NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, December 28, 2015

How the Defense Mechanism of Idealization Can Get in the Way of Having a Healthy Relationship

It's not unusual for young children to idealize their parents.  A mother or father can seem to be all-knowing or powerful in many ways. It's usually a stage of development that children go through and, in many ways, this idealization helps them to feel safe and secure with their parents.

How the Defense Mechanism of Idealization Can Get in the Way of Having a Healthy Relationship

Over time, as children get older, especially during adolescence, their peers become more important in terms of bonding, influence and achieving a sense of autonomy.

But many people, especially people who have had a traumatic family history, get stuck in this idealization phase to the detriment of their personal growth as adults and also to the detriment of the issues they want to work through in their therapy.  For them, the idealization becomes a potent defense mechanism.

Many psychotherapists have had the experience of hearing a client talk about having "wonderful parents" or a "great childhood," only to discover later on in therapy that the client had a serious history of abuse or neglect as part of his or her family history.

As young traumatized children, who are powerless to move out and who are often too afraid to let anyone outside the household know about abuse or neglect, the early roots of this problem are understandable.  Most children who are being abused or neglected would prefer to believe that it's their own fault than to believe that their parents are abusive people.

It would be too scary to realize that they're in a home environment that is dangerous.  So, it's preferable to idealize their parents and believe that that, as children, they must have done something "bad" to cause their parents to abuse them and that, if their parents are abusing them, it must be because they "deserve it."

When a therapist realizes that a client is using an idealization defense mechanism with regard to his or her family of origin, it's important to be compassionate and tactful.  Being mindful of how the idealization defense developed in childhood helps to be compassionate.   It also helps to appreciate how strong this defense can be and that it requires a nuanced approach in therapy.

It helps both therapists and clients to realize that idealization, as a defense mechanism, like most defense mechanisms, served an important purpose in childhood to keep the children from feeling overwhelmed in a situation where they could not escape.

At the same time, when adult children idealize parents who were abusive or neglectful, as mentioned previously, this defense mechanism gets in the way of their psychological development and can derail their therapy.

Let's take a look at a fictionalized vignette which represents many different cases:

Mike came to therapy a few months after his last relationship ended.

How the Defense Mechanism of Idealization Can Get in the Way of Having a Healthy Relationship

Even though his friends told him that they felt he was not being treated well in his relationship with Ann, Mike couldn't understand what they were talking about--until Ann ended their relationship because she started a relationship with someone new.  Even though they had agreed to be monogamous, she admitted that she was cheating on Mike with this other man throughout most of their relationship.

Throughout his relationship with Ann, Mike was aware that he was the one who wanted a commitment and Ann didn't.  Even though he felt disappointed that two years into their relationship Ann didn't even want to define it as a "relationship," he didn't realize that his needs weren't being met.

He could talk to his therapist about how his friends felt that Ann gave him mixed signals about what she wanted and that she often cancelled their plans or disappointed him in other ways.  But Mike was unable to admit to himself how hurtful this was to him.  He said he thought that Ann just needed more time.

Even after the breakup, when he realized that she had been cheating on him with another man, Mike rationalized Ann's infidelity saying that he thought she was confused and she would come back to him.  But after three months, he had to admit that she was probably not coming back, and that's when he started therapy.

He felt that it was probably his fault that he didn't live up to Ann's expectations, although he was unclear as to what those expectations were because she never told him.

When his therapist asked him about his family history, Mike said he had a "wonderful" childhood that could not have been better.  He spoke about his parents in glowing tones.  He admired his father for being a strong, principled man.  He admired his mother for pursuing her dream to become a lawyer at the same time that she was married and managed a household after Mike was born.

Over time, as his therapist explored Mike's former relationship with Ann, she noticed that Mike made a lot of excuses for Ann's mistreatment of him.  He didn't seem to think that Ann should be held accountable for disappointing him, giving him mixed messages about what she wanted or for cheating on him at the end of their relationship.  Instead, Mike took on the blame.

How the Defense Mechanism of Idealization Can Get in the Way of Having a Healthy Relationship

His therapist pointed this out to him. She also asked him what he would think if his best friend told him similar things about a relationship.  At that point, Mike became uneasy.  His eyes became slightly unfocused and he seemed to be tuned out.

It was clear to his therapist that Mike wanted to avoid seeing how he was mistreated by Ann.  It was also clear that he was not aware of his avoidance.

When his therapist explored prior relationships, she heard similar themes where Mike chose women who were abusive, but he never saw the abuse.  Instead, he blamed himself.

Recognizing that this was a longstanding pattern for Mike, his therapist realized that Mike used the defense mechanism of idealization to ward off the hurt and pain that he surely would have felt if he were not defending against it.  She also surmised that, based on how ingrained it was, this defense mechanism probably didn't start with his relationships with women.

In a tactful and compassionate way, his therapist asked Mike to write about his family history from the point of view of a biographer--so not from his own point of view, but from the perspective of an outsider.  She wanted to see how Mike would describe his family if he had the perspective of an outsider and if Mike was using the idealization defense mechanism with his family.

When Mike came back the next week, he read his description of his family from the point of view of a biographer.  Most of it was still filled with admiration for both parents.  But there were also particular stories about his parents where it was obvious to the therapist that Mike was minimizing problems.

In one particular vignette about his father, Mike described how his father taught Mike valuable "lessons" on how to be "strong." One way that his father did this was to, without warning, take out his belt and wallop Mike unexpectedly every so often from the time that Mike was 10.

Mike told this story with a slightly dissociated look and with no emotion.  He told his therapist that, according to his father, the "lesson" was that Mike had to learn to deal with the unexpected and his father wanted to "make a man" out of him.  As he relayed this to his therapist, Mike said appreciated that his father did this for him.

Mike also described another incident where he fell and hurt his arm when he was 11 while playing baseball.  When he got home, he told his mother, who was the only one home, that his arm really hurt, but she told him that she was too busy with a legal brief she had to write and told him to ice his arm.

Throughout the night, Mike cried in pain in his room by himself.  With his father away on a business trip, his mother told Mike the next morning that she thought he was very inconsiderate for keeping her up all night with his crying and Mike felt badly about this.

When he nearly passed out from the pain, his mother took him to the ER and discovered that Mike had a broken his arm.  The doctor scolded Mike's mother and told her that she should have brought Mike in right after the accident.

Once again, as Mike told this story, he berated himself for being such a nuisance and he was glad that his father had not been home to see him cry.

Mike's therapist could see that Mike wasn't ready to see that he had been both abused and neglected by his parents.  Without realizing it, he preferred to idealize them rather than see how they mistreated him, and this was a pattern that he continued to use in his romantic relationships.

One the one hand, his therapist realized that if she proceeded too quickly, Mike would either be overwhelmed or he might leave therapy rather than acknowledge being mistreated as a child and as an adult.

On the other hand, his therapist also knew that if Mike didn't address his propensity to use the defense mechanism of idealization as a form of denial, he would continue to repeat this pattern in future relationships.

Knowing that Mike was cut off from his emotions, his therapist began to teach him how to become more attuned to how his emotions could reveal themselves in his body.

Using situations that did not involve his family or former girlfriends (so he did not idealize in these situations), she helped him to recognize when and where he felt anger, sadness, and joy, among other emotions.

This was a new experience for Mike, who never really paid attention to how he felt emotions in his body.  He was able to identify that when another driver cut him off on the highway, he felt angry and he felt it in his throat and stomach.  He was also able to identify that when his friend threw him a surprise birthday party, he felt joy and it felt like an expansiveness in his chest.  When an elderly neighbor died, he felt sadness as a weight in his chest.  And so on.

As Mike became familiar with his sense of embodied emotions, he was able to begin looking back at his relationship with Ann and allow himself to feel angry about how she treated him.

Over time, Mike was also able to look back at his childhood and feel the hurt and anger about how his parents treated him.  Rather than idealizing them, he came to a more balanced view of them as well as his childhood experiences with them.

Part of the work in therapy was helping Mike to grieve for his unmet emotional needs as a child.  At that point, because of the prior work he did with his therapist, he was able to tolerate feeling his emotions and allowing himself to grieve for what he didn't get as a child from his parents.

Although he was sad, Mike was also relieved to be able to feel his true emotions rather than suppressing them.

Over time, Mike also learned how to forgive his parents--not because he felt that he was at fault but in order for him to let go of his sadness and anger.

When Mike began dating again, he was much more attuned to what he needed and wanted in a relationship.  He was much more discerning and attuned with regard to the women that he dated.

How Defense Mechanism of Idealization Can Get in the Way of Having a Healthy Relationship

After dating several different women, he met Sally, a woman who had the qualities that he was looking for in a partner, and they entered into a mutually satisfying relationship.

Like many other types of defense mechanisms, idealization is a form of denial.

Idealization in and of itself isn't harmful.  For instance, children often idealize teachers, mentors or other role models who are nurturing and helpful to them.  Idealization in this form isn't a defense mechanism.

Idealization is a defense mechanism when it's used to avoid seeing problems with another person or other people, as in the fictionalized example above about Mike.

Idealization as a defense mechanism is an unconscious process so the person who is idealizing abusive parents or an abusive lover doesn't realize that this is what s/he is doing.

Other people, who might see the situation more objectively, can see it.  But the person, who uses idealization as a defense, often won't see it even when other people point it out to them.  If friends or loved ones persist in trying to get this person to see it, s/he often become more tenacious about maintaining the defense.

Experienced and attuned therapists know that it would be counterproductive to try to force the issue prematurely.  Even though they know that this defense has been harmful in many ways, they also know that the idealizing defense protects the client from being overwhelmed.

Therapists must use a more nuanced approach when working with these clients.  One way that is often effective is to help these clients, who are often somewhat cut off from their feelings, to become aware of their emotions in ways that are manageable by educating clients about the mind-body connection.

When clients are able to feel their emotions in an embodied way, starting with situations that are non-threatening for them, they can gradually learn to deal with the more difficult work of letting go of the idealization defense for significant relationships.

Although clients often experience grief at this point, they are also usually relieved to be able to feel their authentic emotions.

Getting Help in Therapy
Idealization as a defense mechanism is common.

If what you've read in this article resonates with you, you could benefit from working with a psychotherapist who has experience working with this issue.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.