While working on the recent podcast episode about thinking that someone might be too good to be true, the issue of putting people on pedestals came up. This is where we elevate people to this glorified status by exaggerating who they are or, yes, by diminishing ourselves.
It’s not that we necessarily set out to do either of these, though. Putting someone on a pedestal happens in the process of, on some level, thinking that the way to admire, like, love or respect someone is to paint them as perfect in our mind and treat them as such. Or, we project and attach a load of qualities and expectations on to them because of assumptions we’re making based on one or a few things we like about them or because they, for example, did something nice for us. Sometimes we also put people on pedestals because we slip into a child role and so they become authorities. We might inadvertently treat them like parental replacements or as if they have the power to direct us or finally fill a void.
While we might think it’s flattering to put someone on a pedestal (or for someone to do that to us), it has no place in healthy interactions.
For instance, and I learned this the hard way, you can respect your doctor and their expertise without putting them on a pedestal. You don’t need to diminish your agency. Putting a seeming expert on a pedestal can cause you to ignore crucial signs from your body, to not ask questions or to blindly take advice. In other contexts, it can cause you to gaslight yourself when a seeming ‘authority’ violates your boundaries.
Putting someone on a pedestal is based on self-deception and exaggeration. It can lead to lying about who you are, including putting and playing you down to make them feel big.
Done occasionally, putting someone on a pedestal might not be so much of an issue, especially if we get grounded. What we have to pay attention to is whether this is our habit. Is pumping people up our default mode of interaction? If it is, we’ll know. Our pedestal-building will have led to unrealistic expectations, unhealthy boundaries, crashing disappointments and a great deal of woundedness.
And here’s the thing that hit me about the why behind putting people on pedestals:
On some level, we think that putting someone on a pedestal gives us the right to make a claim. When it’s a habit, it’s our attempt to meet needs.
We use putting people on pedestals to buy ourselves the credits to spend at a later date on telling them all about themselves, settings tests or making demands. We feel as if we have the right to them meeting our needs and wants in the way we want them to, and even that we have the right to them being the person we’ve painted in our mind. Part of our identity and self-worth becomes attached to how we feel about this person, and when they invariably disappoint us by, well, being themselves as opposed to the picture we’ve painted in our mind, we feel diminished in the process. And that’s where things can become pretty fraught or heated.
We don’t have a right to make people live up to our unrealistic and false expectations just because we also put them on a pedestal. It’s also not a healthy, boundaried and authentic way of meeting our emotional needs.
What we have to start noticing is when and how we do it and the why behind it so that we can get grounded and be boundaried. Where else have we felt, thought and acted similarly, and what does that inform us about this situation? What are we hoping we’ll get or avoid by seeing this person in this way? Is there a way for us to like/admire/love this person and also be on equal, boundaried footing with them? If a relationship isn’t mutual (and based in reality), it’s not healthy.