequoia National Forest or mind-numbing drives from California to visit my mother’s family in Texas.  After I had my own children, I would look forward to our family vacations with absurdly idealized expectations, as if this particular trip was going to make everything all right — the perfect family vacation that made up for my childhood.  In the photos from these vacations, you can see my mood begin to sink with the realization that we were still the same prickly, bickering bunch.  To this day, my children tease me about my idealized fantasy for the perfect trip

Many people idealize vacations in similar ways.  Everything will be great once I get to Hawaii. Or — This place is fabulous!  If only I lived here full-time, I’d be happy.  Unfortunately, vacations come to an end; they turn out not to be the perfect antidote to unhappiness, after all, and we eventually return to our flawed lives and internal difficulties.  The list of possible idealized experiences, often projected into the imaginary future, is endless, of course.  Everything will be great once I (a) have a different job; (b) move to a different city; (c) buy that flat-screen TV, etc. ad infinitem.

The belief in and search for perfect, idealized answers to unbearable pain lies at the heart of bipolar disorder, as I’ve discussed elsewhere.  While mania may involve idealizing another person (a love object) or a particular experience — e.g. writing, in the case study mentioned in that earlier post — it may also reflect an idealization of the self, where the manic person feels him- or herself to be ideal, god-like.  Once again, the worse the internal state of affairs (damage, depression), the more idealization fuels a manic flight into grandiosity. A similar dynamic lies at the heart of narcissistic personality disorder and other types of narcissistic behavior.   The more damaged and shame-ridden we feel ourselves to be, the more the drive to idealize ourselves and so deny the damage.

Finding Your Own Way:

What do you idealize?  I think just about everybody is prone to idealization in one area or another.  Do you tend to idealize other people who have something you don’t?  This is a particular variation where the idealized experience is felt to be out of reach, inside of someone else.  Do you look at loving couples and imagine them to have an ideal relationship?  Envy and jealousy may be the result.

Do you idealize vacations, as I did (do)?  Do you project an idealized fantasy of what it will be like on your next trip?  I don’t think this is necessarily pathological; looking forward to an upcoming vacation is a way to cope with the difficulties of our on-going lives.  Only when our expecations become excessive (Joe Burgo on vacation with his kids) does it become a problem.

Maybe you’re the kind of person who needs everything to be perfect — at least to feel that way — for it to be satisfying.  You may have the ability, at times, to convince yourself that you really are having an ideal experience.  It may fill you with elation.  At other times, you may feel bitterly disappointed when reality falls even a little bit short of expectation.

Then there’s sex, of course.  Sex and orgasm feel so incredibly good they naturally lend themselves to idealization.  We’re used to thinking about promiscuous men and women as “commitment-phobic” or afraid of intimacy; they may also be idealizing the sexual excitement of new partners to escape from depression or some other experience of internal damage.

Whenever you see idealization, in yourself or others, ask yourself what you or they are trying to escape.

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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26 comments

    So my thinking “Once I’m perfect (as a wife, mother, employee, friend, relative and neighbor) I’ll be Ok, and then I can relax” is actually idealization of my damaged self? I know my perfectionism isn’t healthy or realistic, but I could never understand where it came from (or how to let it go).

    The example you give is complicated. I do think that perfectionistic standards are often the “flip-side” of shame — just as narcissism is the flip-side of shame, a way to deny the underlying damage and replace it with something ideal. As for how to “let it go,” for me, it’s two-fold: trying to become more real about my damage and limitations (living with a degree of shame) and at the same time “silencing” the critical voice by not thinking all the time. I guess I’m talking about the distinction between feeling a realistic acceptance of the ways in which we’re less-than-ideal (which might involve some shame and regret) vs. perfectionistic criticism because nothing we do ever measures up.

    Another common example is idealization of body image or weight. A lot of women and girls think, “I’d feel so much better if I lost five pounds,” “I bet that Victoria’s Secret model has the perfect life,” or “If only I could fit into my high school jeans.” On one hand, I believe jealousy and envy can occur as a result of denial of these emotions. On the other hand, I think sometimes eating disorders develop as manifestations of the idealization of the “perfect” body. Great post and thank you for sharing your insights.

    The projection of idealized images everywhere around us, in advertising and movies, is a complicating factor … and probably deserves a post of its own.

    Idealization of a love interest/partner/boyfriend is something I do. I tend to look at the good things and ignore or rationalize away their faults. Maybe because I accept their faults, they feed somewhat on my love and attention, and I continue to idealize them because they love me. When i do experience and see their faults (I’m not talking minor faults but deal breakers), I feel like I should not be the one to walk away and let them down. I know that people do not change, but somehow I feel somewhat responsible for them. I rationalize all this by telling myself that it’s better than being alone, or that I’m afraid to get into a real consuming relationship, so I may as well hang out here with my less than ideal mate. I lost my husband 5 years ago and I am not sure if this is my defense mechanism. Maybe to prevent falling in love and experiencing real pain. Another thing that I find difficult is that many women are not friendly to me in a real way. I’m not sure if they are threatened by my being a widow and unmarried, or if people in general just don’t want to be reminded of sadness and mortality. I tend to be a bit more calm, sensitive, sometimes serious, and I don’t seem to fit in with the single, out there, extoverted, drinking groups that i meet. it’s difficult to figure it all out. I find that I don’t plan for a future, which I think must be a sign of depression. I guess I’m just trying to escape the pain of grief and the realization that I am ultimately alone. I enjoy your writings very, very much.

    Dee, it sounds like you have a fairly good handle on what you’re doing. Your thoughts about possible depression and escaping grief sound right on the money. As for the way other women treat you, I’ve heard this before; there seems to be something threatening to other married women about a divorced or widowed woman. I think you’re also right that people don’t want to be reminded of sadness and mortality. It must be lonely, to be alone with your pain.

    I don’t think I idealize too much at my age. I don’t like things to be messy or have conflict. But I can still have a good time if there is conflict. I am aware of the flaws
    of the single man I have a crush upon although he may have even more flaws than I know about. I believe he is good as in like an angel so maybe I do idealize him too much. I don’t idealize the fact that I could be happily married with anybody with all of my problems. Yes, miracles happen but I can’t pin my hopes on that. I don’t live in regret for what I do not have.

    I am definitely an everything has to be perfect person – a hard one to maintain. I’ve thought about this- although it undoubtedly stems from a very painful childhood and a determination to make my adulthood different. In doing so I have possibly put less emphasis/value on myself as an individual rather than my all important situation/environment. I concluded that one solution for me would be develop my ability to live in the present moment- something I have up till now found almost impossible (voice in my head saying something like ‘That’s impossible I am simply too upset/angry/distressed to be able to focus on the present moment until this issue is resolved’

    I want to make sure I understand idealization and see if it applies to me. This is something that has bothered me for a long time and have not felt like it was normal. For as long as I can remember, I always seek out women in my life (older than me) and have an overwhelming desire for them to care about me or have sympathy for me. Many times, I’ve found myself exaggerating or even making up stories to gain their attention and approval. This has included teachers, coworkers, therapists, doctors, etc. And because I am trying so much to get them to like me, when in their presence, I become extremely nervous, have difficulty talking about myself and my life. Example: I could have a slightly emotionally-charged conversation with anyone but when in the presence of the “idealized” person, I am completely unable to. It is seriously like I become a shy, little middle schooler or something. I usually do gain the interest and friendship of said person and after a while, I become indifferent and it fades away. And it will start again with someone new. (I am a 29 year old, heterosexual female – just to be clear, there is no sexual attraction in these scenarios).

    As a side note: I had a normal childhood, parents are still married, no logical reason for an attachment issue. I breastfed well and enjoyed being held. However, I didn’t start sucking my thumb til I was 3.5 years old and didn’t stop until the fifth grade (YES, that is 10 years old). Also, as soon as I was able to vocalize about the problem, I had significant sensory issues (seams, socks, shoes, food, tags, too tight, too loose, seatbelts and I wore elastic waited pants until I was in the 9th grade.) Thought I might throw that in about my childhood since that’s where everyone else seems to look. I have 2 sisters, all of us have bachelor’s degrees and 2 of us have master’s.

    How “crazy” am I?

    You don’t sound at all “crazy”, but what you’re describing sounds a lot like idealization to me. Often when people idealize others, they feel intimidated by them in the way you describe. The “perfect” other isn’t always perfectly good; sometimes they can be perfectionistic, critical and demanding. Your anxiety might be that they’re judging you and will find your wanting (imperfect). Your dynamic sounds complex and I can’t explain it all, but it also sounds as if the more reality-based part of you, with experience, eventually comes to see the idealized person for who she is, then the fantasy attaches to someone else, someone you don’t know well.

    I seem to idealize my long term therapist to the point that I can’t directly address it in sessions with him. But he seems to be Ok with that and I feel he understands exactly what’s going on. He does not push me but gets the information (I suspect) in other wa