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.