Sigmund Freud once said that idealism is the source of all human misery—not a lot of it, or even most of it, but 100 percent! Personally, I wouldn’t go quite that far. Maybe 90 percent. I don’t agree with Freud about everything, but I do have a lot of respect for him as a psychologist, and I think he was a genius in certain areas. So what the heck is he talking about? Talk to most people, and they’ll say idealism is a positive thing, at least as long as it isn’t paired with naivete. But the source of all human misery? Where does he get that?
I’ll start with a personal example. The early years of my marriage were a disaster, as most of you probably know by now. The thing is, going into it we felt as ready as we possibly could be. Before our wedding, we went to couple’s therapy, we devoured books on marriage, relationships, and personality theory, and discussed them at length together. So when things went wrong, I had to wonder, “What did we miss?”
The bottom line is that we had both brought our own mistaken assumptions to the table. On my end, I was pretty spoiled by my mom, and expected hope to act like a full-time maid and chef, among other things. Hope, as usual, was significantly more grounded than me, and I don’t want to do much speaking for her. She did read a lot of romance novels back then, and I think they were a bit of an escape for her and may have given her some unrealistic expectations of what a healthy marriage looked like. Not that she didn’t deserve better than what I was giving her at the time.
In other words, we had both taken ownership of an unrealistic ideal, and we were caught up in those imaginary people instead of the real ones right in front of us. That’s a big example, but the truth is that we do this all the time. According to acclaimed neurologist Antonio Damasio, “Imageless thought is impossible.” In other words, we can’t do anything without first forming a corresponding image, and those images can be either wonderful tools or worst enemies.
There’s an exercise I like to use with some of my clients. I ask them if they have food to eat, a roof over their heads, etc. Finally, I ask them how they would feel if their lives, just as they are, were transplanted into the poorest region of Africa. The point of this is not to guilt anyone, but to help them realize that so many of the things we tend to think of as life-and-death issues are really nothing of the sort.
I think the best we can do is to hold life in a loose hand. Sure, the self-help world will happily take your money and tell you that you can do anything you want with a little discipline and willpower, and when it doesn’t work you can always tell yourself that you’re not trying hard enough. And yes, people have great potential and determination can achieve a lot. The difference is when desire crosses over into expectation, when want becomes need. Clinging tightly to a false ideal rarely helps us keep it, and only tends to make the experience more painful.
Have a blessed, wonderful day!
Dr. Alex Loyd