Idealization

Idealization is a process of projection that is rampant in our culture. It is a way of seeing that passes reality through a filter and embellishes it. The list of things that can be idealized is practically endless–other people, objects, situations, possibilities. Almost all humans are caught in idealization from time to time. It is usually invisible to us, because we believe that we are perceiving unvarnished reality. Psychology doesn’t talk much about the normal process of idealization. It only enters psychological discourse when it becomes pathologically inflated. However, it has consequences in our lives, even at the normal levels. Those consequences can range from being perfectly harmless to being intensely destructive. The basic definition to keep in mind is a projection that distorts reality by leaving out the negative parts of it.

In the idealized projection, the subject is perceived as excessively beautiful or excessively perfect or excessively excellent. An idealization pushes the subject up into the spiritual realm ever so slightly and slightly spiritualizes it, so that it is more perfect, more beautiful and more excellent than it actually is.

Idealization is one of the fundamental processes in the human mind. The reason that we don’t notice it is that it’s folded seamlessly into our perceptions. It appears to be the actual way things are. It doesn’t occur to us to question our perceptions. It just happens and we don’t question it. It seems, when we are caught in an idealization, that we’re perceiving reality, when in fact we are caught in a fantasy.

Let’s take an example, say President Obama. There is an objective reality that is President Obama. He is a human who, like all of us, has flaws and can sometimes make mistakes, even bad mistakes. There is an idealized perception of Obama that sees him as a giant historical figure, the equal of Washington, Jefferson and Franklin (also idealizations). In this idealized perception, Obama is credited with having impeccable and unimpeachable judgment, flawless standards, and is in every way more excellent, more powerful, and more perfect than the reality of the man as he actually is. Notice that in the idealization the negatives (or possible negatives) have dropped off the screen, and we are left with a fantasy of excessive positivity.

We can see idealization at work most often in relationships, particularly romantic relationships. In fact, idealization appears to be a component in almost all romantic relationships. If we think back in our own experience, to the time when we first encountered someone who became very important romantically in our life, they were bathed in a certain kind of halo, a certain light. They became bigger than life. They became more perfect than they actually were, more satisfying than they actually were. In our perception of them, a gap formed between the reality of the person and the image that we carried in our mind of the person. That gap was a gap in perceiving reality. In this state, we are no longer perceiving reality. We are perceiving our idealized version of reality. And, that gap in perception can be dangerous to our health.

Idealization is a component in the way that romance is understood in the Western mind. From the time of the Troubadours, when the concept of Western romantic love was formed, idealization has been accepted as a part of romantic love. The trouble is, because the idealized projection is not real, it cannot be sustained. Reality is not that perfect. As reality continues to unfold itself, as it grows up through the cracks, the fantasy of the idealization eventually cracks. It was never real. It was a projection, a fantasy, a delusion. It was a departure from reality from the beginning.

The test of a long, sustained relationship, either a marriage, friendship, or other relationship, is whether it can survive the period after the destruction of the idealizations. It is a given that, eventually, the idealizations will be destroyed. Anybody who has ever been married will agree. It is not possible to live with another person in a state of continual bliss forever. When an idealization emerges in our consciousness, when we project onto a subject more excellence than it actually possesses, the shadow side of the reality vanishes off the screen, leaving only the positive qualities, the ideal images in our head, to focus on. The shadow side of the reality, however, is still there, and will eventually raise its head.

Idealizations are intimately related to hope. They are usually generated by the desire to find what we’ve been searching for, what we have been needing and yearning for in our life. When we perceive the subject in the world, it seems that we have found what we’ve been looking for. Because the longing already exists in our minds, we’re very susceptible to idealization. It comes easily and invisibly. It feels like gratification and fulfillment. The way that hope differs from idealization is that, with hope, we can remain in touch with reality. We can remain firmly grounded, seeing all aspects of the subject, seeing the situation in all of its complexity, and still hope. With an idealization, we lose sight of reality. We become blind to reality. That is the important distinction between hope and idealization.

Idealizations usually have an element of being future-oriented. They usually are accompanied by visions that the subject is going to play a wonderful part in our life in the future. We commence overstating the case, losing touch with reality in the process. Reality is always mixed. It always contains a shadow side and some negative possibilities as well as a positive side. With idealization, the possible negative factors disappear. They vanish because we are no longer in touch with reality. We are only in touch with the positive images of our idealization. For us, and for the moment, the negative factors no longer exist. We focus intently on only the positive parts of the idealization.

In a very real sense, in the grip of an idealization we become blind. We become blind to the negatives and possible negatives in the subject–the person, the situation, the object, or the unfolding development. Idealization is a projection that propels us into fantasy or delusion. We can no longer see what’s really out there in the world. Instead, we see our idealization, which does not truly exist. It exists only in our mind.

At this point, we have lost contact with reality. It has vanished, to be replaced by an unreal vision. For this reason, idealization can be very dangerous. If we have lost touch with reality, we are left helpless to make good decisions, to assess what needs to be done, and to deal effectively with the situation. We cannot effectively plan. We cannot effectively deal with life. We are left disarmed and vulnerable. We are no longer grounded. Our vulnerability is compounded by the fact that all this is invisible to us. Unless we have become aware of the danger of idealizations, we are prey to them and their consequences. Reality is lost and we don’t even realize it. In the grip of that loss of reality, we can make mistakes that alter the course of our lives.

When reality eventually breaks through the delusion, we experience the ‘cracking of the idealization.’ The emptiness and the falseness of the idealization appear. At this point, when the idealization is challenged by emerging reality, we will often go to great lengths to try to keep the idealization viable. We will do contortions in our consciousness to keep it in place, because we are invested in it, depending on it.

In general, however, the cracking cannot be evaded. It continues. At this point, we usually realize that we have been caught in a delusion, that it was not real, that we have misperceived the subject. We have to give it up and accept the reality. The process of the cracking of an idealization is generally very painful. It is painful because we’re so heavily invested in it. We want our lives to be just the way we pictured them with the idealization in place. We realize that it’s not going to be that way. We realize that the idealization was false to begin with. Then, a sense of shame may arise, shame at having misperceived so thoroughly. When we finally see that our perceptions were not in accord with reality, it becomes clear to us that we perceived wrongly. We may feel ashamed that we were so off base. The shame of having been lost in delusion makes it even harder to deal with the cracking of the idealization. That becomes part of the pain, the sense of shame at having allowed ourselves to see something that wasn’t really there, that never was there. This raises the possibility that we can’t trust our perceptions. It’s quite a loaded issue to ask ourselves if we perceive reality fully or selectively.

Gripped by an idealization, we distort the world. We are separated from reality itself. We temporarily lose our clarity and ability to perceive reality as it actually is. When it cracks, people often shift to demonization. They go from considering the subject ideal and perfect to considering it demonic and disappointing on every count. They go to the opposite pole, because of the disappointment that the idealization was not true, the disappointment that their life is not going to be as they thought, and the disappointment in themselves for having been so mistaken. Also, under the influence of the idealization, we may have made mistakes that are very difficult to undo, such as marrying the wrong person. If we shift to the pole of demonization, we will not be able to see a single good thing about the subject. It will seem totally negative, totally deficient. This perception can be as delusory as the original idealization. We have, at this point, shifted from a delusion at one pole to a delusion at the other pole. This often happens when the idealization cracks.

The goal is accurate, balanced perception that takes everything into account. We need to perceive reality with clarity, as it actually exists, with both positives and negatives intact, in all its complexity. Reality always exists with both upsides and downsides, with both sunlight and shadows. To manage our lives effectively, we need to see as much of reality in its wholeness as we possibly can. That means to actively look for the shadow side as well as the positive. If we can be aware of the process of idealization, we can be watchful for it and wary of it. Perhaps we can learn to catch it as it is forming, and side-step it. When we know that idealization creates a delusional state, then we can try to avoid it. If we know that objective reality exists outside the idealization, we can make a conscious effort to balance our perceptions. If we realize that we are beginning to get hooked into an idealization, we can search for the reality that counter-balances it. It is very difficult to catch our own idealizations as they are emerging, because they are folded seamlessly into our perceptions, but it can be learned.

Nothing about taking charge of our idealizations precludes hope. As human beings, we will always be hoping to improve our lives. Our goal is to perceive reality with clarity, in all of its fullness. We can do that without succumbing to the blindness associated with idealization.

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