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Idealization and Devaluation: What You Need To Know

6 min.

Idealization and devaluation are two maladaptive defense mechanisms that occur in various psychological contexts but are most commonly associated with borderline personality disorder (BPD). Learn more about idealization and devaluation here.

By: Ethan Cohen BSN, RN

Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini

May 29, 2023

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Table of Contents

Human beings are complex. Our relationships, therefore, are also usually complicated (though not always in a bad way). Learning to make fair and realistic judgments about ourselves and our relationships, even when it’s difficult, is a skill that helps us grow as individuals. 

For some people, though, especially those with personality disorders, this important skill is overshadowed by cycles of idealization and devaluation, a type of black-and-white thinking that can lead to difficulties in maintaining healthy relationships and creates a variety of other challenges.

What is idealization?

Idealization refers to a person’s tendency to assign exaggerated positive qualities to a person, place, or concept. It is easy to understand how this tendency has the potential to become dangerous within the context of an interpersonal relationship. When we engage in idealization, we may see another person as perfect, that they can do no harm, and ignore their negative attributes. 

This type of admiration and infatuation with another person can lead to unrealistic expectations and can end in disappointment, anger, and feelings of abandonment. 

For people with borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder, mental illnesses marked by loss of emotional control, impulsivity, and distorted self-concept and conception about the world, engaging in idealization and devaluation is a common occurrence.

What is devaluation?

Devaluation is the opposite process of idealization. While idealization places a person, place, or thing on a pedestal, devaluation refers to the act of assigning exaggerated negative qualities while disregarding the good. During devaluation, flaws, weaknesses, and negative traits take center stage, and positive qualities are completely ignored. 

These exclusively negative feelings lead to anger, contempt, and dismissiveness.

Again, it is clear to see how perceiving another person or the world at large in this way could cause an immense level of difficulty in maintaining meaningful communication and connections. 

Unfortunately for individuals that struggle with borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder, the cycle of idealization and devaluation, which is referred to as “splitting”, can cause their relationships to become toxic and unmanageable.

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Splitting: the cycle of idealization and devaluation 

Splitting, or the consistent oscillation between idealization and devaluation, is a defense mechanism employed by people with BPD and other personality disorders that aims to help them better handle emotions and feelings that cause them discomfort and unease.

This type of maladaptive behavior has its roots in past experiences of trauma, such as abuse and abandonment. It can negatively affect a person’s ability to perceive and engage with others in a balanced and realistic manner later in life. 

This tendency to perceive people, objects, or situations in extreme and polarized terms, categorizing them as either all-good or all-bad, can make it almost impossible to maintain healthy relationships. This type of thinking can move from either side of the spectrum with varying frequency and intensity and can be brought on by various different triggers. These triggers can be understood as reminders of previous experiences of abandonment and pain, and idealization and devaluation are used to avoid these feelings. 

During the idealization phase, a person may focus an overwhelming amount of trust and admiration on another person. This can lead to love bombing and an irregular amount of attention being directed toward the other person. The individual engaging in idealization fears being abandoned or let down and, in turn, conceptualizes the other person as incapable of fault, placing an unrealistic level of trust in the relationship. 

Invariably, their expectations will not be met. At this point, the individual will move to the devaluation stage of splitting. In order to protect themselves from further disappointment, they will disregard their previously held belief that the other person is all-good and begin to see them as all-bad. The individual may begin to direct anger toward the other person. This can lead to abusive behavior. If the person engaging in this type of thinking perceives that their expectations are once again being met, they can switch back to the idealization phase, and the cycle begins again.

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Idealization and devaluation in relationships

It is important to note that all of us engage in behavior similar to splitting on occasion. We have all experienced what it is like to feel infatuated with another person and want to bring them closer to us. We also know what it’s like to feel disappointed in another person and, in turn, push them away.  

That being said, this type of behavior within the context of borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder creates a situation in which these feelings and behaviors lack a level of connection with reality. 

After receiving even a minor amount of attention or affection from another person, someone with a personality disorder may begin to view this other person as perfect, faultless, or as the source of all of their happiness and fulfillment. 

Conversely, when a person with these mental health challenges perceives even a minor flaw or experiences a minor disappointment in their relationship, their perception may shift dramatically and they can begin to see the other person as the cause of all their pain and discomfort, casting blame and anger. 

In this context, idealization and devaluation are maladaptive. If you feel as though you are struggling with splitting or maladaptive idealization and devaluation or are in a relationship with someone that exhibits this type of behavior, it is important to reach out to a mental health professional to help you examine your situation more closely. 

Self-idealization and self-devaluation

While splitting can occur within the context of interpersonal relationships, it can also occur in relation to self-perception. Individuals that engage in this type of behavior can shift between perceiving themselves as either completely good or completely bad. 

This type of thinking disregards the complexity and nuance that is intrinsic to self-conception and lacks compassion and fairness towards oneself.

People that engage in self-splitting can experience intense self-criticism, self-hatred, and feelings of emptiness during periods of self-devaluation. During periods of self-idealization, they may feel a temporary boost in self-esteem and experience an inflated level of confidence. 

If you identify with any of the information above, there is help available. Through therapy with a mental health professional, they can help you identify different thought patterns and behaviors that may be contributing to your difficulties and offer insight on how to improve yourself and your relationship with others.

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Treatment for idealization and devaluation 

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of mental health treatment that is used to help identify and challenge negative thought patterns and behaviors. In the context of maladaptive idealization and devaluation, one component of CBT, known as dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), has been found to be particularly effective. 

DBT focuses on better understanding and balancing opposite perspectives and teaches skills that help individuals manage uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Some of these skills include mindfulness, distress tolerance, interpersonal effectiveness, and emotional regulation. 

How Charlie Health can help 

While changing all-or-nothing and black-and-white thinking may seem like a tall order, with the help of the mental health professionals at Charlie Health, positive growth is possible. By examining and challenging your thought processes, it is possible to change your behavior and have it match the version of yourself you wish to see. 

Reach out today to learn more about Charlie Health’s virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP)

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