Idealization is the mental process of claiming overly optimistic qualities to a certain something or a certain someone, often ignoring the negative aspects. Examples of idealization happen when we spend months saving money for a designer item, with the strong desire that this product will make us feel better about ourselves. We want the happiness, beauty, and joy that the person advertising this fashion product has. 

Idealization comes from the latin word idea. Existing as an archetype. 

 Idealization happens when we are colorblind. The green flags are bright and big, and the red flags look small and blurry. We tend to think that a certain someone or something is perfect, maybe not entirely perfect, but the small flaws don’t seem to be a big deal, even though they have caused previous moments of tension, disappointment, and frustration. 

For many people, idealization is the shelter of denial, because very often it is comfortable to say that things are ok, even if they are not.  Image Courtesy of Luis Quintero

Maybe idealization comes from a desperation to find joy quickly. It turns out there’s no shortcut to happiness, and idealizing someone or something makes the path even more difficult. We see a distorted version of reality, and when people around us try to explain to us the flaws of that something or someone we idealize, we get defensive. It becomes personal, and we refuse to see things with an objective lens. And the moment when we stop idealizing and we see things and people for who they really are can be devastating because apparently, your friends were right, and you were wrong. It turns out nothing, and no one is perfect. It turns out that in the process of idealization, you may have put in doubt your authentic self, or your self-worth, trying to change who you are to make things work.

Psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg explains that idealization is the denial of an undesirable aspect of someone or something. 

Idealization happens in the search for a perfect job, a perfect apartment, the perfect someone, and even a perfect outfit. We idealize love because TV shows and soap operas have told us that suffering and putting yourself down are on the path to finding love. We idealize fashion because we are exposed to tons of images where fashion is seen as a magical force that can make people feel and be beautiful. The process is not as simple, and there’s no specific piece of clothing that can magically change someone; although, there are several studies about how clothes with a great fit and color and design we like can make us feel very good about ourselves.

Optimism or idealization?​​

Idealization makes us think that something or someone is perfect. Image Courtesy of Pinterest. 

Sometimes the line between these two ideas can be blurry. Because for so many years, podcasts, journals, magazines, “life coaches,” and marketing campaigns have been selling us the idea of optimism as the best way to live your life. A perspective where “everything happens for a reason,” “every mistake is a lesson learned,” and “after a dark moment, there’s always a moment of light waiting for you.” It almost seems as if being sad or angry is something forbidden under this movement, because how dare we feel sad when we have health, family, and friends? 

How can we dare to think that something sucks when there’s a roof over your head, clothes to wear, and a meal ready to be warmed up whenever you are hungry? This toxic optimism hasn’t precisely raised a generation of happy people. Quite the opposite, there’s a sense of guilt for feeling emotions that are not related to joy and happiness. This creates an environment where we invalidate emotions that we consider we “should not feel,” which causes more frustration, anger, or sadness. 

As this toxic optimism movement keeps pushing us to find happiness, it might feel like a rush. The clock is ticking. Where is this perfect job I’m supposed to find at X age? Where’s this certain partner I’m supposed to be dating during college? Where’s this extraordinary person with a magnificent outfit and a seductive sparkle which makes me feel as special as Alfie makes Emily feel in Emily in Paris? What am I doing wrong if I don’t have one of these things?

Idealization and life

Did Blair idealize Chuck as she tolerated betrayal, disrespect, and lies? Image Courtesy of Planet Claire. 

“Yes, my partner throws some passive-aggressive comments every once in a while, but at least I’m not single.” “Yeah, my coworkers make fun of my appearance, and I work 60 hours while I’m being paid for 40, but I shouldn’t complain. Everyone says I should be grateful”. There are many common scenarios where one probably thinks that the negative aspects of something are “not that bad” or are things that one should accept because that’s just what it is. This can be a very dangerous way of thinking because, under this premise, someone can think that abuse or aggression are acceptable when they are not.

When we idealize someone, we put them on a pedestal. We think that they are in some way superior to us. So if we think someone is superior to us, this means that we have an idea of being inferior or less than someone or something.

 This way of thinking creates many insecurities and a persistent belief of not being enough. (Smart enough, competent enough, or simply enough). Maybe you idealize a teacher from school. You think this person has it all because they are very smart, they always look good, and they seem to have their life together. We don’t know if this person has their life together or not, but idealizing them creates biases that make us think this teacher is perfect, and quoting the iconic song by the marvelous Hannah Montana, “Nobody’s Perfect.” 

The idea of romantic love is very captivating at first. Everything is new. There’s an excitement for what has been discovered and a big curiosity about what is yet to be discovered. It’s like unwrapping a gift with several layers of paper, and after unwrapping each layer, a new surprise comes up. 

Idealization and Fashion 

Idealization in fashion makes us think that an object will automatically fix a certain issue. Image Courtesy of Mujer. 

According to several studies, a single human sees between 4,000 and 10,000 ads every single day. It’s safe to say that at least a couple hundred of them are related to fashion or beauty. Many of these ads briefly mention the characteristics of the product (its features, ingredients, colors, etc.), but they make a strong emphasis on the way they make people feel. X body lotion makes people feel rejuvenated. X body perfume makes men feel very sexy. X backpack makes all kids cool at school.

So on an unconscious level, many of us are buying these products because we are seeking an emotion, a characteristic that we’d like to have, an adjective that we would like to be associated with such as “cool,” “modern,” “attractive,” “sexy,” “wealthy,” “young,” and the list keeps on going.

In fashion, it’s very common that we idealize because most of their campaign strategies are aspirational. Commonly, we compare our body to the body of a fitness model or fashion model. We see the photos on social media with a certain frustration because we think this model is perfect. 

Ideals of beauty we see on TV. Adriana Lima for Kia’s Super Bowl ad. Image Courtesy of Autoblog. 

But again, nobody’s perfect. Hundreds, if not thousands, of photos were taken to get a great shot of this model. There’s makeup involved that covers the skin from the forehead to the toes. There’s a professional lighting setting and a photographer that knows the best angles of the model. So there are a lot of processes behind what might be presented as a very organic photograph on Instagram. Nobody is perfect, not even fashion models. 

For decades, the fashion industry has used beauty archetypes, selling “emotions” through their products. Jason Smith for Gianni Versace, Fall / Winter 1996. Image Courtesy of Vogue France.

We idealize fashion, when we hope that objects will fix major problems in our life. There’s nothing wrong with buying a new pair of shoes because you are feeling a little bit down and you want to treat yourself. The problem starts when we use fashion as a way to please other people and as a desperate move to be accepted, when you buy the newest bag, not because you like it, but because you know it’s trendy and it will get people’s attention. 

We start putting value on fashion since we are kids. Did you compare your backpack, shoes, or school supplies with the kid sitting next to you? Image Courtesy of MyKidsTime. 

One of the first moments when we idealize fashion is when we are kids, and it’s the first day of classes. The elitism is very visible in the kind of school bags the kids are wearing, and the kids compare their supplies with those of the kids sitting next to them. Very often, there’s a kid who wishes he had a “cooler” backpack or lunchbox because that would make him feel a certain way or because the other kids would accept him, and everybody would be friends with each other. The new backpack comes, a small moment of joy happens, and nothing else changes. We can use fashion as a small push of confidence and joy, but it will not make major changes in our life if we don’t do anything about it. This is the idealization of fashion. 

Love enters through the eyes

Idealization of fictional characters. Image Courtesy of HBO. 

We can see in movies and TV shows how happy and “successful” characters are wearing clothes that fit them well and are beautiful. Blair Waldorf’s fashion style has been an inspiration to so many teenage people because it comes with an aspiration of being the character herself. People want to dress like Blair Waldorf, not just because they are attracted to the fashion style itself, but because wearing these clothes represents a strong desire to obtain something that the character has, whether that is wealth, love, or a personality aspect. But let’s remember that fictional characters are also idealized. Maybe when we grow up, we quit the dream of becoming a superhero or having our own castle with our royal partner. But even as adults, we idealize the people we watch on TV. 

Football players, actors, actresses, social influencers, life coaches, politicians, fashion models, designers, and people in the creative industry are all idealized with the belief that their life is perfect, and ours is not. 

Admiration and idealization are different because admiring is simply acknowledging a characteristic someone has, whether that’s a physical characteristic like their body, their nose, or their abs, or a personal characteristic like someone’s creativity, wisdom, sense of humor, or working skills. Whenever the line between admiration and idealization looks blurry, remember to go back to the premise that idealizing is thinking that someone is superior to you. This is the big red flag where you should reconsider the way in which you perceive this someone or something. 

Idealization is denial

Idealizing love is accepting things one should not accept. Image Courtesy of Julian Myles

As positive as the concept of idealization may seem, idealization is denial. Because one denies that things and people are not perfect, and one is able to do everything to make things work. It’s hard to see the red flags; it’s hard to see that we are letting go of common sense values that we stand for on a regular basis. And this all happens because, as mentioned, idealizing is putting someone above you and thinking they are superior in some way. 

The best way to confront idealization is to be very aware of your thoughts and the reason behind your decisions and actions. Why am I doing this? Is this person crossing a boundary? Am I doing something that goes against what I believe in? Do I feel that I am losing myself in the process of satisfying the expectations of X, Y, or Z?