I had stopped seeing my therapist L in 2017. After two years of therapy then, I felt I had grown a lot, such as learning to communicate more directly instead of passive aggressively, to tolerate my more intense emotions, and to process my traumatic childhood. However, elements of our work together still felt unresolved. In particular, I still questioned at times whether L cared for me. Though a skilled therapist, he had not been a particularly nurturing one – which he himself said multiple times – and I wondered what that meant for our therapeutic relationship.

When I saw him last week, I made a comment about how I write about him on this blog. “Not like many people read my blog, but you’re kinda famous,” I said, jokingly. “I’m sure people think you’re amazing.”

He smiled. “That sounds like idealization, don’t you think?”

The day after he said that, I found myself googling about idealization in psychodynamic therapy. Through this page, I read about how people with trauma histories will often idealize others to help minimize anxiety about getting hurt or experiencing ambivalence in relationships. Then, when these people get hurt, they devalue the other person they had formerly idealized. On a subconscious level, reading this reminded me of elements of my relationship with L several years ago, how I grew to enjoy his support though also got overwhelmed when he did things that upset me.

In the next few hours after reading that article, I felt a sort of panic bubble up in my chest. Then, sitting in my car parked outside my former dorm room getting ready to drive back up to the D.C. area, I had a realization, which felt like a glass wall shattering in my brain: L was imperfect at times *and* he had cared about me. While I had never thought of L as some perfect God-like therapist, I had had trouble sitting with his bluntness and his sometimes more neutral psychodynamic orientation, which contrasted with my own preference and disposition toward nurturing. Because of my childhood trauma, I always questioned whether those mistakes reflected a lack of genuine care.

This past weekend, I spent a lot of time processing this realization. While I think my tendency toward idealization/devaluation came out most strongly with L, I also started to notice tendencies I have to idealize certain people in life cough attractive Asian men and other men of color who went to prestigious schools and care about social justice before I realized that you can go to a prestigious school and care about social justice and still have little to no emotional self-awareness or desire to grow and change, anyway, a pattern I began to shift away from over the past few years. In a way, idealization/devaluation makes it easier to trust people, at least at first: if someone is all good and amazing it’s unlikely they’ll hurt you, and then if they do hurt you they’re all bad and you can cut them out of your life. In talking about this with one of my close friends, I mentioned that it feels even nicer to form close ties with people who you recognize as imperfect, because you see them for who they are and not who you project them out to be.

Defense mechanisms die hard. Like letting go of my previous restrictive eating, at times I wonder if releasing or softening my idealization/devaluation will wreak havoc upon my life, like if I will suddenly engage in friendships that do not feel meaningful or date a mediocre m*n just to do so. However, I think I would rather live my days contending with ambiguity over staying solely in the extremes of eating or thinking anyway. Nowadays, I eat when I feel hungry and I do not eat when I don’t, which has worked out well. Similarly, I believe that I can still have high standards for who I hang out with and see if they align with my values while also recognizing people’s imperfections.

When I went to visit L, I didn’t expect the huge amount of grief and sorrow that would follow. Though the meeting with him went well, I’ve felt sad ever since, like, I got to reconnect with someone and finally see them in a fully nuanced way and now it’s over. This past Saturday, while submerged in my grief, I reread some of my old physical journals from 2015 to 2017 as well as my online journals from that time about my sessions with L. At first, I felt surprised by how much I suffered mentally during that time and also a bit embarrassed, because I had questioned L’s care a lot. Though, now, I recognize that I had done my best and I feel proud of myself for having continued to invest in my self-work. Before this past week, when I read those journals, I still wondered about his care, about if the tumultuous parts of our relationship negated any or all of the positive parts. Now, however, when I think about my time with L, my questioning of him has died down, almost like a warzone gone still. In that quiet, I can feel the care he gave me – consistent, patient, and clear.

My journals from 2015 to 2017! Rereading these journals though omg I feel like I had been so young then, like even if some of my fundamental values stayed the same I grew up so much in the past several years. Guess that shows we all have the potential to grow if we try.

Leave it to L to have turned my throwaway comment into some deep insight, lol. In all honesty I have *not* been okay this week and have cried like everyday because of grief, not just L stuff also reflections about my grandmother, moving to a new city and state, Caroline Knapp, and some other stuff. Not a cry for help as I have solid coping strategies, self-care activities, and social support, more a disclosure to keep it real. Would love to hear any reactions to this post and if it resonates with any element of your life, and until next post!



Filed under Personal

12 responses to “Idealization

  1. you and your writings are so real .
    wish you only abundance of peace.

  2. This is really interesting to me – I don’t really trust people if they’re nurturing, I prefer them to be calm and unemotional and sort of brusque, then I’m fine. We often chime in our reactions so this interested me! I’m glad you are moving from more fixed to more movable positions as I think flexibility is important, and you’re continuing to grow. I hope your bad week recedes though as I’m sad to think of you crying every day (having done so myself this week: my friend in very vulnerable health has caught Covid). Processing stuff does feel / act like grief sometimes. You’re still excellent.

    • Ooooh curious about that preference for calm and unemotional and sort of brusque! Though I think people who exhibit those qualities can be caring and nurturing in a nonperformative way; as I’ve gotten older I’ve also encountered folks who are extra like, nice and sweet in a way that masks underlying anxiety or unresolved issues. Appreciate you noticing and validating my growth and increased flexibility. You are excellent too and I hope you are doing well.

      • Yes! I’m a real yes-sayer and serial volunteer and helper and stepper aside although I tend to do it more quietly than gushingly. But I know where it comes from and try to keep aware of it and keep some boundaries.

  3. What a wonderful insight. I was not expecting this and thought the meeting with L would end on a happy, carefree note. But I think it was good and useful to go through this. I wonder how this may shape the way you deal with your clients (if at all).

    By the way, I like the link on the coping strategies and sent it to someone who was feeling very anxious and sad. And if you ever feel like you need to vent, feel free to reach out.

    Sending you lots of warmth and peace.

    • I KNOW I was not expecting this either though I’m glad for it. It’s definitely a happy note though not a carefree one, and I’m appreciative of the lessons I’m learning. I feel like my time in therapy has definitely helped out my own therapy practice in so many ways. (:

      Yay glad you liked the link! Thank you for offering Matt. Your support and encouragement and humor in these comments and in your own posts means so much to me. I hope you are doing well or at least finding meaning!

      • Awww…. you always say nice things about me. I always enjoy reading your blog and it forces me to think about the things you wrote about. Plus you ask all these open ended questions at the end. I’m just one of the 1.53 readers you have and I also love the insights and feedback they leave in their comments.

  4. Kartavya Ratate

    I’ve noticed this theme of idealization in my recent experiences too, and I’d like to learn more about it from the resources available to me, and help myself. I think what has worked for me is being mindful and labelling the types of relationships I have with different people in my life at present so that I’m able to set firm and more effective boundaries around them. For instance, with people with whom I share relationships whose status I doubt or am unclear about, I can communicate my needs or expectations in non-aggressive ways. And if that’s not possible/helping, I can either learn to accept the imperfections in those people because I value my relationships with them and trust our relationships to have the potential to get better in future, with work and commitment from both the sides. Or maybe I can just move away from those people altogether, if that feels right to me at any moment. In any case, I won’t be compromising on my (or the other peoples’) values or well-being, which is what matters the most in any relationship, according to me.
    I hope you’re taking care of yourself as you reflect upon and put work into the different relationships in your life, either from the past or present! 🙂

    • Yes I so vibe with this mindful approach of reflecting on different relationships and what you can get out of them/contribute to them as well as what comes more from yourself or other resources. At least in the country I grew up in, there was like no education about healthy relationships, boundaries, knowing how much to expect from other people and from yourself etc. So I’m glad you are doing your best to think thoroughly about your relationships and what you want from them to avoid compromising your values or wellbeing. Hope you are well too and thanks for this thoughtful comment!

  5. That’s all so interesting, and I found Liz’s comment, about tending to distrust those who immediately appear to be nurturing, interesting too. I think I have had the opposite inclination for a long time, that if someone seemed too perfect or accomplished, that I would distrust that relationship because I already knew that I would not be able to/be choosing to attain that kind of status myself, because sometimes (what is the strike-through code for HTML….a LOT of times) my life is messy and there’s more striving than accomplishment! heheh But I can understand the other perspective too. Your old journals look very coordinated; mine are a mish-mash of shapes and sizes, notebooks gifted to me that look hilarious all stacked together. Uh oh, another way to interpret how perfect someone is or isn’t? heheh Have you read Sheila Heti? I’m not necessarily recommending her, as she’s an acquired taste, and I know you’re prioritizing other kinds of writers in your stacks these days, but in her latest, Pure Colour, she presents a character and then posits that all the other friends in their group were pretending to be that woman, and that came to mind thinking about idealizaiton.

    • Yes thank you for this comment it’s so interesting to think about what makes us either trust or distrust people and how much it involves our own past experiences! Though, sometimes people are abusive or hurtful and that’s on them so. Haha my life has become more flexible and less coordinated over the years which I appreciate given my general type A disposition. Also yes I read Motherhood by Sheila Heti and liked it! Thank you for raising her name again as well as for this thoughtful comment. (:

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