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Illusions


Stark (1994) defines illusions as unrealistically positive views of reality. Within relationships, it may refer to the idea that people are wiser, kinder, or stronger than they actually are. Think about the concept of celebrity. Famous people can be put onto pedestals for demonstrating specific skills or entertaining us. The idea of “not meeting your heroes” encapsulates the concept of disillusionment with people we may readily view as skilled, benevolent or happy.


A cursory web search will quickly reveal a multitude of awkward, sad, or even hostile experiences that “ordinary” people have had with prominent figures. Of course, these are not necessarily always easily verifiable, but it does raise the question as to why people might be fascinated with the idea of stars behaving in ways that show their realistic limitations. Why post stories specifically about less glamorous encounters with people who are usually endowed with a kind of power by virtue of their demonstrated skill in acting, cooking or singing?


One way of looking at this is through the cognitive bias of the halo effect. The halo effect describes the tendency of people to assume a range of positive attributes about a person on the basis of one or two observable positive characteristics (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977). The human brain can enjoy a short cut. For example, seeing that someone is a successful businessman might lead one to assume transferable skills into other areas, such as intimate relationships or moral fortitude. We may be dismayed to discover that someone who is very successful in one area of life is struggling to consistently function in another. This forces them out of the neat mental picture we may have constructed of them.


Another way of viewing this phenomenon is to think of it in terms of our emotional experience as children, being raised by our parents or guardians. Children, by virtue of their lack of true independence, and their vulnerability, have an inbuilt need to view their caretakers as being good and omnipotent. This helps children depend on them and to avoid feeling helpless in the hands of potentially destructive adults (Weiss, 1995). One needs to believe that the captains of the ship know what they are doing. Of course, this positive view may erode, especially with adolescence, a period of increasing independence and personal identity formation. On some level however, we may continue to yearn for the idea of powerful people who can guide and protect us, or that we can identify with and model our own behaviour after.


Disillusionment or disappointment in figures we once hoped were put together and beyond reproach may play an important role in our own development. If we are able to safely process and work through our disappointment in important figures in our lives, we may be able to internalise and make use of the memories of the real good they have done, and let go of unquestioning dependence, resentment, or a sense that we deserve more from others. This attitude releases the idea that other people have all the answers, and have no needs, fears or insecurities, without bitterly discarding them for letting us down. Stark (1994) proposes that an important determinant of mental health is the willingness and ability to see and accept others as they are, not as we might wish or fear them to be. This can be a powerful agent of change in our relationships with others, as well as our relationships with ourselves. After all, if we can accept that no one else is perfect and omnipotent, then why should we expect it of ourselves?


References:


Nisbett, R. E., & Wilson, T. D. (1977). The halo effect: Evidence for unconscious alteration of judgments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35(4), 250–256. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.35.4.250

Stark, M. (1994). A Primer on Working with Resistance. Jason Aronson Inc.

Weiss, J. (1995). How psychotherapy works: Process and technique. Guilford Press.





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