Why Do We Idealize People?

Updated: Jun 19

Our brain is our guardian angel. Whenever it senses us being a part of imminent danger, it takes drastic measures to protect us from harm. A term called the ‘defense mechanism’ is mostly used to describe this. When it perceives an event as stressful or frightening, it activates our flight or fight response and triggers the body to pump stress hormones and prepares us to either fight the forthcoming threat or flee for survival. It could go as far as to block certain memories that are mostly associated with a stressful or traumatic event or refuse to accept and blatantly ignore the reality of a situation. These are only two of the many defense mechanisms our brain has constructed to protect itself and us. While they are a natural part of our psychological development and are mostly not under our conscious control, they are still quite unhealthy and lead to an influx of emotional distress later.

Idealization is indeed a very vivid example of how our brain shields us from negative emotional responses that might prove hard to deal with. According to the Urban Dictionary, Idealization is a form of an emotional state when you love or adore someone, so much so that you mistakenly believe that they have more positive aspects compared to negative aspects (or no negative aspects at all). I don’t think we have ever so deeply navigated our feelings of unconditional affection and adoration for someone, have we?

“In psychoanalytic theory, idealization is seen as a defense mechanism that helps us navigate our confusing feelings and maintain a positive image of the people that matter to us” an article says.

Idealization of someone or something may sound trivial and an optimistic eye to judge, but it is much worse than that. Now, let me assure you, and myself, that it is not completely our fault. As I mentioned earlier, most of the time, defense mechanisms are not under our conscious control. And idealization in relationships is an inevitable practice that is bound to come into the act when we don’t want to lose someone. We reconstruct memories of them and convince ourselves of a reality that is not real.

Idealization of relationships at the beginning is perhaps the most human thing one can do. Some psychoanalysts even encourage it to build healthier bonds. People could even go as far as to believe that they need their partner’s optimistic views of them to help shape them into better people. However, overabundance of anything is discouraged. We may have started our relationship by fawning over their dreamy eyes and charming ways, but no human is ever free of faults. Sometimes, our experiences and traumas refuse to give our brains the benefit of doubt. Therefore, we end up idealizing people to an unhealthy limit. We put them on a pedestal, make them superior to us, subsequently disparaging ourselves and giving into all kinds of behaviours. That’s where self-destruction comes in. By constantly exaggerating someone’s virtues and ignoring their flaws, we surrender ourselves to all kinds of abusive practices that the person may put us through, and also become addicted to enduring that behaviour for however long.

Idealization and denial may be synonymous with each other. Because not only do we program our brains to see someone in an unrealistic light but also completely blind ourselves away from their bad. Honestly, now that I see it, being blind in love makes so much more sense than it did while I was being it. Otto Kernberg, a psychoanalyst, saw idealization as a denial of an undesirable aspect of someone or something. By denying the unwanted characteristics, we create a barrier between reality and our emotional response. Idealizing a person or a situation is our ego’s defense. We simply cannot stand hurting ourselves for being wrong about a person or a situation.

The denial and subsequent idealization of a situation or a person may be the product of our brain protecting us from a harsh reality that could overwhelm us. For example, one may claim to have a great and fun childhood, while in reality, they may have had a very traumatic one. Sometimes, we could even know that that is not the truth, but we just cannot give ourselves proof of it. Because our brain has already repressed all those traumatic memories and only the good ones remain accessible. This could also apply while reminiscing about a past relationship that did not turn out well.

One of the least talked about forms of idealization has to be the love bombardment technique often employed by people with narcissistic personality disorder. This phase of the relationship is way more subtle and way more calculated than regular idealization or infatuation. The narcissistic person will lean over backward to make you feel like the “never met before” person in their lives. They will ‘love bomb’ to the point of annoyance, but at the end of the day, you could only get enough of it. You will often observe the practice of them victimizing themselves and painting a pitiful image in front of you. You will start feeling bad and making excuses for their awful behavior. The worst part is that this phase does not last. Well, not really. This isn’t the worst part. The sooner it ends, the better. The worst part has to be how it leaves you questioning every single thing you have ever known about yourself. You detest yourself for not being that idealized version of ‘you’ anymore. You try to be the perfect self that you ‘used to be’. You believe that only the perfect version of you is deserving of good things. In simpler words, it not only destroys your self-esteem but also makes you idealize yourself.

“Idealization essentially is one of those things where the abuse programming teaches you to abuse yourself through holding yourself to impossibly high standards of perfectionism,” an article says.

Idealization often coexists with its contrasting trait, devaluation. In psychoanalysis, it is theorized that when an individual cannot integrate difficult feelings towards an ambivalent object (internal or external), specific defenses are mobilized to overcome what the individual perceives as an unbearable situation. While this practice can be found in different personality disorders, it is most observed in people suffering from borderline personality disorder. Devaluation is a subconscious protection system that is just the opposite of idealization. It is characterized by viewing a person, an object, or a situation as all bad, and attributing exaggerated negative characteristics with them. The defense mechanism that helps in the process is called splitting. It is the tendency to view events or people as either all good or all bad. You could have an absolute affection for a person, but that affection could instantly turn to animosity as soon as your brain catches on to any indication of hurt. This rapid fluctuation between idealization and devaluation makes it harder for people to find the middle ground. They tend to paint a black-and-white image of their object in their minds. For many, splitting serves as a subconscious way, to protect themselves from perceived stress.

Our brain chemistry is complex, and it creates unique challenges for us in terms of behavioral patterns. While every human being faces challenges of different sorts, our brain has a very limited number of ways by which it could protect us. Sometimes, it ends up making our choices for ourselves.

It is important to realize that idealizations are just oversimplifications that are almost always wrong. There are a lot of factors that could contribute to this practice. It could be because of some unresolved past trauma, or our refusal to face the reality of a situation we chose for ourselves. However, in both practices, one thing is evident: we are just protecting ourselves. Idealization becomes a form of comfort that we derive from external relationships. It is based upon the idea of a person, rather than the person. The idea of a person differs radically from the truth. In the long run, the barriers of defense eventually end up breaking because of over-flooding reality. The tendency to idealize could be hard to let go of. Still, it is possible. Realizing that nobody is perfect should be a head start. And maybe, after we start seeing people for who they are, they may not turn out to be such bad people, they might just end up being normal people.

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