Idealization of Obama: The higher the pedestal the harder they fall

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.

20 Responses to "Idealization of Obama: The higher the pedestal the harder they fall"

  1. PlacitasRoy  July 16, 2008 at 12:31 pm

    I saw this played out Sunday night in a “Nation” discussion group. 3 of the 12 participants were darn near in tears because Obama ‘betrayed them’ with his ‘flip-flops.’ they were thinking about voting for Nader, cutting off their donations, etc.

    I too felt some disappointment with the FISA vote, BUT, in that his vote wouldn’t have made one wit of difference and only given the Slime Boaters another attack point for their $10’s of millions of attack ads, I don’t blame him one bit. Am I rationalizing? You bet. I wish he had just pulled a McCain and not shown up. Job #1 GET ELECTED.

    A rational reading/listening to any of the other ‘flip- flops’ is that they were NOT flip-flops. Anyone who thinks they are are either mi-informed, uninformed, and/or victims of Corporate Media or Reich-wing hate radio.

    Griff said “…. Read between the lines and decipher the true meaning of his words. Don’t let Olbermann or Huffington or anyone else tell you what he means….” That’s right – do you own mind-reading. By regurgitating talking points he’s avoided doing his own mind reading….but be aware you are doing so.

    I’ve upped my standards….now up yours! – Pat Paulson

  2. knockknock  July 16, 2008 at 12:33 pm

    I’m one of those who idealized Obama and continue to find excuses for things he does that don’t tally with my impression.

    Thanks to Hal, I can now see how it’s possible to keep reducing my expectations so Obama can still meet them.

    It’s good to know these things — Expectations are the foundation of resentment.

    Time to emotionally disconnect and simply pay attention to what he says and does, then decide.

  3. ekaton  July 16, 2008 at 2:15 pm

    Hal,

    Thanks for the links that I added to ‘favorites’ for further study.

    defense mechanisms (list
    level 4 defense mechanisms on Wikipedia

    — Kent Shaw

  4. Flapsaddle  July 16, 2008 at 4:04 pm

    Related to this idealization is something I call the Baldar syndrome. I do not know if there is a formal name for it, but I remember talking about it many years ago with a fellow officer, a psychologist, who had spent considerable time in the 5-sided “puzzle palace” trying to analyze behavior of supposed friends and actual foes.

    IMCO, it manifested after the assassinations of both Kennedys – the near-paralyzing grief, the total shock and disbelief, the angry conviction that “they” were responsible, the “they” being the vast conspiracy that somehow always turns up when something bad happens to idealized people. Apparently, those who indulge in such excessive idealization, who emotionally over-invest in someone or something, simply cannot accept the fact that their beautiful, perfect object of veneration could actually succumb to the simple or the ordinary.

    Any comments? And If you tell me I’m full of manure, I will not mind in the least.

    Most sincerely,

    T. J. Flapsaddle

  5. Hal Brown  July 16, 2008 at 6:14 pm

    Using reason is good, rationalizing as defense mechanism tend to keep one from engaging in a rational pursuit of uncomfortable truths.

    Again we have confusion between the common usage of a word rational) with a psychological defense mechanism (rationalization):

    “Rationalization is a defense mechanism that involves explaining an unacceptable behavior or feeling in a rational or logical manner, avoiding the true explanation for the behavior. For example, a person who is turned down for a date might rationalize the situation by saying they weren’t attracted to the other person anyway, or a student who blames a poor exam score on the instructor rather than his or her lack of preparation.

    “Rationalization not only prevents anxiety, it may also protect self-esteem and self-concept. When confronted by success or failure, people tend to attribute achievement to their own qualities and skills while failures are blamed on other people or outside forces.” Reference

  6. Hal Brown  July 16, 2008 at 6:17 pm

    I was wondering if my writing was so obscure or obtuse that few would understand what I was getting at, and few if anybody would applly it to themselves. You did both, knockknock, which leads me to say that the answer to “who’s there?” is a very self-aware person.

  7. Hal Brown  July 16, 2008 at 6:19 pm

    Kent: Finally, I am feeling redeemed. Readers are “getting it”.

  8. Hal Brown  July 16, 2008 at 6:45 pm

    Baldar Syndrome is a good name, although I had to look up the meaning of baldar:

    baldar (from Spanish)
    = cripple, disable.

    The 5 sided puzzle palace I didn’t get at first – of course it’s the Pentagon!

    You can adjust and apply the now well known Kubler-Ross stages of grief to this (see Wikipedia). I used the example of how loved one of murder victims can “get stuck” in these stages until the killer is caught and punished.

    The examples of an assassinations like JFK, RFK, MLK or – 9-11 can be applied. Not being able to move successfully through the stages can cripple or disable a person. Thus you could call this the balder syndrome.

    1. Denial:
    * Example – This is impossible, such a thing can’t have happened… I see the evidence but I refuse to believe it.
    2. Anger:
    * Example – How could one little weasel of a man like Oswald have done this?
    3. Bargaining:
    * Example – This would be different then the Kubler-Ross model if you discover YOU are dying (I’ll do such and such if I can live to see some life event). I think this is where some people would construct conspiracy theories because the simple explanation doesn’t seem to to account for such a world changing loss.
    4. Depression:
    * Example – While an important phase seeing it coming can lead someone to jump back to stage three. Conspiracy theories don’t make you hurt inside, depression does.
    5. Acceptance:
    * Example – Of course the final stage where one is free to go on with their life.

  9. Flapsaddle  July 16, 2008 at 11:10 pm

    Now we were unaware of that: The word baldar being a Spanish verb translated as “to maim or cripple” – and perfectly describing such people who are stuck at stage 1 or 2 of the K-R model.

    My fellow officer and I applied Baldar as the reference to the Norse deity who was the son of Odin and Frigg – Baldar the Beautiful in the old Icelandic sagas. Baldar, favored of the gods of Valhalla, who was murdered through the foul treachery of the evil, twisted Loki. And it still fits perfectly the K-R stage 1 and 2 model with the examples you used.

    Thank you very, very much, sir! This has been most illuminating.

    Most sincerely,

    T. J. Flapsaddle

  10. churlpat  July 15, 2008 at 6:05 pm

    I must have my stupid hat on. I read this twice and I don’t see where there’s a precipitous fall from grace. Are you saying he has fallen out of favor with his supporters because of one vote, albeit an important one?

    Churlpat — a plutarch by any name is still a plutarch

  11. Hal Brown  July 15, 2008 at 6:29 pm

    Churlpat,

    Excellent point, that was a misleading title. I changed it.

    The is a column about psychology and the underlying reasons some people, repeat, some people, may, repeat, may have had strong reactions to Obama’s moves towards the right culminating in the FISA vote.

  12. Lillibet  July 15, 2008 at 7:44 pm

    Lillibet He Blew IT!

    He’s a Constitutional Law professor who threw the Fourth Amendment, and pretty much the another eight of the first Ten of the Bill of Rights, under the Right Wing Bus, drove over it, and then declared, it was a “compromise”. If he cannot tell capitulation from compromise, perhaps he isn’t really ready for prime time.

    I’m not saying that one vote destroys his prospects, but he’s going to have to show some pretty serious game to get my vote. That game had better include restoration of the Constitution, beginning with Patriot I, and ending with the most recent FISA debacle.

    The “terrrrists” hate us for our freedoms, and since that fateful day in September, we have given up our freedoms. Wholesale. Personally, I want a President who will bring back the freedoms I had September 10, 2001, not keep giving them away. It wasn’t a perfect world then, but it was a darn sight better than what is going on now.

    Problems with my parental units notwithstanding, I am not electing a “daddy” in November. I am electing a custodian of the Constitution, who will preserve, protect and defend the valuable rights and obligations in that living document. This is a life and death election. Life and death of the Republic and the Constitution.

    That isn’t a pedestal. That’s reality here on the ground.

  13. Hal Brown  July 15, 2008 at 9:24 pm

    This is a column about psychology. Not about whether or not Obama “blew it”.

    Lillibet, I respect your opinion but your post has little if anything to do with what I wrote.

    Perhaps I need to change the title again.

  14. Lillibet  July 17, 2008 at 6:18 am

    Lillibet I stand by what I
    wrote as being very connected to the psychological issue of pedestal perching. And his recent tack to the partisan right is the reason that Obama has fallen from so many pedestals. Perhaps I should have made that more clear in my comment.

    So many perched Sen. Obama on the pedestal precisely because of his Con Law Cred. He proclaimed he was a man of principle before partisanship. He maintained he’d stand first and foremost for the Constitution. He taught Constitutional Law at a top law school.

    In his vote on FISA, threw the Fourth Amendment clearly under the bus, got behind the wheel, and now drives over it, again and again, justifying his sacking of principle for political gain.

  15. Direct Democracy  July 15, 2008 at 11:54 pm

    To get as far has he has Barack Obama has had to spend his entire political career demonstrating with every thought, word and deed that he’s the same old shit in a different wrapper.

    FREE AMERICA

    DIRECT DEMOCRACY

  16. Phil Hoskins  July 16, 2008 at 2:27 am

    Hal, thanks for your bringing this up. I know there was a point at which I felt disappointment that he wasn’t going to be the “perfect” candidate. One of my columns even went a bit in that direction.

    I have since come to the conclusion that, as I said in my most recent one, we simply expect too much of the candidate, and indeed the office holder. It is a tough balance between not just putting up with crap and making a bit much out of simple differences of opinion.

    navigating that balance seems to be an attribute of maturity.

    Phil Hoskins

  17. Hal Brown  July 16, 2008 at 7:54 am

    High self-awareness is an aspect of psychological maturity. The better you know yourself, which means recognizing the defense mechanisms you use and working to bring unconscious motivations into consciousness, the more self-actualized you can be.

  18. griff  July 16, 2008 at 2:56 am

    Obama’s vote on the FISA bill was a direct slap in the face to everyone that believed he was somehow different and independent of the political machine. How utterly naive.

    This bill could have easily passed should he have voted nay. Come on people, he knew he didn’t have to vote yeah for this bill to pass. But he did. What does that tell you?

    Is he genuinely concerned with the power the Presidency has acquired these last 30 years, or does he salivate at the idea of the power that awaits him?

    Bought and paid for. Now that he has the nomination he is none too shy about proving that he is nothing more than a shill and a false messiah.

    The Obama hysteria is a social engineering success story. His “explanation” for his capitulation was a joke. Read between the lines and decipher the true meaning of his words. Don’t let Olbermann or Huffington or anyone else tell you what he means, or what he meant to say.

    Of course, the apologists are out in force saying that he needs to do what he has to in order to become President. Then we can count on him! Then he’ll listen to the People.

    When will we learn that our entire political machine is based on waiting for the next election or the next Preident ot the next Congress to fix things?

    We have been having some of the same debates for decades. Decades! And still no resolutions. Still no end to the quadrennial quagmire that is our government.

    Why? Because they have no interest in fixing things. They are interested only in only Power and Wealth. They are interested only in lording over the peasants – the eaters – the consuming masses. Me and you.

  19. Mark Rushmore  July 16, 2008 at 4:58 am

    I’d say most people believed Obama to be the lesser of two evils, and after the FISA vote have had to come to terms with the fact that it’s all the same evil. Or am I idealizing elected officials as people who ought to be held accountable to defend our nation’s laws?

  20. Hal Brown  July 16, 2008 at 7:34 am

    I’d appreciate it if posters address the points I made in the column rather than using it as an excuse to express their opinions about Obama.

    Mark Rushmore – As to your question, I tried to explain the psychological meaning of idealization. Holding a politician to high ideals and being disappointed or angry when they fail to live up to your standards of accountability to those ideal is not the same as their being an object (person) of psychological idealization.

    Only you or your analyst know if you utilize idealization as a psychological defense mechanism. It is one of over 20 defense mechanisms in four categories (see Wikipedia).

    The most primitive defense mechanisms include three that I and others have suggested are used by George W. Bush: denial, distortion and delusional thinking.

    All people use some defense mechanisms, nobody uses all of them. Most people who either haven’t been in therapy or engaged in deep introspection on their own aren’t aware of the defense mechanisms that have become integral parts of their personality structure.

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