“When you’re overvaluing others, you’re undervaluing yourself.”
You would think that idealization is a normal part of falling in love. I mean, when we begin a new relationship we usually see our partner in the perfect light, and ideally, we want them to see us as mirrored reflections of each other.
Idealization is not a new concept — even Freud discussed how it is formed as both a seemingly normal part of Ego development through primary narcissism in infancy and how it can become pathological.
For many, idealization is the defining factor in their relationships. Here is where some may get so wrapped up in seeing their partner as “perfect” that their own sense of self-worth and self-esteem become enmeshed with how “perfect” their partner is. When their partner is seen as all-good, their own esteem and worth are in check. And, when the pedestal starts rocking, so can their sense of self-worth.
Idealization is often seen as a byproduct of fairy-tales and soulmates where kids may grow up being spoon-fed empty promises that if they kiss enough frogs their Prince or Princess Charming will arrive. Or, maybe they’re just a hopeful romantic that there is someone out there for all of us who doesn’t don agendas or opportunistic vibes.
However, what isn’t being told in those fairy-tale endings and romanticized soulmate wishes are that rose-colored lenses are not only unhealthy, they’re part of a cycle with an inevitable crash and burn off the pedestal.
What Idealization Is…And What It Isn’t
First, let’s define what idealization is and what it isn’t.
Idealization has been defined as both a biochemical reaction and a psychological phenomenon. As a biochemical reaction, it mirrors the early stages of love, or infatuation, where dopamine rules the brain. Because dopamine is associated with a feel-good rush of chemicals firing in our brains, we’re naturally more receptive to the idea of love, and the bells and whistles it represents.
Dopamine is also responsible for other addictions — everything from video gaming addictions to drug/alcohol dependency to retail shopping addictions. So, it’s little wonder that in the early stages of infatuation within a new relationship that idealization can kick into high gear for some.
Most of us have experienced the signs of infatuation — nervous anticipation and excitement around your partner, heart-rate increase, flushing, euphoric highs or intense feelings of happiness, lessened appetite, even feelings of having to see them or having to be around them which can parallel dependency.
When infatuation moves to idealization, it creates an addictive rush.
As with any addictive cycle, eventually more is needed in order to maintain the “highs”. In the case of idealization, it may include more frequent compliments, more adoration, more of the “hero” mentality, more of a need to save or fix their partner, and more intensity of emotion surrounding the pedestal to maintain its effects.
Idealization has also been coined as a psychological phenomenon and a defense mechanism. The kicker is that when it’s used as a defense mechanism (on an unconscious level), your partner’s strengths are exaggerated while their imperfections are ignored which acts as protective to any ambivalence or confusion you may have toward your partner. In other words, if you’re unsure about your partner’s feelings toward you or are unsure of yours toward them — boom, idealization can happen.
In psychoanalytic theory, idealization can occur when seeing your partner as “imperfect” would trigger your own shame as being “imperfect”, which can then trigger feelings of self-loathing.
…and down the rabbit hole you go.
By idealizing a partner, it’s a band-aid that keeps self-loathing at bay…in the moment, anyway.
However, for anyone who has been placed high up on that pedestal, you know the higher you are, the harder you fall. When the inevitable crash hits, the realization that it isn’t love also hits home.
Idealization is not love. And, it’s a painful realization for anyone to accept who has experienced it.
Idealization Is A Learned Behavior
Children who are reared in a toxic environment usually learn what love isn’t — which includes learning about idealization.
For example, some kids may be reared by parents who hold unrealistic expectations of achievement for their kids, where a kid needs to be the best — or they’re seen as the worst. In this situation, parents are using the kid as a reflection of themselves where the child’s accomplishments make the parents look good. Idealization is based on “adoring” a child’s successes and shaming the child’s humanness.
This dynamic is also common in the “Golden Child” syndrome where parents may view their child as perfect or special and only worthy of love when seen as “perfect”. Children may become overachievers, riddled with shame for any human flaw, and out of touch with who they are as an individual outside of what their parents expect them to be.
Another example is where a parent conditions a child to feel unworthy at all costs by constantly devaluing them. They may praise siblings or the child’s classmates while shaming their own child as inadequate, or by making unfair comparisons between their child and other kids. Or, a child may be expected to praise their parents or siblings while remaining under their thumb and subservient to them.
Children raised in these situations can grow up feeling invalidated, unheard, and may become rebellious teenagers, or adults who view relationships in terms of “all good” or “all bad” — idealizing and devaluing — without the ability to tolerate relationship issues.
What is being taught in these environments are conditions of worth, idealization and devaluation — that a person’s value is based on being “all good”, or “all bad” contingent on how many accomplishments and achievements they receive, or by how often they adore or praise others, while often being devalued themselves.
Learning Authentic Love
I’m not going to lie. There’s no simple way to figure out how to love. Learning to love after unlearning idealization is like learning to swim in the deep end of the pool. It can be frightening. And trust is necessary that you aren’t going to sink. Everything many of us were told to avoid at all costs because they’re associated with things like vulnerability, emotional availability and honest communication, are what are necessary for authentic love.
Toss Out Expectations. No one is perfect. What keeps idealization alive are illusions of perfection, often because imperfections trigger fear, pain or shame. Begin by aligning your ‘perfect’ partner as how your partner is instead of how you “idealize” them.
See your partner’s imperfections, quirks and things that make them uniquely them. This means shedding the rose-colored lenses for a pair of magnifying glasses. You’re going to want to become aware of your partner (and yourself) as imperfect, yet still worthy of love.
Recognize Infatuation vs. Idealization. Most, if not all new relationships begin with passion and infatuation in the early stages. However, when it’s built on idealized values and expectations of perfection, idealization has to stay in play to maintain the illusion of love.
When it’s love, there is a gradual lessening of the intensity and passion of “idealization” which is replaced with recognizing and embracing a mature love — where communication, transparency and imperfection shape the relationship as uniquely yours, and something valuable and worthy of growing.
Immature love idealizes; there’s this constant need or a push-pull happening where it has to be full-throttle excitement and nonstop adrenaline, or it’s somehow “wrong” or “damaged” and needs to be replaced.
However, idealization can’t be maintained. One, or both partners will inevitably crash from the high, and unless there’s a solid foundation of mature love for which to built upon, devaluation is the end-result.
Freud, S. (1914). On narcissism: An Introduction. Standard Ed. (Vol. 14. pp. 67–102).
Horstman, J. (2011). The scientific American book of love, sex and the brain: The neuroscience of how, when, why and who we love. Hoboken, NJ.: Jossey-Bass Inc.
Kernberg, O. (1975). Borderline conditions and pathological narcissism. Northvale, NJ: Aronson.
Kohut, H. (1977). The restoration of the self. New York: International Universities Press.
This post was previously published on Medium.com.
If you believe in the work we are doing here at The Good Men Project and want a deeper connection with our community, please join us as a Premium Member today.
Premium Members get to view The Good Men Project with NO ADS. Need more info? A complete list of benefits is here.
Photo credit: Shutterstock