Idealization and Contempt

Understanding narcissistic personality disorder.

Posted Feb 09, 2017

Juan Galafa/ Unsplash
Source: Juan Galafa/ Unsplash

Idealization is the normal experience of a young child who puts his parents and himself on a pedestal, as in, "My mom is the best cook in the whole world" or "I am the best checkers player ever—nobody can beat me." 

It is also a common part of adolescence when the idealization of someone other than the parents is part of the separation process and usually transforms in adulthood into a more realistic and integrated view of self and others. (Click here for more on idealization.)

However, when idealization continues in adulthood and through middle age, it is often part of a cycle in which it is followed by devaluation. This cycle characterizes many personality disorders—borderlines, sociopaths, and narcissists, for example.

Underlying the idealization/devaluation cycle is "splitting"—the world is split into good and bad. On the good side, there is idealization—exaggerated positive qualities are attributed to self or others. For example, “I will be the greatest jobs president God ever created” or  “I will build a great wall—and nobody builds walls better than me."

On the negative side, qualities of either self or others are exaggerated, devalued, and worthy of contempt. For example, "If Hillary Clinton were a man, I don’t think she’d get five percent of the vote. The only thing she’s got going is the woman’s card, and the beautiful thing is, women don’t like her.”

Splitting keeps the positive and negative aspects of self and others walled off from each other. The person cannot tolerate being a mixed package or anyone else being one. While all of us may split during particularly stressful times, for borderline, narcissistic, and sociopathic personality disorders, splitting is chronic.

For the narcissist, the primary need is to be the center of attention in order to support his labile self-esteem. While healthier people are hurt by disappointment or disillusionment, the narcissist feels completely destabilized by it. He cannot get "back on the horse."

Unable to maintain his sense of worth, the narcissistic personality is dependent on others for sustenance. If other people mirror the self-aggrandized self, they may be idealized. Hence, people might report that their experience of a narcissist was that he was charming and flattering.

But disagreement or criticism by another person (even a therapist or a judge) is experienced as a narcissistic injury—as if the self is being attacked. The narcissist needs constant reassurance that he is special and can spin out of control and attack others venomously when he feels unappreciated, disrespected, or even misunderstood.