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.
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!