Within the discipline of psychology, there exists a concept known as ‘splitting’. Splitting refers to a false perception of seeing others as either ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’. During childhood, this is normal. However, it can persist into adulthood, operating as a psychological defence mechanism, which prevents us from taking a more realistic, considered and complex view of others (ie seeing them as possessing a blend of positive and negative characteristics).
One of the main reasons why we may continue to ‘split’ others when we become adults is that we suffered early childhood trauma which caused as to become psychologically arrested or ‘stuck’ at the splitting stage.
What is meant by idealizing another person?
When we idealise another person (often a person we would like to have a romantic relationship with) we see them through a distorting lens so that they seem to us perfect in every way, or, as the name of the defence suggests, the ideal person.
However, because it is obviously impossible for someone to be perfect, she or he will, as surely as night follows day, inevitably fall sadly short of our stratospherically, over-exacting and unforgiving standards. In short, we have created an image of the person in our minds which may, in fact, have little in common with the person this image misguidedly represents.
Inexorably, then, initial intense infatuation, even worship, will be eroded away to leave us feeling bitterly disappointed, disillusioned, and betrayed.
How does this work as a defence mechanism?
When we idealize someone, it acts as a defence mechanism against acute feelings of inner pain and despair.
Our initial profound infatuation with the person creates a feeling similar to a drug-induced ‘high’ which temporarily elevates us out of our depression.
Unfortunately, however, our depression will return with redoubled severity when the idealised person fails to live up to our impossible standards.
Indeed, the very intensity of our feelings may themselves make the recipient of them feel uncomfortable and suffocated, thus being, in the final analysis, deeply counterproductive. That we are unable to see this at the time is part of the general irrationality of our feelings and concomitant behaviour (although it is worth pointing out that it could, conceivably, be argued that, for want of a better phrase, ‘normal love’ could not exist without its irrational aspects; my parents’ marriage to each other is a case in point here, I think).
Our idealised image of the person is, essentially, a fantasy we have created, existing only in our minds. In a sense, then, it is our imaginative process and its results that we are ‘in love’ with.
Similarity to hypomania
Hypomania is a state of excitement and heightened energy which is not as extreme as mania which occurs in people who are suffering from bipolar disorder. It is a way of escaping painful inner feelings and some experts believe that when we idealise another person it produces a similar feeling to hypomania.
Sadly for all concerned, when the idealised person fails to live up to expectations, the person who had idealised him/her and seen him or her as all-good may now suddenly switch to seeing him/her as all-bad (as splitting is still operating). Psychologists describe this as moving from idealising the person to devaluing him or her.
Needless to say, this leaves the originally idealized individual in a state of confusion and bewilderment.
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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).