On mornings when I’m lucky enough to have free time, I go to a yoga class taught by an excellent teacher, named Mark. Many of his students have been studying yoga for years and are pretty advanced. Today we began as usual with warm ups, accompanied by Mark’s explanations and his questions. Mark’s teaching practice is a bit unusual—he generally asks the class questions, some rhetorical, some not, as he explains the theory behind the practice.
The man on the mat next to me, whom I’ll call Harry, answered all Mark’s questions right away, with military precision.
“Why do yoga?”
“To stretch!” Harry shouted the answer like a cadet answering a drill sergeant. I expected him to say “Sir, yes sir!”
“Very good. Other reasons?” Mark asked the class.
“For stress!” Harry said.
“Can you make yourself relax?” Mark asked.
“YES!” Harry shouted.
“No!” Mark answered. “You can’t ‘make’ yourself anything. You focus on your breathing, and that helps you relax.”
I wondered how Harry took this correction. He shouted his answers, expected to be right, but the tone of his voice sounded almost sycophantic—Harry clearly worshipped Mark, and I hoped he didn’t feel embarrassed about being corrected in front of the entire class. Harry didn’t actually need much yoga instruction, but he wanted to feel close to Mark. This is one reason why some people prefer taking a class to doing yoga asana at home on their own.
Then Harry tried to redeem himself by asking Mark questions, like a teacher’s pet looking to show off and score points. I’m an old teacher’s pet myself, but still I was getting irritated at what was turning into a lengthy private conversation.
I soon forgot about Harry and Mark and concentrated on the asana of that moment—revolved triangle.
Then Mark added a new element to his rap.
“Are you in heaven or in hell?” he asked the class.
By now we were on to ardha chandrasana, a difficult balance pose, and I thought, “Heaven or hell. Hmm.”
Without pausing, Mark answered himself, “If you’re idealizing someone, then you are putting yourself in hell.”
So he wasn’t talking about the pose we were doing, he was talking about Harry! Harry was already in hell—that’s why he idealized Mark—not the other way around. And if he wasn’t in hell before, I was pretty sure he was now. Harry might need to discuss this privately.
Did Harry want Mark to be his guru? Bad idea. Mark didn’t want to be anyone’s guru; he wanted to steer clear of that entirely. The guru/devotee relationship can be rich and generous, but it can also cause lots of problems.
People who are uncertain of themselves, regardless of their abilities, seek reassurance. Sometimes a few kind words can have a wonderful effect, but other times this isn’t enough, and so some folks, people like Harry, for example, develop strong idealizing ties toward someone they see as more powerful, like a parent, a teacher, a boss, or a friend. Because they don’t know how to find their own inner strength they try to borrow power from someone else, to help fight inner battles.
Harry is struggling with addiction, and he needs help and protection, but Mark doesn’t have the answers for this kind of problem. He’s glad to teach yoga, and is very good at it, but he is not qualified to work deeply on the emotional level and he knows it. Harry needs professional help of a different kind; Mark needs to find softer ways to let him know.
Idealization is a normal feature of loving others and of individual development, although sometimes it can go awry. Next month I’ll write about how idealization works between parents and children and between friends and romantic partners, too.
Growing Up and Relationships: What’s Wrong With Me?
In Praise of Praise: On the Right Use of Influence
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