To stop idealizing others, resist the temptation to label them as good or bad, and don’t compare yourself to them. Also, learn to look for greatness rather than perfection. We idealize others because we look for perfection even though it doesn’t exist.
A quick internet search will tell you that to idealize means to “regard or represent as perfect or better than in reality”.
For example, your partner may actually have many positive traits, but through idealization you may see him or her as perfect.
Or, someone may excel at what they do and you may see them as the absolute best even though others are even better.
Now, is idealization necessarily a problem? In itself, not really. If you have ever been in love, you know how easy it is to idealize, and how good it feels.
The issue arises when we are so absorbed by idealization that we forget that it doesn’t reflect the truth, and experience disappointment as a result.
In extreme cases, idealization can even lead to abuse, for example when the person who has been idealized gets punished for not matching the abuser’s idea of them.
Why we idealize people and/or things
Virtually all of us have a tendency to idealize others in some way or another.
It’s very hard to see things as they are and observe them without any type of judgment or “filter”.
This doesn’t mean we are delusional, or mad. Consciously or unconsciously, we may tend to idealize others to…
1. Admire what we lack
Or — and this seems to be the more frequent scenario — admire what we ourselves would like to express but can’t. So basically we idealize those who show our own qualities.
We all have positive traits that have to be hidden in some way, e.g. we may be really honest individuals who have to lie from time to time, or ambitious individuals who can’t always share their ambition.
So when we come across someone who isn’t afraid to fully embody any of our positive traits, our natural reaction is to feel admiration and appreciation, often to the point of idealization.
2. Try to fulfill our needs
Perfection doesn’t exist. Our ideal friend, partner, parent, coworker, etc. simply cannot exist in the real world, which means that our desires and expectations will never be totally fulfilled.
In our own ideal world, however, we can imagine and create perfection and then associate this idea with a person that exists in the real world, for example our partner.
The risk is to then not be able to distinguish between the image that we have created (that satisfies all our needs) and the real person or object (that may only satisfy some of our needs).
3. Avoid disappointment
Let’s say you and your partner have been together for a while, and the initial phase of euphoric bliss is gradually fading away. Although this is normal, our brain gets involved.
Our mind doesn’t want to go back to a sub-optimal level of happiness and/or fulfillment; it wants the honeymoon phase to last forever. And it certainly doesn’t want to feel disappointment.
The solution? Idealization. The mind manipulates its own idea of who the other person is, so that they appear much better than they actually are, so that any form of disappointment is postponed.
How to stop idealizing someone
1. Don’t see others as “good or bad”
All or nothing thinking. Also called black and white thinking. It’s a surprisingly common cognitive distortion, but one you want to be aware of because it can easily lead to idealization.
By creating such a sharp division in the way you perceive others — right or wrong, good or bad, etc. — you also create a state of mind in which you can only judge and not perceive.
Moreover, people and things tend to turn into extremes. People with positive traits become heroes, idols, stars; people with negative traits become demons, monsters, enemies.
2. Don’t see others as superior or inferior
We have already seen how labeling others can lead to idealization. Similarly, comparing yourself to others also creates imbalance in the sense that you can either be better or worse than them.
Guess what happens when you believe someone else is better than you: you tend to exaggerate their positive qualities — idealize them and create a character of them.
So tip number two is to be aware of your own strengths and uniqueness and exit the vicious cycle of comparison, which doesn’t benefit you, nor does it benefit the person who is being idealized.
3. Realize perfection doesn’t exist
And distinguish between what is real and what is imaginary. For example, know the difference between art and reality. Anything artistic, such as a photo, is supposed to be beautiful and pleasant.
But it’s not supposed to represent the real world in any way. And if you ever confuse the two, you can only experience disappointment. Think of social media and people’s unrealistic beauty standards as a result.
We idealize because we seek perfection. We seek perfection because we think it exists. Which is a mistake. Learn to look for, and appreciate, “imperfection in all its greatness” instead.
4. Nurture the traits you admire in others
Remember? We often idealize those who possess the positive traits we ourselves have but cannot express or reveal to others. For example, we may not be able to be completely honest and so admire those who are.
However, you can learn to be yourself and own your good traits with other people as long as you maintain a balance. Being yourself makes you vulnerable but it doesn’t have to be scary.
So for example, if you idealize those who are overconfident, see if you are afraid of being assertive and work on that. If you idealize those who are successful, know that you can be the same.