There are as many definitions of idealism as there are fields and disciplines that seek to explain it. Putting aside the metaphysical and philosophical implications of being an idealist, let’s focus on what matters to our mental health: morals and beliefs. Morals and beliefs are the foundation and framework of an individual’s idealism. What makes a person’s idealism problematic is how rigid those morals and beliefs are since an idealist believes that their ideas, or the ideas they’ve accepted as true, are what constitutes reality. People, organizations, or situations that fall outside of that mental reality are unacceptable because they are too complicated to process and integrate into a rigid psychological structure. A rigid idealism translates into being often disillusioned with people, institutions, roles, or circumstances because they don’t reflect what they should be.
We all need a healthy dose of idealism to be hopeful and optimistic when facing adversity, truthful and authentic when we need to take a stand for what we believe, and selfless and charitable when we’re inspired and moved by the big picture of our noble pursuits. The problem is when one’s idealism is psychologically rigid.
The rigid idealist is enamored with people, institutions, roles, or circumstances as long as they remain true to their ideals. When that’s not the case, the rigid idealist will jump from a state of idealization and illusionment to a state of disillusionment and frustration, as fast and easy as they fell in love with the subject in the first place.
Idealism and Perfectionism
All that sounds close to a psychological ego mechanism known as splitting. In fact, perfectionism and rigid idealism are the twin children of splitting. A perfectionist individual seeks perfection because they have difficulties processing failure. Things are either good or bad, black or white, right or wrong. Gray areas are difficult to perceive and accept even though life is composed of grayer areas than black and white areas together. Splitting is the unconscious tendency to see everything polarized between two opposites. For this reason, rigid idealists and perfectionists tend to compartmentalize rather than integrate.
Being too Idealistic
This inability to integrate also affects institutions. Following church tradition, for example, many clergy and Christian counselors have been using the illustration of Adam and Eve in Eden as the perfect picture of marriage for centuries. “Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame” (Gen. 2:25, NIV). They use this passage to illustrate the transparency and trust of the first biblical couple. This theological maneuver is misleading and frustrating, however. It’s too idealistic. The embellishment of the story takes away the fact that Adam and Eve failed to obey God in the most perfect and easiest setting ever, the Garden of Eden. Church leaders set this illustration as all good for couples today by excluding the fall of Adam and Eve, the bad part of the story. That’s splitting.
We tend to see life as a mosaic of good and bad things, rights and wrongs, beauty and ugliness, wisdom and foolishness, happiness and sadness. Creation shows us differently, however. Creation’s diversity and flexibility challenge compartmentalized extremes. The diversity of creation shows us that life isn’t about extremes. It’s a continuum instead. Life is a continuum of seasons and circumstances ranging between good and bad, beautiful and ugly, right and wrong. It’s a continuum that points to the reality of extremes inhabiting the same space in an integrated whole. The same is true for our personality.
Developing the ability to integrate
Integration is the synthesization of our different personality traits and life experiences into a consistent and flexible flowing that provides us with a sense of safety, psychological equilibrium, and maturity. Integration is about coming to terms with our adverse experiences and those parts that we don’t like much about ourselves to become part of that healthy flow. When we learn to integrate, we can finally healthily accept and love ourselves and others and deal with the reality of life in mature ways.
Acknowledging our lack of integration is the first step into a journey of self-discovery and healing. Through mindful self-exploration and exercises, a qualified therapist can guide you in your integration process and healing.