Idealization and Devaluation in BPD

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Idealization and devaluation are defense mechanisms that help a person manage their anxiety as well as internal or external stresses. While this subconscious protection system can be found in a few personality disorders, it is most often associated with borderline personality disorder (BPD).

This shift between idealization and devaluation found in BPD is known as splitting, which signifies a disturbance in both thinking and emotion regulation. It reflects challenges in maintaining an integrated view of the good and bad in a person under stress.

What Does Idealization and Devaluation Look Like?

A person with BPD may shift from great admiration for a loved one (idealization) to intense anger toward or dislike of that person (devaluation).

This article discusses the cycle of idealization and devaluation and why people with BPD might engage in this type of thinking. It also covers how splitting can damage interpersonal relationships.

What Is Idealization?

Idealization is a psychological or mental process of attributing overly positive qualities to another person or thing. It's a way of coping with anxiety in which an object or person of ambivalence is viewed as perfect, or as having exaggerated positive qualities.

Idealization reduces anxiety by protecting the person from emotional conflicts that might emerge in a relationship. Rather than deal with the fear that the other person isn't perfect or that the relationship might not work out, idealization allows them to keep the fantasy of perfection intact.

It's common with borderline personality disorder for a person to idealize a friend, family member, or loved one.

An example of idealization would be to place someone on a pedestal. You look up to them and they can do no wrong. This can quickly and unpredictably change to intense anger toward that person, a process called devaluation.

What Is Devaluation?

In psychiatry and psychology, devaluation is a defense mechanism that is just the opposite of idealization. It's used when a person characterizes themselves, an object, or another person as completely flawed, worthless, or as having exaggerated negative qualities.

Idealization can quickly turn into devaluation because there is often no middle ground for a person with BPD. Feeling challenged, threatened, or disappointed can quickly cause them to devalue the people they formerly idealized. Rather than cope with the stress of ambivalence, devaluing functions to minimize the anxiety caused by ambiguity.

People who are the subject of these cycles are often confused by the sudden shift from being idealized to being devalued. The cycle between these two states can make it difficult for people with BPD to maintain relationships with others.

Splitting as a Defense Mechanism

Splitting involves an inability to hold two opposing thoughts, beliefs, or feelings. People who have BPD tend to view others in all-or-nothing, black-and-white terms. 

This self-protective defense mechanism aims to help people with BPD protect themselves from getting hurt in relationships. By labeling people as "good," they are able to engage in relationships despite the emotional risks. If they feel threatened, they can then quickly discard the individual or the relationship by labeling them as "bad."

Like most defense mechanisms, someone with BPD may not be aware they are engaging in devaluation and idealization. Splitting is a subconscious way to protect themselves from perceived stress.

Splitting reflects the challenges associated with maintaining an integrated view of the good and bad in a person under stress. Some researchers suggest that some of the difficulty is rooted in the way the brain, particularly the amygdala and prefrontal lobe, activates in these experiences for people with BPD.

Splitting, or the rapid fluctuation between idealization and devaluation, is classically seen in borderline personality disorder.

Other Conditions Involving Idealization and Devaluation

Idealization is sometimes also seen in narcissistic personality disorder, especially towards the self or the treating therapist. Devaluation is not limited to people with borderline personality disorder either as it may be seen in other personality disorders, especially antisocial personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder.

Someone with narcissism may idealize then devalue others, followed by discarding them. This cycle of 'idealize, devalue, discard' is thought to help the person regulate internal and external conflicts that are causing them to feel anxiety and shame.

Do I Have BPD If I Engage in Idealization and Devaluation?

Devaluation and idealization are defense mechanisms commonly used in borderline personality disorder. That said, just because you engage in these defense mechanisms does not mean you have BPD—it's simply a feature of this disorder.

Speak with your doctor or a therapist if you are concerned that you use unhealthy coping strategies like these to deal with emotional conflict or stress. A therapist can help you focus on developing new behavior and thinking patterns that can improve your interpersonal relationships.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How can you stop idealization and devaluation in BPD?

    Psychotherapy can help people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) learn to cope with maladaptive thought patterns like idealization and devaluation. Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is a form of CBT that can help people with BPD become develop stronger coping skills, improve their interpersonal relationships, and better regulate their emotions.

  • What does idealization and devaluation feel like?

    Both idealization and devaluation are marked by intense emotions of either affection or anger. For the person who is the subject of these emotions, the shift between the two can feel bewildering.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kristalyn Salters-Pedneault, PhD
 Kristalyn Salters-Pedneault, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychology at Eastern Connecticut State University.