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.

Have you ever started a project – felt inspired to write a story, paint a picture, take up a musical instrument – and found yourself unable to follow through?  Often it’s because we expect the effort to be much easier than it actually is; once we confront reality, recognize how rudimentary our skills and how much frustration is involved in improving them, we give up.  On that magical island of ideal, we’d perform brilliantly and with little effort, the words or notes or brushstrokes flowing with ease.  (I’ve discussed related issues in my post on self-criticism and self-hatred.)

This unacknowledged fantasy often underlies problems with “writer’s block” and other kinds of artistic inhibition.  I’ve had the privilege of working with a number of artists and maybe you’ll identify with them:  the choreographer who felt compelled to go into her studio only to lie immobile on the floor, unable to work.  The writer who awakened with enthusiasm, convinced he would do “brilliant” work that day, spent a restless half hour in front of the screen and ended up playing computer Scrabble for hours.  In my work with these clients, I usually found an inability to tolerate the reality of hard work and frustration, and a refusal to accept the disparity between their actual output and fantasies of brilliance.

People often procrastinate because they hope on some level that somebody else will do the job for them, the way everything used to be taken care of back in the good old days.  Some individuals can’t even set goals because they know in advance that nothing will ever live up to their expectations.  Think of teenagers who drift into their twenties and never seem to find their way, continuing to live with their parents and having Mom do the laundry.  “Slackers” – I think that’s the word we use today.

Time to get in touch with your inner Slacker.

Finding Your Own Way:

Are you a procrastinator?  Do you have trouble following through on a resolution, even when it’s something you enjoy doing?  Next time the situation arises, pay close attention to the way you lie to yourself.

I’ll just check my email and get right back to work.

I really need a break – just five minutes.

I’ll make a fresh start tomorrow when I’m feeling better.  Too many distractions today.

The person talking is the you who pines for that magical island of ideal and hates life here on the mainland.   He or she is a persuasive liar who’ll stop at nothing to undermine this difficult and frustrating work you’ve undertaken.  Try hard not to give in but continue working.  You may notice the pressure intensifies.  Maybe you’ll become restless and distracted.  It will feel harder and harder to resist going to the fridge for a soda, checking Facebook, sending off one(just one!) quick text message.  The lies may get louder and more insistent.

Don’t listen!

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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    I really identify with this. I was treated for depression 3 years ago and seem to be doing well. Since 1979 I’ve moved over 60 times and had over 70 jobs and careers. After the depression symptoms lessened, we thought the self sabotage would cease. I sabotaged my job that I had for two and a half years following my treatment. I always got another job usually, but since July I only had some part time work. I lived in my car for a few weeks, stayed with friends. Then my car died. I then lived in my storage shed because I was evicted from my apartment for non payment. I met with a neurofeedback doctor and claims that because of not addressing my mothers suicide when I was a teenager, then the suicide of my brother in law, an uncle, then 3 weeks ago the suicide of my best friend, my brainwave activity shows that it is stuck in a flight or fight mode. That is why I have to have change all the time. What’s your feeling?

    I’ve always found that the worse the childhood, the more this fantasy of an ideal takes hold; given the severity of your early trauma, I’m not surprised to hear how difficult it has been for you. Your ability to bear with the frustrations of life must be severely compromised. It sounds to me like you feel hopeless about what’s inside of you; because you feel you can’t change what’s inside, you trying to change the outside instead — new jobs, new homes. This change is meant to cure the internal problem, but when it inevitably fails, you have to find yet another external “solution”. I’m sorry. I know you must be suffering.

    Hi Joe. I’m reading this post to save me from having to do some real work so know well, my inner slacker. I do my best to ride the waves of enthusiasm I have for things and not beat myself up when the slacker comes to town.

    Dr. Burgo:
    I appreciate that you’ve keenly identified a critical period of “relearning and reliving” for anyone who has been through the therapeutic process: After psychotherapy. I’m finding your blog helpful. Thanks.

    Further, your womb analogy is relevant and applicable, but I’m not convinced that procrastination, although a nuisance, is the enemy. It seems a very “normal” part of human life – see this interesting article:

    In many ways, the psychotherapy experience itself can create a womb for clients. It certainly did for me, then again I needed that at that time. But after leaving this womb (again), I’m struggling, as many do, to “fit in” again, to not take things too personally, to not see everything as a “painful but true” opportunity for growth or something. After psychotherapy, we’re working with fresh nerves on certain issues and even the subtlest events can be confusing/painful.

    What I would appreciate most instead of another “defeat procrastination” article, would be some advice on how best to work with the changes and new behaviors one has learned in therapy, while getting back into the flow of demanding and uncertain world.

    I know that’s a hefty request, but I welcome any insight/advice that you might have.
    With gratitude,

    Aaron, I’m very much of the same mind about the “conquer this” and “overcome that” articles out there. If you’ll give me a day or so, I’d like to respond at length to what you’ve said in another post. It’s nice to receive such a thoughtful response from someone who’s obviously struggling with the important issues. And by the way, I agree that procrastination is a normal part of life; it’s only when it becomes chronic and seriously interferes with your life that it becomes a problem.

    Aaron, I hope you read my latest post about the kind of change that’s actually. It addresses the minute-by-minute job of putting what you’ve learned in therapy to work.

    After suffering what seems a lifetime of avoidance, confusion and unhappiness I rarely procrastinate on anything that matters these days, simply due to the fact that I am unwilling subscribe to the inevitable unhappiness that results from it.

    First, I want to say thanks for having this website available. Not sure how long it has been operational, but it is long over due. Anyway thanks.

    Second, wanted to share my story and get your input. Before I do, I apologize for anything triggering to anyone, as that is not my intention. I was raped repeatedly as a child. To make matters worse, was constantly reminded since then that “boys don’t get raped by older men” and other lies. My dad beat me terribly (and other abuses) when I told him what my grandfather and uncle were doing, then called me (as a 9-year old) a pervert and that title followed me every step of the way through my entire life. Any activity that he thought was even the slightest bit “odd” was deemed by him as perverted — this included things as normal wrestling, clowning around and all that growing up.

    In college, I had first breakdown of sorts and was treated. In grad school, had a second one, then 8 years ago had the worst one yet and am still attempting to recover from it. My thinking has become so convoluted (or whatever the fancy title) that I have trouble getting up in the morning, barely get to appointments and have had high degrees of instability in most of all areas of life. Only within the last month have I found anyone willing to actually work through the issues with me on this. Most of the previous therapies (and one of them currently still is) focuses only on current coping.

    Have no idea really what to do from here. Please help.

    Paul, as promised I’ve put up a post about choosing a therapist. If you go to the START HERE menu tab, it will be the final post on the first page. Let me know if there’s any other way I can help.

    Thanks for reaching out. I’ve been too busy to fully keep up, but I’d like to read “The Kind of Change That’s Really Possible” and all the comments sometime in the next few days. I’m looking forward to digesting it and responding.

    I can very much identify with this whole idea of Idealization. It has become a problem that has, in recent years, become a major handicap in my ability to find any quality of life. Through increased self-awareness, especially in regards to idealization, I have been desperately trying to find ways to overcome the roadblocks that have prevented me from getting any serious progress done at all on the things that I want to accomplish. This crisis has led me to the edge of, or into depression. I find nothing worse than having talent, ability, and desire – but at the same time facing a wall that prevents me doing anything but living in despair, because of crippling lack of initiative.

    If I may, I would like to briefly give you a run down on my thoughts about my problem and hopefully you could give me your opinion on if my insights are valid and some advice on what I should do about it.
    When I was young, I seemed to have many innate gifts that led me accomplish things very easily. School was never a problem – I picked things up quickly and almost always had good grades by never having to study hard.
    Near the end of high school my grades did go down, because I began to see most of what I was learning as a waste of time and I began to get distracted by my own self-directed studies. I also got deeply involved in music (guitar playing), writing, and photography.
    I became a pathological perfectionist – I was never satisfied by what others though was great. I was always trying to ‘bring to the world’ a perfect recreation of the idealized vision that I had in my mind. I never did, and still don’t believe, that it was an issue of acceptance by others – I was always in competition with myself. I wanted everything that I did to live up to my own high standards.
    Self-discipline is a character attribute that I never developed much – I seemed to be doing fine without it. Looking back now though, I could see that I was in denial – I knew that having this was important and would help me to be much more successful, but was too lazy/fearful to confront the issue.
    Contradiction – I strived for perfection, but was not willing to do everything that I could to reach it.
    Illegal drug use became a big part of my life for the next 25 years. Although I had many small successes, in the end it caused me to lose music/film-making/writing careers, jobs, and a marriage.

    I’ve been away from drugs for a few years now and want to go back to many goals I gave up on years ago. I have many songs I want to record (with talented people ready to work with me), three different books that I want to finish writing (with professional interest), and many other hobbies/activities that could be very productive with, BUT –
    Even with the passion and confidence that I have to do these things, I’m barely getting anywhere.
    I feel that I’m living a good recovery program and don’t see my drug history as a big issue at this point.
    I feel as though my biggest problem is acceptance to the fact that I have to finally develop self-discipline. Now I have to learn how to get it.
    I’ve worked on curbing my perfectionism – I understand what ‘good enough’ means now.
    It seems that now being in my late 40’s, I have lost the ‘fire of youth’ Is there such a thing?
    My working solution is to try to set up a work regiment that will ‘force’ me to attain my goals in small steps. It just bothers me that my ‘passion’ alone is not enough to push me as it used to. Will it return to me later, once things start getting done?

    Any thoughts, comments, and advice would be greatly appreciated.

    There’s so much in what you say, Steven. To begin with, your obvious talent, intelligence and ease of learning were both a blessing and a curse. Because everything came so easily to you when you were young, you naturally grew to expect that future work and learning would be easy. As you say, you could get good grades without having to study hard; that’s okay when you’re in elementary and high school but not when it comes to more difficult endeavors in later life — the kind of complex and multi-layered pursuits that interest you. You can’t write a novel or compose a film score quickly and easily.

    It also sounds as if you’re interested in a great many things … too many things, in fact. Is there a kind of grandiosity in the person you aspire to be? The consummate artist — writer, photographer, musician, filmmaker. It sounds as if you aspire to do EVERYTHING, which often means you accomplish nothing. Focus on ONE endeavor — that’s my first piece of advice.

    I’ve worked with a number of artists over the years; this tension between the idealized internal vision and the imperfect realization is not uncommon. It can be so powerful that the artist is unable to create because the reality can never live up to the fantasy. Sounds to me as if this has been your primary issue. The “fire of youth” you speak of — I wonder if that was another kind of grandiose feeling, that you were going to conquer the world and fulfill your idealized view of yourself. Now, in your late 40s, it’s time to adopt humbler goals, accept that you won’t be that amazing virtuous artist of all disciplines. Maybe you can be a good musician and composer and nothing more. Would that be enough?

    I think you’re on the right track, focusing on developing self-discipline. I imagine that task will involve a lot of hard work and frustration, learning how to bring that grandiose dreamer down to earth and focus on one small task. I don’t think passion alone was ever enough, for you or anyone else; it can get you started, provide the enthusiastic impetus to BEGIN new projects; but it’s only humility, patience and self-discipline that allow you to see it through.

    Thank you for taking the time to offer me a well thought out response. I’m not normally one to put personal things out there so publicly, but I was so struck by your ‘Idealization’ post and your background with helping other artists that I knew that you could offer some good advice. I also think that you have created a powerful website here that can be of great help to many people. Besides helping me personally, I also did this to support your site in the hope that our dialog can also be of benefit to others. I have already gained much insight here by reading what others are dealing with and your advice to them.
    Let me give a quick response to the points you made.
    I have often, through the years, been told to focus on only one endeavor. Unfortunately the grandiosity in me continued to lead me to believe that I could ‘do it all’. Thankfully the more self-aware person that I am today has left that fantasy behind. It was not easy, but the repeated experience of failure (by going in too many directions) finally changed my thinking.
    Imperfect realization also took a long time to accept, but again it was the experience of repeated failure that lead me to change my thinking. Looking back now, its hard to even imagine the fra