This is a column about the psychology of idealization and how it effects our feelings and our opinions about others when they disappoint us: case in point Barack Obama. His supporter’s wishes led many of the most ardent to think of Obama as a realization of their hopes for the perfect candidate, a potent anti-venom to G. W. Bush’s poisonous imperial rule. The same goes for Hillary Clinton’s most enthusiastic supporters.
“Idealization is a process which concerns the person; by it that person, without any alteration in its nature, is aggrandized and exalted in the subject’s mind.” Sigmund Freud*
After Freud other famous early analysts considered this to be a defense mechanism It is important to note two things. All people have and use defense mechanisms and they are often unconscious.
In the case of Obama, I think his supporters consciously had the highest hopes for him, but some may have unconsciously idealized him in the psychological sense.
Before you say “not me” realize that if you did this you wouldn’t necessarily know it.
A difficulty in writing about this is that there are two ways to use the word idealization, and most people outside of the field of psychology understand the word to mean simply to attribute ideal characteristics to someone.
There are numerous defense mechanisms (list), everybody uses them. Some may be harmful, most are not. In fact, some like humor and altruism actually are healthy. (See level 4 defense mechanisms on Wikipedia.) Most students of psychology today consider idealization one of the more benign defense mechanisms. It is a level 2 defense mechanism, defined (on the above link) as follows:
“These mechanisms are often present in adults and more commonly present in adolescence. These mechanisms lessen distress and anxiety provoked by threatening people or by uncomfortable reality. People who excessively use such defenses are seen as socially undesirable in that they are immature, difficult to deal with and seriously out of touch with reality. These are the so-called “immature” defenses and overuse almost always lead to serious problems in a person’s ability to cope effectively. These defenses are often seen in severe depression and personality disorders. In adolescence, the occurrence of all of these defenses is normal.”
Before people jump down the page to the comments section, I want to be clear, I am not suggesting that anyone’s idealization of Obama was unhealthy; unwise, perhaps, unrealistic for sure, but not unhealthy.
Most of those who reacted in negative ways to Obama’s changed positions, from disappointment to anger to outrage, made good points. I suggest that those whose feelings were particularly harsh are more likely than others to have idealized Obama.
Many of us, perhaps all of us, want people we look up to, whether in politics or the celebrity world, to reflect our own personal ego ideal (another term from psychoanalysis defined here. We want them to be everything we wished we could be, plus more.
Grown-ups aren’t supposed to have personal heroes in public life but we do. We often bend over backwards psychologically (through the defense mechanism of rationalization) to maintain our positive image of them, excusing and explaining their faults and failings until their behavior becomes so out of line with our expectations that our reason prevails. Then idealization can easily turn to outraged because we feel a very personal betrayal.
This is not to say that everyone who has experienced these feelings about Obama idealized him rather than simply had high hopes for him. Some readers may be curious about why they can’t seem to step back from their initial disappointment, anger or rage over, say, Obama’s FISA vote.
In order to have an accurate perception of anyone, whether a parent, friend, lover, spouse or politician, you have to recognize the extent to which you are idealizing them. Sometimes this is difficult to do because the roots of your tendency to idealize may go back to your relationship with one or both parents. Children have such a strong need to believe that their parents are good, are perfect, that they can end up blaming themselves for parental abuse or emotional neglect rather than deal with the facts.
In my some 37 years of clinical practice I’ve treated many patients who idealized parents who caused them varying degrees of emotional pain. When they finally realize that their parents don’t deserve to be on the pedestal they put them on, their fall can be hard.
If you were so enraged at Obama’s FISA vote that you wanted to not only throw him under the proverbial bus, but drive back and forth over him yourself, you may not have unconscious and unresolved issues with your parents.
But you might.
* ‘On Narcissism: An Introduction’ (1914) (Standard Edition, XIV, pp. 73–102, at p. 94).
Note: I’ve changed British spelling to American spelling in some quotes.
Hal Brown, LICSW, has been a clinical social worker and psychotherapist since 1961. He often writes about politics from a psychological perspective.