When Babies Aren’t Idealized

After I wrote my last post, I had an experience that for me captured the lifelong effects of having a mother who did not adore you. It took place during and after my piano lesson.

In addition to giving piano lessons, my teacher is also an accomplished singer and vocal coach. One of her students — a man in his late 20s who began to study with her when he was seven years old — has gone on to become a world-class opera singer who’ll be performing at the Met this fall. At the beginning of my lesson last week, my teacher showed me a video of a rehearsal that had been filmed, where she provided piano accompaniment to her former student as he prepared for a concert he’ll give next month in Europe. It was an extraordinary performance. This young man is truly an artist, with an exquisitely trained voice.

“You must be so proud of him,” I said.

Her face was beaming as she agreed. “Not only is he an amazing artist but he’s such a well-rounded, truly cultured person.” It was obvious she felt deeply attached to this young man and also admired him.

That evening, I thought back to her remarks, and how I would never be an “amazing artist.” I later caught myself thinking, “I’ve really let my French slip these past two years; I need to get my language skills together.” For me, speaking French has always been tied up with some fairly pretentious ideas of what it means to be “cultured” (see my early post on having a plan for a person). When I realized what I was thinking, I had to laugh at myself … but I also felt a little sad. For many people, when your own mother doesn’t adore you, there’s always an unmet need for someone else to feel that way about you. It became clear to me that, even though I’m ten years older than my teacher, I wanted her to feel about me the way she felt about her former student.

Earlier this week, in session with my client Janice, she was discussing her thoughts about what drives her narcissism. She said that when your mother doesn’t adore you, then you’re all the time trying to do something bigger and better to get her attention, and then later on, the attention of someone else … anyone else! Janice understands all about the shame that’s the residue of failed attachment; she understands how it drives narcissistic behavior of various kinds. The baby whose mother doesn’t adore her never gets over it, not really.

So you might think that making video lectures about my ideas concerning psychotherapy would reflect a wish for people to idealize me because my own mother didn’t. As far as I can tell, it isn’t. While the narcissist wants to be noticed and admired, he doesn’t want to be seen for who he truly is; she wants you to believe in the idealized false self she presents to the world, the one that disproves all that shame she feels at her core. In these videos, I feel as if I’m being seen for who I truly am and I don’t think I come across as in any way ideal.

And in this third video, I feel as if I’m finally comfortable enough to be myself. The sense of humor is still missing, and I do wish I could think of something to smile about, but this one feels fairly close to who I really am and probably not that different from how I come across as a professional.

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. Even when you face your shame as best you can, and heal the best you can (although some shame is always there), the desire to rise above those feelings about yourself seems very human if one is to have a life that encompasses love, a degree of confidence, and an ability to give to others. I think my “narcissism” shows itself not in assuming I am the opposite of that shame, but in trying to find others who understand the shame and will “take it away” through their affirmation of myself as a valuable person, which on some plane, I do know I am, but it doesn’t “stick”. I think much can be done through the therapeutic relationship, but what are your suggestions for this sort of problem? I fight it all the time, but I see it when it rears it’s head and have to talk myself out of it, so I don’t totally drive myself or others nuts;-), but it’s still there. Growth is very hard, especially when you have had these negative messages thrown at you as an infant/child.
    But I do believe it can happen, and has happened.

    1. I wouldn’t call that narcissism. Wanting to have deep relationships with people who acknowledge your true value is a sign of health. To me, narcissism is about using others to help you deny what you know to be true about yourself on some level.

  2. Question: what if you were really adored by your mother but had a 90% absent father? Would that still generate shame and create narcissism in the individual?

    1. I’d have to hear more, but I believe we need love and acknowledgment from both our parents. If our father makes us feel that we’re not of value, it would have to have some effect on basic sense of worth … don’t you think?

      1. My father was not 90% absent, but very difficult. He had rage attacks, was verbally abusive and has – as I understand now – strong narcissistic traits. He is much too caught up in memories of his own unhappy childhood, and he uses other people (mainly women) to stabilize himself, so adoring or loving another human being while accepting the separateness of this person is not something he is capable of. I did not get out of this family situation unscarred, but the pain never got so bad that I needed therapy. I believe that I owe this 100% to my mother and the fact that she adored me when I was little. A mother’s love is a very strong protection and can compensate for a lot of things. That should still be true in case people follow traditional gender roles as my parents did in the 70’s. But I guess when fathers assume a more active role at home (which is something I find absolutely desirable), the damage the non-adoring ones could do would be bigger.
        Thank you very much for writing this blog, Dr. Burgo! Even though I never needed therapy, there are still family issues that make my life difficult from time to time, and reading your blog helps a lot. The depth of your insight and the compassionate way in which you describe personality disorders are amazing.

        1. You’re so fortunate to have had your mother, and I think you’re right, that a mother’s love can compensate for a lot that’s missing elsewhere. I don’t think we humans need a perfect upbringing; we can make do with a lot of deficiencies as long as we feel that we’re truly loved, by even one person, for who we are.

  3. Thought provoking as always. Pregnant with my first child I have appreciated your thoughts on parenting and idealization.  It makes me think about the distinctions between “adoring” and “idealizing” since you use both words in the post. 

    It seems like it would be the unusual parent who could adore their baby from the get go and simultaneously manage their hatred of the demands of the baby.  Idealizing their baby perhaps would be an option that, while not as wonderful, would give them a way to stay engaged with their baby.  Going one step further, even projecting some of their hatred of the baby on a spouse seems like a preferable option in the short term for a parent who would otherwise be incapable of idealizing the baby. 

    In the long term I can attest that idealization from a parent doesn’t give you much as an adult, especially when it interferes with the parent being able to manage ambivalence, theirs and yours.   Also, I think that a parent’s failure to be able to transition from idealizing of their child to managing their adoration and their hatred makes it incredibly difficult for the adult child to move through that process for themselves.  Without that example it’s hard to find a resting place inside where the desire for what seems like the ultimate experience – parental adoration – can be eased.  The only thing that is assuaging that desire within me is the experience of working through in therapy an understanding of my good points and my bad points along with allowing myself to both hate and like people.

    In the absence of a relationship with my parents where they could both hate and adore me, I tried to make sure that I always responded positively to people.  It is such a relief now to be able to learn how to hate and to find that I survive – along with the other person.

    For me it is this survival of my feelings that I really want, not the pure adoration.  I wish my parents could have experienced and survived both my wonderfulness and my awfulness.  I hope I will be able to for my baby.

    1. Very interesting ideas, and thanks for adding to the discussion. I completely agree about how idealization helps parents cope with their hatred … I wrote about that in an earlier post, especially the way a spouse sometimes has to bear the split-off hatred. I also think you’re right about what idealization DOESN’T give you as an adult. Another subject for a post might be about progressive and gradual de-idealization, and how it introduces you to reality — internal and external — in bearable ways over time.

  4. Is being idealized as a baby the norm? What studies have been shown that point out the difference between those that receive it and those that don’t? (I wasn’t able to watch the video.)

    Also what are some practical tips on what a person could do to change the internal feelInge?

    1. I couldn’t tell you what the studies show; my comments derive from my experience working with clients over many years, and how their early experience affected them. Also, I’m not big on “practical tips” — that approach isn’t compatible with a psychodynamic perspective.

      1. Hey! Thanks for your response!!

        After contemplating your words this is what I came up with. I’d love to share it with you:

        So the past day or so I had develed back in to the concept of nurturing, also reading up on babies, preemies, touch and how when a child receives these things from a parent they grow up to be healthy, happy, stable adults that are better able to handle stress and crisis.

        Also reading up about preemies and how touch helps them grow an heal.

        So some kids don’t receive that.

        If the mother herself did not receive love from her mother she wouldn’t be able to pass it along to her kids. So sometimes these patterns get passed down generation to generation. (Until someone learns something different.)

        Also came across a video about tribes that are affectionate and spend alot of time with their children also are basically free of violence.

        I woke up from dreaming two dreams and decided that I was going to experiment with maternal feminine touch towards myself.

        I observed feelings of wow, this is embarassing, I feel stupid. I continued and then after that the hurt inner child came to the surface. I was able to caress myself, and calm her down and nurture her.

        After I woke up I was able to look at myself in the mirror and observe that feminine glow.

        This helped me let go of feeling victimized. I opened the door of giving to myself again.

        I realize my mother couldn’t not give that to me because she wasn’t giving it to herself. When I gave myself the love and self-affection it wanted the anger towards my mom for not receiving love from her dissolved. So something about giving the inner child the love it needed helped her to let go of being angry.

        I had been storing this stuff in my abdomen my whole life.

        When I lost touch with love seven years ago it was because I lost touch with the ability to love myself. In reality my body was asking me to step out and learn more about love and nurturing because it didn’t receive it in the external world.

        A mother who doesn’t know how to give herself love won’t be able to give it to her children.

        The mother is giving the children what she gives herself. Anything that anyone offers you is because they are giving it to themselves as well.

        Unconditional love, forgiveness, generosity, wisdom, affection, kindness.

        Also I have thought quite a bit about shame and where it stems from for me, and I think I that after experiencing what I did with my parents, that I wanted to act in a better way, from a higher more loving perspective.

        Having that desire and also having the skills to do that when you had been taught different are two different things.

        The process that a human goes through to go from point a to point b can create shame and stress.

        I’m working on being less hard on myself for my imperfections and failures that come up on a day to day basis, but still challenged with the shame a bit.

        Thank you Joeseph. 🙂

  5. Two things. Firstly a question about one’s perception within the context of therapy of how one was treated as a baby. Do you think there is a danger of psychotherapy clients over-inferring parental failure in the following way?
    1) I have an emotional problem (e.g. shame)
    2) A feature of therapy is investigating roots in infancy of emotional problems.
    3) There must be such roots in my case, so my parents must have failed me, even if I can’t remember it.
    I found myself asking myself this from time to time when in therapy. I wondered if I was judging my parents unfairly because my current life wasn’t going as well as I hoped. I didn’t make any firm judgements about it, just wondering what you think…

    Secondly a practical point about the videos. I think it is hard for anyone to talk to a camera and appear natural, certainly at the beginning. One approach though could be to try less hard to make a complete and perfect recording in a single take. I think if you were less scripted but more conversational, with pauses, forgetting what to say and all that, then it might come across more like you blog reads (thoughtful, conversational, I think). I reckon it is also quite ok to ‘jump cut’ between good moments and leave out the bad bits. Then you have less pressure to get it all right in one go…

    1. George, thanks for the good advice about video-taping. I’ve already started doing what you suggest and about not trying to get one complete take. Especially with the cut-aways to movie footage or still photographs, it’s easier to shoot it in bits.

      As for your question — yes, I think there is that risk. The way I approach the situation is this: if someone comes in talking about extreme childhood abuse and neglect, then of course I’ll address those issues. Otherwise, we’ll focus more on what’s going on in their current life. If there is a childhood root or cause that needs to be addressed, it will eventually come out in the transference or will be re-created in some other area of their lives. I always say that the past is only relevant to the extent it’s still “alive” today — in your behavior and relationships. Otherwise, psychotherapy runs the risk of become an intellectual exercise without a lot of relevance.

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