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!

By Joseph Burgo

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.


  1. 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?

    1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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,

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

    1. 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.

    2. Paul, as promised in my email to you, I’ve put up a post about choosing a therapist. I hope it helps.

  6. Joe,
    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.

  7. 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.

    1. 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.

  8. 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 frame of mind that I used to have.
    The ‘fire of youth’ might just be what you imply. When I was young, the rest of my life seemed like all of the time in the world – endless and filled with boundless promise. I can see why I don’t have that fire anymore, which is probably a good thing since it keeps me off of Idealization Island.
    The older me has learned much humility and patience (not by choice, but now cherished). Now I begin my journey to develop a healthy dose of self-discipline. This will probably be one of the hardest and most frustrating things that I have ever tried to accomplish, but I’m sure the rewards will be worth the effort.
    Thank you again.

  9. Hello. Thank you for the blog.
    I identified with the Idealization described in this post and also Steven’s self-description. I too was a high achiever in school, but have suffered as an adult from perfectionism and avoidance of intimate relationships.
    I am now beginning to understand (through therapy) that my high academic achievement and a grandiose fantasy of self that I developed age 8-13 were largely a reaction to anxiety and loss within my family at that time. Although I developed an inner idealized view of myself, I in fact suffered from a sense of unworthiness in my real dealings with the world.
    Now 20 years later I am trying to learn to experience and openly express my emotions, feel comfortable with who I am, and care less about being perfect. Hopefully this will allow me to use my energy more positively.

    1. Thanks, George. In my experience, there’s always a flip-side to idealization, whether you’re idealizing somebody else or yourself. I would expect that while you will come to care less about being perfect, but a part of you will always strive for and expect perfection. It won’t go away; you’ll just learn to recognize and deal with it better.

  10. Thanks for this post; it’s so me right now. I realize I’m finding it a bit after the fact, but it is new to me, and helpful in this moment, getting through another moment. I’ve been so frozen for months, going on years now. Paralyzed by inability to move forward. Procrastination in the extreme. This post helps me feel a little more normal in my abnormality, this happens to people, right? I speak in very simple terms, because that’s really how I am these days, and I guess fundamentally. Somehow I need you to know that I’m pretty highly educated and appreciate your website on that higher, as well as my lower, level. I wish that made it more possible to snap out of this, but it doesn’t.

    1. I appreciate the simple language. I also try to write as jargon-free as I can, in language that will speak to people. And yes, procrastination is normal!

  11. Thank you for that statement, Joseph: “procrastination is normal”.

    What chiefly made me want to comment was your words on “writer`s block”. When I was young (abt 25-35 yrs old) I very much wanted to become a writer. I never made it into novels, but I was a moderate success (in my own eyes) in producing short stories, features and “petite journalism”, which was pulished and paid for by major magazines and newspapers in my native country. I never made a living by writing, but a couple of years my writing income did reach 50 % of what a normal wage earner made. I do not think anyone would shay I shunned work, as I also held a full time job as a blue collar worker in a papermill during those years. Then the block came. I was absolutely unable to submit material to publishers.
    Today, about 30yrs later, I`m still not writing anything for publication. However I have written a small mountain of diaries, (in its present form of no interest to others).
    I have concluded that it has been (shame) fear of not being considered good enough that held me back, yet it doesn`t make sense as editors did buy and publish my stuff.

    What now, do I comment, or do I cancel? Or put off ?

  12. This is such a great post to which I was serendipitously led to. This perhaps explains a big chunk concerning the story of my life. I have spent a big mass of countless wasted moments daydreaming about my perceived ideal life – while my reality slowly passes me by.

    Moving on to a more specific aspect of ideal settings, how does this relate to ideal romantic love? If we behave similarly when it comes to this particular deal, what problems or conflicts could we possibly expect?

    Thank You

    1. I wrote another post about the issue of idealized romantic love and you can find it here. In addition to the type of person I described, you might also see people who have an ideal lover in their head and nobody real can ever approach it. My friend Marla Estes refers to this as the “phantom lover” — the one who keeps you from finding authentic love.

  13. Liked a lot the analogy to the womb..
    Of course, this ideal fantasy identity we unconsciously weave to compensate for our feelings of basic shame and unworthiness, and of which we unconsciously believe being the real us, is nothing but an illusion, a lie. But as long as we tie our identity to that ideal picture, as long as we derive our sense of self-worth from meeting that picture, how can we ever let go of it? I’ve found great interest in the formula Self-worth=Ability=Performance. As long as we perform nothing, we can keep dreaming that our ability is really outstanding and therefore we are really worthy.
    I struggle a lot by myself with the way to deal with it. So far, in the last couple of years, I’ve been the quintessence of using excuses, procrastinating, and avoiding real action. But slowly, and as I’ve become more aware and seen the whole picture, I am starting to see the way out.
    First, I’ve found of great help and importance to study my habitual patterns and to see what really stands behind them, to really see all the defenses and excuses that I use to avoid putting that ideal identity in danger: reading self-help books again and again, reading articles on sites like this again and again, fooling myself it’s possible to figure out the perfect answer to everything important before taking action, fooling myself there’s an answer and explanation to every question about my psychic and emotions, fooling myself it’s possible to have everything in control before taking action, watching movies just to kill time, surfing online just to kill time, learning something unimportant just to kill time, avoiding social contact and sitting at home, to name a few.
    I also find RBT’s way of dealing with this very appealing: to stop rating ourselves altogether, to adopt the attitude that our performance or ability has nothing to do with our worth as a person, that we can accept and feel good about ourselves just because we decide so. It takes time to exercise and practice that attitude. We have to actually sit and dispute our beliefs in that regard.
    Personally for me it also helps to sit and just contemplate on the whole picture I’ve fashioned in my mind of that grandiose I, and to see that it’s not true, that I am just as imperfect and fallible as anybody else, that I have strengths and weaknesses, that I am not special or entitled to anything. To recall and bring to awareness different ways I imagine how great I am, what I am entitled for, how others must treat me, how great I must be. For that I’m greatly thankful the awareness that I’ve gained in the last couple of years. Without it nothing of it would be possible, of course. I’ve found out that most people live their lives being totally unaware and thus struggling to change things.
    And that brings me also to the practices of self-appreciation and gratitude, which might also help us feel better about ourselves and our lives and take action. But even then it’s still a struggle. Comfort and safety are just so appealing. And they will use every excuse to keep you grounded, to make you give up. And if you keep going, they will double their efforts.
    I think telling ourselves, “Don’t listen!” isn’t necessarily enough to take action. For me it isn’t. I liked what you wrote as a response to Steven Meer. It’s indeed a lot about doing small and doable actions, dealing with a limited number of concurrent projects. And it’s about keeping your expectations in check. And hopefully, after a lot of struggle, we can do something real and meaningful. But, as you say, for many of us who carry the heavy load of basic shame it would never be easy. Not easy, but still not impossible. I am optimistic and I am willing to try.

  14. Wow, this article moved my inner core. I also read your replies to readers on this matter. Bang, the truth hit me once again.
    This is exactly what I’ve been doing for the last 30years of my life. At the age of 44 I still pursuit this’ ideal me’. I hate my life as a teenager/adolescent and I realize that’s when I started to try ‘to live an ideal me’.
    I would read books and magazines searching for role models whom I tried to copy. I would find out what and how they eat, dress, walk and talk, their interests, book lists anything really and then I would copy them, read what they (supposedly) read etc. And I am a shamed to say I still do so.
    I have copied Audrey Hepburn, Jane Seymour and lots more.
    This became as well my way to escape my unbearable life.
    I always dream big and ‘the best’. My own life seems so dull, I cannot live up to these people nor to my own ideal me.
    It feels like I will never be able to live the life I want for myself, it is so far out of reach.
    This life doesn’t satisfy me. It doesn’t interest me.
    Nor do I ever find a man that can live up to my expectations. Once, a love interest of mine, told me that I had fallen in love with an idealized him. I was furious with him (which I didn’t show) and very much hurt. It has bugged me ever since. How could he tell? He ended this friendship ( I realize I was too consuming). So I cannot ask him, but I’ve been going over and over what did I say or do that he noticed?
    I am ashamed to be me, plain me. Not always though. There are times I couldn’t care less. Then I won’t put make-up on and I just wear jeans and t-shirts and I put on weight. Then something starts to nagg. I possibly cannot walk around like this. What will people think?
    And again I am ashamed of myself and I polish up my act. It is a vicious circle, now I see.
    I am the one who always re-invents herself. But actually I just copy someone .
    It costs me a lot of money, time and effort. New wardrobe, new hairstyle, new make-up, loosing weight etc. and the chance to find or be real me.
    Anyway I am a champion 😀 at procrastination and I find a million things far interesting than the things I should do, yet I hardly ever finish or see anything through. I am afraid for my work though. I am afraid that one day someone will notice that I do not achieve enough… I have had signals in the past and luckily I’ve pulled myself up, but it is a constant battle. I wonder if the job is right for me. Yet, it is the only job I’ve pulled off for so long, 13 years. I teach.

    Self-discipline is so hard, so so hard. How does one learn it? This is a quality I admire in others, also in the 2 ladies I mentioned before.
    regards from Kristina, a caterpillar in transformation…

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