Devaluation and Idealization in Borderline Personality Disorder

Two Common Defense Mechanisms in BPD

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Devaluation and idealization 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).

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.

For example, it's common with borderline personality disorder for a person to idealize a friend, family member, or loved one. They feel intense closeness towards that person and place them on a pedestal. 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 attributes themselves, an object, or another person as completely flawed, worthless, or as having exaggerated negative qualities. 

Idealization and Devaluation as Defense Mechanisms in BPD

Both devaluation and idealization are considered to be on a minor image-distorting level on the Defensive Functioning Scale.

This tool is used by doctors to group patient's defense mechanisms into levels of intensity. 

Like most defense mechanisms or coping strategies, many people are not aware they are engaging in devaluation and idealization. It's done subconsciously as a way to protect themselves from perceived stress.

In borderline personality disorder, devaluation often alternates with idealization. For instance, a person with BPD may shift from great admiration for a loved one — idealization of that person — to an intense anger or dislike towards that person — devaluation of that person.

This wild shift between idealization and devaluation found in BPD is known as splitting, which signifies a disturbance in both thinking and emotion regulation. Scientific data suggests that this splitting is linked to activation in the prefrontal cortex — the front part of your brain associated with personality — and the amygdala — the part of your brain that controls emotional perception and expression.

Devaluation and Idealization in Other Personality Disorders

Devaluation is not limited to people with borderline personality disorder. It may be seen in other personality disorders, especially antisocial personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder.

Idealization is sometimes also seen in narcissistic personality disorder, especially towards the self or the treating therapist. Splitting, or the rapid fluctuation between idealization and devaluation, is classically seen in borderline personality disorder.

What Does This Mean for Me?

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 coping strategies like these to deal with emotional conflict or stress.

Sources:

Pec O, Bob P, & Raboch J. Splitting in Schizophrenia and Borderline Personality Disorder. PLoS One. 2014;9(3): e91228.

Perry JC, Presniak MD, & Olson TR. Defense Mechanisms in Schizotypal, Borderline, Antisocial, and Narcissistic Personality Disorders. Psychiatry. 2013;76(1):32-52.

Sadock BJ & Kaplan HI. Kaplan & Sadock's Synopsis of Psychiatry: Behavioral Sciences/Clinical Psychiatry. Tenth EditionPhiladelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. 2007.

Zanarini MC, Frankenburg FR, Fitzmaurice G. Defense Mechanisms Reported by Patients With Borderline Personality Disorder and Axis II Comparison Subjects Over 16 Years of Prospective Follow-Up: Description and Prediction of Recovery. Am J Psychiatry. 2013;170(1):111-120.

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