What is idealization?


A term that is often used in mental health is “idealization”. But what exactly is it?

Idealization is when someone convinces themselves that something or someone was and/or is better than they actually were or are. Or at least not as bad.

It is a coping method used to avoid the seemingly overbearing pain of facing the truth – of looking at the wound of such as a trauma.

The word first became known when neurologist and psychotherapist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) explained narcissism. Freud stated that all infants go through a stage known as primary narcissism during which they take it for granted that they are the center of their universe.

To get the basic human need of love and approval met, the infant learns to do whatever it is that their parents consider to be of merit. This means striving to do certain things, but this can cause conflict between real self and the ego ideal.

This complicated concept was developed further by psychoanalysts Heinz Kohut (1913-1981) and then Otto Kernberg, who is now 92 years old. Explained concisely, Kernberg saw that idealization was a denial of an undesirable aspect of someone or something. It is a concept that is useful to know about as being in denial is a barrier to emotional and mental health wellbeing. Also, as is often said in recovery: secrets make and keep us sick.

When the inside projects to the outside

When the inside projects to the outside

Many people live their lives in huge denial. This could be, for instance, that someone always says and thinks to themselves that their school days were enjoyable.

So if they were ever asked or if they met up with some old school friends, they would say something like: “Oh yes, I loved school.” They may have convinced themselves of this so much that they might even go against a group of their old school friends saying they all hated their school days.

So they’ll battle with this because admitting the truth is too much. It’s too painful.

They have convinced themselves of a reality that wasn’t real.

Because in reality they were bullied and hated every second of their school life. When they were of school age they spent the whole of Sunday with a burgeoning heavy feeling of dread in their stomach – because they knew that Monday and school was getting ever closer.

People put up this sort of barrier because they don’t want to go there because of the immense pain of the hurt, because of the emotions that seem too much for them. In an instance such as this one about school, a good therapist would be able to see that this could be what is behind, say, this person’s continual relationship problems.

It could be considered that part of the problem is that because this person cannot form a honest relationship with themselves, they cannot form one with others.

What is happening on the inside often projects to the outside. It’s a reflection.

Idealization is a denial

Idealizing a situation is the ego’s defense. Or it could be about idealizing a person.

People might idealize a specific relationship. They make their partner into something they are not.

This is because they want to make it work. So they cover up a lot of things.

Idealization is a form of denial. It’s a technique to blatantly deny stuff and push it away and pretend it never happened because someone does not want to face the harsh reality. 

So they create an alternative one. They become their own spin doctor.

Another example of this could be an alcoholic. They create a world in their mind where their drinking is causing neither them nor anyone else any harm – when the reality is plainly different for everyone to see.

The truth will set you free

People who are suffering and struggling in adult life often use idealization about their childhood. It could be such as someone who says: “I had a fantastic childhood, it was wonderful. My mother was such a great person.”

But if they are honest with themselves they know this is not the truth. What really happened was that their mother was so busy with her career – which she said she was doing only to provide for the children – that she was rarely at home.

When she was at home she was so stressed from her job, and so tired that she was frequently angry. She regularly raged at her children and this often involved physical abuse.

Memories and feelings about this are so painful for the person who grew up with this mother that they have created a false reality. It’s denial, because they cannot face that their mother hardly showed them any love – in fact, she mostly showed the opposite of love.

Their idealization is not only that they cannot face the reality of their mother’s behavior, it is because they cannot face that they are really immensely angry about what happened to them. They cannot face it because it seems overwhelming, even if they just start to think about looking at it.

Maybe it is that they don’t hate the person, but they hate what happened. Suppression of such anger can sometimes manifest as depression.

As with much of the human condition, it is complex. This is why it is beneficial to see a therapist who knows about and understands these things.

Tikvah Lake’s experienced team has several combined decades of expertise in helping people with all types of mental health issues.

Get in touch with us today for a chat in confidence to learn about what we can offer you or someone you love.

David Hurst - Tikvah Lake Recovery

About David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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