I never imagined myself a perfectionist. But in the psychoanalytic lexicon, we are more apt to use the term Ideal, or Idealization. We can get a glimpse of our own brand of idealization right underneath statements like “Life should be fair”, “life should be easy”, “parenting shouldn’t be this hard” “partnerships shouldn’t have so much conflict”.
Who/What Would You Rather Blame?
It is incredibly easy for me to spot idealizations and their obvious nefarious effects on my client’s lives. Much harder for me to see how dominated my life is with these spoilers of a good enough life. Over the past few months I have been in a knock down drag out fight with the ideal. Here is what that has looked like.
For most of my life I have been a relatively high achiever, but always in an incredibly sloppy way. I function way below “my potential” and have always felt confident that if I worked harder I would be more successful, have a cleaner house, see my friends more consistently, be a better partner/parent/friend/citizen. You can hear it right? I have had a fantasy that if only I wasn’t lazy/irresponsibly/spoiled/… then I and my life would obviously be perfect. The only problem I had ever considered was me.
Over the last few years I have had my own therapy break throughs that have resulted in a significant increase in my competence around productivity/effort/responsibility, which is the umbrella of what I consider the worst of my deficits. I am of course incredibly grateful for this progress, but it led me head first into a collision with my ideal fantasy of life; essentially that life was easy/reasonable/doable…it was just me that was the loser problem. Oops.
The last few months I have fallen repeatedly into fits of rage. I will get around to hanging up the screen mesh door in my kitchen that allows my dogs to go in and out but not the bugs, in a timely enough manner, only to not find the hammer where I thought I left it, then realize there is a tear in the screen that I have to sew first, fall off the ladder due to my vertigo, and break the hammer. Yep. That all happened.
But worse yet that was not an isolated incident. That is just what life looks like sometimes. And my fantasy that “life should be easier than this” is just that: a fantasy.
We Can Idealize Different Aspects Of Life
Couple often come into therapy where one partner has had to drag the other, because on of them thinks that “if there is this much conflict, we should just separate”. Wrong. Conflict is inherent to the human condition. That is why all good fairly tales end as soon as the wedding is over…relationships are significantly darker and complex as time goes on. The fantasy that love should flow easy leaves us either terrible critical of our partner or ourselves as failing what “should be easy”.
When people are diagnosed with frightening illnesses like cancer, or when they lose a loved one prematurely to death, if they haven’t already crushed the ideal fantasy of life being fair, they are forced to grabble with its unfairness. It is not as if understanding life is unfair is a picnic, but holding onto the idea that it is “supposed to be”, is debilitating. It sets us up for feelings of persecution, and wondering what we did wrong to deserve our predicament.
There are countless examples of idealizations that are spoiling our chances to be happy enough, successful enough, lucky enough. When my son rails against his own boredom and ask him where he came to imagine life would be endless interesting/compelling/engaging? When I lick the wounds of my own childhood I remind myself that life just is. My mom just was. She was just her, with her injuries, and her capacities. That lots of it sucked and lots of it was great, and I dont even know if she did the best she could because “potential” is all idealization.
Imagining the world/life is supposed to be a certain way sets us up for conflict with how it actually is. And how it actually is is most certainly a far cry from ideal. So we grieve. We grieve not what should be, but what we wish was. We grieve what we long for, but without the extra layer of suffering that comes from imagining we were somehow robbed, or short changed. And without the cruelty of blaming ourselves because life/parenting/relationships/careers are harder or less fair or less fulfilling than we had impinged or hoped the could have been.
Facing The Task At Hand
A few weeks ago I had a friend come help me take down a pergola in my back yard. It was a massive job, with lots of inherent complications related the height and weight of the structure, electrical wires and other issues leaving the structure unstable. I hadn’t been able to get anyone to remove it due to liability issues because no one could really figure out how to do it safely. He came, and piece by piece took it down. He stopped after each section and contemplated the next move…sometimes for hours. We the belt on the chain saw snapped, instead of losing his shit that he couldn’t complete the task he was on, he shifted gears and started to work on that new task. I am sure he got quite frustrated along the way, but he didn’t get lost in the fantasy that it was “supposed to” go a certain way.
I can taste a new freedom on my horizon, though I am most certainly still in the grips of the battle to kill off my idealizations about how easy life should be if only I had my shit together. It was easier for me to imagine I was the problem than life, because of course now the only solution is to grieve. Grief is the vehicle for letting go, of this and of all things in life we are trying to face/accept/come to terms with. I like most people hate grief and would rather just work through things intellectually. Fortunately my rage at this difficult, hard world is forcing me to grieve, as there is only so much stomping around shouting at the sky a gal can do.
Smith is an analytically oriented psychotherapist with 25 years in practice. She is additionally the Founder/Director of Full Living: A Psychotherapy Practice, which specializes in matching clients with seasoned clinicians in the Greater Philadelphia Area.
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