By Larry Green
The idea for this paper came about after having read a paper by Rachel Newcombe (2008). I would like to begin with the paragraph from her paper that sparked this paper. She writes, “I view this problem [the problem of an analyst sharing her vulnerabilities] as originating from the belief that as analysts we hold ourselves to a higher standard. We vigilantly observe each other, whispers turning to rumbles when colleagues reveal anything less than what we perceive as a well-analyzed life. For example, a well analyzed analyst would never get a divorce, have an affair, file for bankruptcy, be the parent of a teenager who is expelled from school, or gain fifty extra pounds” (p.6)
My idealization of psychoanalysts began with my own analyst who I first met as a freshman in college. I saw him on winter break after having gone to the college counseling center because I was having panic attacks. The college therapist was nice, an attentive listener, and gave practical advice. I felt a bit soothed by her listening but my attacks were still painfully strong. While at home on winter break I went to see a psychoanalyst. The analyst started making interpretations right away and it helped tremendously. I saw him twice a week for six weeks and my attacks diminished by 80%. I went back to school and then started seeing him again during the summer After my first year of treatment with him my attacks became a thing of the past.
This left me feeling amazed, and curious about these conversations I was having with him. What was this miracle that came from talking? I knew our conversation was different than normal conversation but exactly how I could not explain. I was grateful, fascinated, and idealized my analyst and his method. He was nothing less than a real life magician to me.
Fast forward 2 years and I remember the place, and the emotions I felt, when I picked up my first psychoanalytic journal. I was in the UCLA Bio-Med Library on a study break and I decided to go check out the psychoanalytic section of the journals on display. I read articles in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis and the Psychoanalytic Quarterly. Reading how analysts thought and talked about patients filled me with excitement and a sense of the forbidden. I felt privy to the secrets of my treatment. I felt like I had entered the scorer’s private library.
I think that was when I got the bug. I was an undergraduate student at UCLA and and decided I wanted to learn about psychoanalysis. After a couple of fruitless classes in the psychology department, I learned that psychoanalytic theory was being taught in other departments on campus. My experience with two professors who were also analysts, only reinforced my belief that the training one had gotten as a psychoanalyst made him or her a special person.
This led me to want to become a psychoanalyst. While in graduate school learning about different therapies, I felt that analysts were not just therapists with a certain sub-specialty. In my mind, their training had made them the cream of the crop, the fighter pilots of the armed services, the brain surgeons of the medical profession.
My idealization was not only from the effectiveness of my treatment and the excellence of my teachers. I also needed to believe that my analyst was all powerful. My dependence on him felt so strong and my unconscious fear of being abandoned by failure so great, that I had to defend against any possibility that he could fall short or be wrong. I had not yet developed the emotionally ability to trust and rely on people who were flawed or as Winnicott might say I, did not yet have faith in “good enough.”
My idealization of psychoanalysts played a crucial role in the development of my identity as a therapist and my professional ego ideal. I wanted to become an excellent, and even impressive as a psychoanalyst. I remember one of the first psychoanalytic conferences I attended while in graduate school. It was a morning with Joseph Sandler. His clinical thoughtfulness, his humble manner, and particularly his encyclopedic knowledge of the literature was impressive. I still remember all the articles he cited off the top of his head during the discussion period. I remember thinking, “That is cool. I want to be able to do that.” Unfortunately, I also had the thought that anything less than that was falling short of what I should be. So in my hope to emulate that, I studied my tail off. I aspired to know early Freud, late Freud, ego psychology, object relations, Kleinian theory, and self psychology.
There is a difference between having goals and aspirations and an overly active ego ideal. Appropriate goals belong to the sphere of the ego. They come from a sense of authorship, from a sense of self, and a sense of play,. But it was more than that. It was my demanding ego ideal. Freud (1923) said that his development of the concept of the ego ideal was a precursor to his theoretical development of the superego. The ego ideal searches to perfect oneself. The ego ideal looms over the ego with demands to be more to be better. Being more knowledgeable was not just something I wanted, it was something I needed for my self esteem, and that motivation interferes with play.
Many years ago I heard a Klenian state that idealization always comes along with a complementary devaluation of the self. I had read that one frequently sees devaluation of others. But I had not previously heard that it involves a devaluation of the self, and this struck a chord with me. The metaphor that comes to my mind is that when you view others on such a high perch your own vantage point by definition is low.
Therefore, it was not just meaningful and satisfying for me to reach a certain level of knowledge and skill. I was.trying to feel better about myself. Let me give an example. After I was licensed, I wrote an article that was published. I did not enjoy that process at all. It had become a self-inflicted homework project. I was writing to get published. I wrote the paper to prove I could achieve a level of competence. It was about the excitement of external validation, not about the joy of writing or the satisfaction of sharing my ideas.
A few years later, attending a psychoanalytic institute was wrapped up in the same wishes for validation. I was going to belong to a club that had special people in it, and being a part of it would enhance my sense of self. Again, the motivations here are different from wanting the education and access to a professional community. I did want these things as well, but that was not the magic I was chasing, that was a benefit of chasing the magic.
I have many examples that would demonstrate my idealization of analysts. But here are a couple of examples that speak to the intensity of my idealization. When I was in my first year class as a candidate, one day early on, some of other candidates were talking about the plastic surgery of some the instructors. “Plastic Surgery?” I thought. This more than surprised me, I had trouble processing it. I had learned in my analysis that change was to take place from the inside. So in my idealizing state of mind plastic surgery was antithetical to the ethic of a psychoanalyst. It’s as if I had arrived in heaven, looked around and saw angel’s with bandages on their noses. Since when do angel’s worry about their looks? Analyst’s too had freed themselves from such earthly concerns, right?
Here is another example which I find kind of funny looking back on it. While at a conference a supervisor of mine who is friends with Kris Bollas told me he was feeling extremely nervous about the presentation he was about to make. I remember thinking, “What do you mean? How could he be nervous?” He is Kris Bollas? Didn’t he finish his analysis?”
From my present perspective, it seems kind of silly to me. Of course analysts would be vulnerable to worries about their looks and would use the cultural solution to those worries as opposed to always using reflection and insight. Of course Bollas might still have fears about being accepted. Certainly analysts are vulnerable to the same concerns and worries others feel and sometimes even more so.
Now back when I was with my analyst, he was aware of my idealizing tendency and he interpreted it many times. He said that psychoanalysts stood for my parents . He said that I found it too painful to come to terms with who my parents were and the poor parenting they provided, that my idealization of psychoanalysts was a defense against the abandonment I felt as a child and the loss I would experience in the present if I was to face the emotional truth about them. He may have been right; however, his interpretations of my idealizing ways were not as effective as his interpretations of my anxiety.
Because my first analyst became terminally ill, I started with a second analyst. It was with this analyst that my idealizing nature changed. Over just a couple of years, I felt a dramatic internal shift. Metaphorically and literally, I felt the psychoanalytic stars coming down to earth.
I would like to speculate how this happened. First, my second analyst was much more self-disclosing. She would share her associations that involved her personal life. This gave me a greater sense of her humanness and that she struggled as well. In the space of my first analyst abstaining from sharing anything but an interpretation I would imagine him as having it all worked out, that he had somehow arrived. And when he interpreted this thought toward him as my idealization of him, it did not change my belief. Owen Renik (1993) writes that anonymity has a way of building up idealization at the exact time that the analyst is trying to destroy idealization with interpretations.
So the fact that my second analyst shared her humanness with me felt like it had a palliative effect. Before my therapy with her, I would have had the opinion that her self-disclosures just removed the issue from the transference or therapeutic relationship. Prior to my treatment with her, I would have said that her self-disclosures helped to avoid the problem of my idealization and therefore, would not lead to real change. my personal experience suggests a different story. I was beginning to see humanness all over, the analysts that I idealized were moving from being great to being human. There strengths and weaknesses had become readily noticeable and quite normal to me.1
Secondly, my analyst’s internal attitude felt consistent with what she was saying. She did not seem like she needed to be perfect. She seemed accepting of her own humanness. I think her perspective on herself and others played an important role in my truly believing that I need not be perfect or even close to it In retrospect I would suggest that her accepting attitude was detoxifying my perfectionist one.
My first analyst struggled with his own perfectionistic tendencies. This was an analytic blind spot for us because our subjectivities were aligned with regard to perfectionism. Analysis often takes place in space where the analyst appreciates and can empathize with the patient’s feelings but can hold a different perspective as well. It’s this difference that makes room for fresh perspective to become known.
Thirdly, I think my second analyst confronting me about my own ego ideal was helpful. These confrontations did not involve psychogenetic interpretations. I was already quite adept at trying to explain the historical antecedents to my beliefs. Rather, I was impacted by her consistently pointing out that I had little room for being less than perfect, that my search for eliminating all my conflicts and difficulties left me unaccepting of my own humanness. I think these comments really helped me the demanding nature of my superego and has allowed me to feel more at ease in the world. I think these comments also had an indirect effect on my idealized images of others. I have not only become forgiving of myself for being human, I have become more accepting of the shortcomings of others.
It is such a relief not having those expectations of myself and others. It is such a relief to listen to some famous analyst, some really articulate presentation, or some impressive piece of clinical work with a sense that this person is just as human as I am. To know that they may have written an impressive paper, but that it is possible that earlier that week they may have had a patient leave treatment, or problems at home, leaves me feeling more relaxed.
I want to apply my perspective to the psychoanalytic community’s relationship with Freud. I see those that idealize Freud and those that devalue him. There are those that treat his writing like devoutly religious people treat the Bible- as transcendent truth. While others seek to denigrate his achievements by pointing out that he was a narcissist, a misogynist, etc. The view that he was just another human being with strengths and flaws seems less prevalent.
There are many ideas within psychoanalysis as to what gives rise to idealization. self psychologists speak of it as a normal process of development (Kohut, 1977), Klenians see it as a defense against aggression (Klein, 1945) . Others, like my first analyst, see it as a defense against loss and abandonment.
I would like to add to the ideas about the psychogenesis of idealization through some reflections on my own life. I remember that as a child I looked forward to growing up so I could have the knowledge and knowingness that adults had. They knew. My Dad in particular was sure of himself. I remember thinking that getting older meant that I could possess confidence and authority like my Dad appeared to possess. Now I look back and see that my Dad was working from what Fonagy calls a psychic equivalence mode ( (Fonagy et. al., 2002) My father saw himself as recording and knowing reality as it was, rather than knowing that all he had was a perspective which was subjective and fallible. As a child, I mistook his developmental deficit- his feeling that his thoughts were a perfect reflection of reality, with his having confidence in his thoughts and feelings. I think this played a role in my thinking that there were those that really knew and that with more knowledge I could be one of them. Therefore, when I was six I thought I would know when I was in high school. When I was in college I thought I would know when I was a graduate school, and on and on. I imagined that I would finally graduate from the unknowing child to the knowing adult. And this left me feeling that there was some pinnacle to reach, some level of understanding that would grant me a feeling of authority.
I finally understand it’s a fallacy. There is no plateau of knowingness. And what a relief it is stop chasing this illusion. At psychoanalytic conferences it leaves me feeling more relaxed and more at play, rather than feeling I am in some kind of pecking order with the smartest ones on top.
To conclude, I want to ask you consider the role of idealization in psychoanalytic education. In this day and age where most of our practices consist of seeing people once or twice a week, what motivates candidates to commit to such an expensive and time consuming endeavor? Would psychoanalytic institutes exist without idealization? Does idealization hinder psychoanalysis or help it? And what have been your personal experiences with idealization? I look forward to your comments.
 I am not making a whole sale endorsement of self-disclosure. I have experienced advantages to anonymity as well. I found that with my first analyst I felt the relationship was more of a virtual reality where I had a lot play space to talk about my fantasies about my analyst. That aspect of the therapy diminished for me with my second analyst because I was more aware of her personal thoughts. But for me her technique was what I needed at the time because of how it helped me with my with my idealization. Meta-comment- I think I am bringing this point up because I want to say, lets not idealize any one particular way of working, neither anonymity nor self-disclosure.
- Fonagy, P., (2002) Gergely, G., Jurist, E., and Target. M. Affect Regulation and Mentalization and the Development of the Self. New York. Other Press.
- Freud, S. (1923) The Ego and the Id. Standard Edition. v. X1X, pp. 1-66.
- Kohut, H. (1977) The Restoration of the Self. New York: International University Press.
- Klein, M. (1945) The Oedipus Complex in Light of Early Anxieties, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 36: 11-33.
- Newcomb, R. (2008, April) The Underbelly of Joy. Paper presented at the APA Division 39 Annual Spring Conference New York City, New York.
- Renik, O. (1993) Analytic Interaction: Conceptualizing Technique in Light of the Analyst’s Irreducible Subjectivity. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 65: 553-571.
- Winnicott, D.W. (1971) Playing and Reality. NewYork:Basic Books.
Laurence Green, PsyD. is a training and supervising psychoanalyst at ICP in Los Angeles who works with adults, adolescents, and families. He is a board member and co-chair of the history committee of IFPE and the co-chair of the 2009 IFPE Conference in Seattle.