In a previous posting, I discussed the normal, mature narcissistic needs that therapists need to have gratified, at least some of the time, in their work with their clients. Another developmental need that Heinz Kohut, the founder of psychoanalytic Self Psychology, described, is what he called the “idealized parental imago.” This sounds rather formidable but is really rather simple: it is the need to feel part of something or someone outside of the self that gives the individual a felt sense of meaning, support, safety, comfort and even inspiration. And, just as with the mirroring needs, it has a developmental line, from the immature infantile needs to the mature needs of the normal adult.
Here’s an example from infancy. The infant becomes frightened or is feeling physical pain or hungry and begins to cry. The empathic caretaker realizes the infant is signaling a need for something from him and changes the baby’s diaper, feeds her and burps her. The infant feels satiated, calms down and goes to sleep. While her need for nutrition has been satisfied, Kohut states that an even more important need has been gratified: to feel enveloped and part of the big comforting body of the caretaker. This leads to a feeling of safety and well-being.
I believe idealized parent imago need is an expression of a universal human need: to be part of something that is outside of the self that can provide comfort, support, safety, meaning. One sees this in the behavior of most primate infants and their parents. When theorists, referring to attachment theory, describe the caretaker providing a “secure base” for the developing child, that’s partly what they are referring to.
As the human infant grows into childhood, the idealizing need shows itself in other ways: seeing the parents as omnipotent and omniscient, providing safety in a world the child is realizing is confusing in its complexity and potentially unsafe, even dangerous.
As the normal child continues to grow, he or she begins to realize that the parents are not all-powerful and all-knowing, but are just ordinary human beings with faults and virtues, as mixtures of strengths and weaknesses. The child is also growing in his own abilities both physically and emotionally, and doesn’t need to see the parents in the initial, primitively idealized way. He also realizes that these idealizing needs can be gratified by other people: grandparents, a sports team he follows, another adult. During adolescence it is common for the child to idealize the group she identifies with, perhaps her school or the sub-group she hangs out with at school, even a gang.
Later on in life, the idealizing need might be the college he attends, the political party he belongs to or even a person in history such as Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi.
Still later, it might be the person’s profession, the company he works for, his country, family, a belief in the basic goodness of his church or higher power.
My main point is that no matter how self-sufficient the individual sees himself or herself to be, there is always the need to experience oneself as part of something that is bigger, more important, benign and stronger than the self. And, although not often discussed, therapists have , as well as narcissistic needs, idealizing needs that should be met in their work for it to be deeply rewarding and meaningful. In my next article I shall discuss how the mirroring and idealizing needs can be met in therapy for the therapist as well as the client.