by Velleda C. Ceccoli Ph.D. on November 8, 2010

When President Barack Obama was elected, there was dancing in the streets of many cities – in my city of New York, people stayed up late into the night celebrating his victory. I remember the following morning, across the ocean, in the United Kingdom, getting my coffee at the nearby shop, where an English lad began doing a little jig when he heard my American accent: “Obama, Obama, we love Obama, we love America again” he sang to me. It was a great day.  At the time of his election President Barack Obama held the hopes of many in the world, and he became an instant vessel for the wishes, anticipation, and projections of people all over the world. Such adoration and idealization is not unusual for world leaders, rock stars, actors, teachers, mentors, and most especially for those we love.

This blog is not about President Obama, but about the role of idealization in our lives. And about how we manage our disappointment. It is about what idealization and disappointment say about us.

In psychoanalytic circles, idealization and the inevitable disappointment that ensues when it shatters, is seen as a natural process which comes about as a developmental achievement, a milestone that allows us to move from a position where we are one with mom and the world, to one where we are separate from mom, and individuals in our own right. This rather complex psychological shift from total dependence and egotistical rule to independence and separation is contingent on our ability to recover from our first, narcissistic injury: the fact that we are not as all powerful as we thought, and the fact that mommy, isn’t either. The world is not necessarily our oyster, and mom, capable as she might be, is not without faults. The realization of our own limitations comes about through our awareness that the person whom we idealized (primarily mom, our caretaker) has let us down in some way. Hopefully these let downs have occurred in small doses and over time, but, nonetheless, the trauma (i.e., narcissistic injury) of not being all powerful brings us face to face with disappointment: the first of many to come. Keep in mind that this process occurs at about age two, and disappointment continues throughout our lives.

Idealization is a state in which we take another, and assign them with supernatural traits and powers: the wisest, most beautiful, all understanding, kindest…you get the idea. We idealize this other as all good, as someone that will take care of us and always come through for us (starting to sound familiar?) and as we are doing so, we fall in love with them. As the object of our love they are now exalted to, and placed on the highest of pedestals, the fall from which can only lead to a huge tumble and great disappointment. In the process of falling, the object of our affection will transform itself from a highly loved and desirable one to a fallible, broken, and perhaps useless one. In the best-case scenario, as we recover from our disappointment, the object (the other) becomes human, and adopts all the frailties, limitations and other characteristics of mortals. Or, in the worst cases, when the idealized other loses its shine, he/she becomes useless or discarded, perhaps even hated. You can see that disappointment, and how we learned to deal with it as children, has everything to do with how we get on with it as adults. You can also see that our investment in idealization, and our response to disappointment says a great deal about us.

Why is idealization necessary at all you might ask. It turns out to be a necessary psychological step, and pre-condition of early attachment, which is the bedrock for our future relationships.  Our ability to see someone as all good allows us to come closer to him or her, to feel safe, and to develop feelings for them. It allows us to feel understood, recognized and found. It also allows us to project unto them many of our wishes, needs and hopes. Idealization is pure magic in this way: it allows us to believe that what we most want and desire can be achieved by another- for us. You can see how this arrangement is borne from the early mother-infant dyad.

As a psychological process, idealization does not work very well without disappointment. On its own, idealization keeps us trapped in awe and wonder of the other as reflective of our own needs and wishes.  It keeps us at a relatively early stage of emotional development. Disappointment ushers in reality in an otherwise personal, magical world. It challenges us to take in the whole picture, to consider the other, not as ours but as an(other). One could say that disappointment forces us to deal with our own subjectivity and its use of an(other) for its manifestation. Our disappointment tells us much about our desires and needs, and about what and how much we have placed on others to articulate and realize for us. While idealization envelops the other in our own, personal magical cape, disappointment clarifies the connection to an(other), highlighting inter-subjectivity. Ultimately, how we deal with and manage our disappointment, in all matter of situations, accounts for how successful we are in our lives.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Richard December 5, 2013 at 8:05 AM

Thank you, it is a pleasure to find identification with this blog. I have only fairly recently come to understand some important parts of my life script (i’m 55) as a result of therapy received through rehab for alcohol addiction. A crucial event in my case was an illness at about two and a half, from which I fully recovered thanks to my Mother who’s care probably saved my life. However the special bond caused great problems for me in growing up and forming relationships with women. Problems around idealization, attachment, separation, anxiety and of course disappointment and the inability to deal with it in an adult way. I seemed incapable of making a health transition from child to adult. (such a common feature in addiction). It is significant that I was in hospital again at thirteen with a stress related illness. So the two crucial developmental stages for me were interrupted. Anyway-onward and upward!


trisha November 9, 2010 at 11:21 AM

I remember the first time i realized i had a different brain from my mother’s, at first it frightened me because i realized i was separate and had the capability to make decisions. Her thoughts were not mine anymore. I was growing up. After raising three sons I have experienced their separating transitions from me. These transition was not always easy and i worked hard not to personalize this migration but to remember this is part of their healthy path to self development, independence and growth. Thank you Dr. V. your wisdom continues to help me remember….trisha


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