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Do you look at people and too often see someone better than yourself? Do you imagine or envy their “perfect” life? This process, called idealization, can contribute to poor self-esteem which makes you vulnerable to not taking care of yourself—and to abusing food. Letting go of idealizing can help you empower yourself and treat yourself better.

By idealizing, you think of someone as being flawless, faultless, an ideal—rather than as a mixed-bag. Do you see only their positive traits? Sometimes you may know little about them and assume that because they appear happy, popular or successful, they must have and have had a wonderful life. Information about them that doesn’t fit into this schema gets screened out, leaving you with a lop-sided, unrealistic view of them.

Idealization is a way of adapting to a dysfunctional family. If you grew up in a household in which there was chaos, any kind of abuse, neglect, poverty, addiction, or mental health problems, one way you may have coped is by envying others and believing they were happier than you were. This fantasy gave you hope that if you were good, etc. you could be happy like them. Maybe you daydreamed about being part of the loving family next door, or imagined how great a parent your third grade teacher have would been to you. Perhaps you made up stories to yourself about the wonderful lives that your school chums had or thought that certain popular or smart children had an ideal home life. All-or-nothing thinking produces idealization: you have this imperfect family while you imagine someone else has a perfect one or, closer to the bone, you’re defective and someone else is flawless. This fantasy can be soothing to children, replacing hopelessness with hope that their lives could change. Sadly, in reality, believing that someone has any kind of perfection only increases our sense of being flawed.

Idealization is maladaptive in adulthood when you imagine that others have no problems or are far better than you. For one thing, this belief is totally fallacious. We all have problems and faults. For another, it widens the gap between who you think you are (mostly bad) and who you think someone else is (mostly good). When you idealize someone in a relationship and something goes wrong, you automatically assume it’s your fault. After all, how could this picture of perfection have caused problems between you? We are all a mixed bag of pluses and minuses, and possess traits which are not so hot and could use improvement. Notice your tendency to idealize—which automatically makes you “less than” in your own eyes—and resist the urge to put yourself down. Just be your perfectly imperfect self and you’ll do fine.

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