In my previous post, I discussed the pitfalls of idealization and just how easy it is to put a seemingly highly evolved person on a pedestal. What often comes with idealization is a certain degree of regression, which means that the admirer goes back to a psychologically less mature place and looks up to the spiritual teacher from an almost childlike place. This is what puts the person in authority in such a powerful place.
Spiritual leaders, and people in the healing professions, must become especially familiar with how idealization and regression works in the minds of the vulnerable, and make every effort to show them their whole personality–“warts and all.”
The way to go about showing one’s true face as a teacher (or any other person in authority) is to slowly introduce the students to one’s less favorable sides, and to stop responding to, or even reject, their declarations of love and adoration.
Of course, it’s convenient to leave them in a state of admiration–the more flattery there is, the easier it is to actually buy into it. Who among us doesn’t want to believe just how great we are when met with flattery and adoration? But it won’t serve anybody in the long run. The more realistic the teacher can be about his or her own capabilities, the more realistic the student sees the world altogether.
This is how students move out of those vulnerable states of regression and childlike attachment, and progress towards a more mature way of relating to others that includes obstacles and conflict resolution rather than avoids it.
When this gradual erosion of idealization and infantile longings doesn’t take place and is disturbed or cut off by a traumatic rupture in the relationship, the student is in danger of continuing to search for the perfect teacher, or relationship, that will give what is expected. Even when there is not a big bang but just a disappointed, lukewarm drifting apart, the disillusionment can leave a mark.
A persistent hunger for love and validation may remain, which includes an inability or unwillingness to deal with the more frustrating realities of life. “We shrink rather than open our hearts when we become our teachers’ clones, puppets or wannabees,” writes Scott Edelstein in his book Sex and the Spiritual Teacher. “There is the delusion that someone who is wise, enlightened or spiritually advanced is somehow superhuman. They aren’t.”
The German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about this dynamic as well. Coming of age during the time when Adolph Hitler rose to power, Bonhoeffer was wary of the psychological vulnerability of those who give themselves over to the yearning for an all-powerful authority and demanded that those in power take responsibility.
“A true leader must know the limitations of his authority”, he wrote in a speech quoted in the book Bonhoeffer: Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas. “If he understands his functions in any other way than as it is rooted in fact, if he doesn’t continue to tell his followers quite clearly the limited nature of his task and of their own responsibility, if he allows himself to surrender to the wishes of his followers who would always make him their idol, then the image of the leader will pass over into the image of the misleader. The true leader must always be able to disillusion. He has to lead the individual into his own maturity.”