Illusions are universal and ubiquitous, which must all emerge to face reality. The acceptance of both illusion and reality requires an ability to entertain difficult contradictory attitudes and beliefs simultaneously. An illusion is a state of mind where one can withdraw, mostly to escape various sources of anxiety and pain but partly to enjoy the illusion’s instant gratification.

We all need illusions to protect us from the impact of reality, from the terrifying experience of life in its harshness and cruelty, and escape from our tyrannical thoughts and feelings.

Living in an unreal world deprives us of the pleasure and satisfaction that reality brings.

Garden of Eden

We once experienced a blissful time that has been lost and may magically be revived. Shame and humiliation are vividly portrayed in the experience of the expulsion from the garden—the splitting between perfect heaven and a persecutory hell. The expulsion is similar to the one a child experiences when their body feels no longer possesses the mother`s breast.

Adam and Eve eventually accept their fate and mourn the loss of paradise and the illusion of omnipotence enjoyed in Eden. However, Lucifer cannot accept the loss of his omnipotence and is obliged to live in a separate domain, full of hatred for the goodness of God.

It is especially in concrete beliefs, religion or ideology that disillusionment may be traumatic and give rise to powerful defences that disturb development. The belief paradise can be restored, where Lucifer is sent back to hell, and Adam and Eve`s omnipotence is revived. In reaction to their mother, an infant is caught between alternating states of idealisation and persecution. Due to their limited capacity, the infant is only aware of their current state and oblivious to changing states.

Temporal integration requires memory to bridge the two separate experiences into a continuous passage of time. Adam and Eve are never hungry or cold, never brought to adulthood, where the development of growing up is denied. There are no memories of childhood or feelings of regret or loss; the fruit is always ripe, with no decay or regeneration in the garden. The endless pleasure creates an ideal or romantic perfection that soon falls into a superficial and unsatisfactory reality.

Deeper emotions and experiences become liberated when paradise is foregone

With the reality of time, our innocence is permanently lost, and the terrible imperfections of the human condition can be faced with tolerance and kindness. Love in the real world is expressed with ambivalence, with an admixture of aggression that gives rise to guilt. When time is taken to work through the consequences of our hostility and aggression, guilt can lead to reparative wishes.

We can combine our libidinal impulses to create a deeper, more convincing expression of love. Deepened by awareness of the sorrow we feel when we have hurt or impacted a good object. The introduction of time will lead to the anticipation of ageing, illness and death, and time tells us we are not omnipotent and immortal, as we must submit to the reality of time.

When the child cannot recognise separateness, the pain, fear and humiliation are intolerable. A gap opens between the self and the object, filled with chaos and a terrifying unknown. This means the horizontal gap between self and the other becomes vertical, with only two positions: triumph and humiliation. The longing for love is replaced by a quest for power, where the child inhabits an up-and-down world in which strength fuelled by hatred is idealised, and love is seen as weak and contemptible.

The desire for revenge replaces the desire to be loved

The development from the concrete to the symbolic is a major development step but is unstable and frightening, with further regression plausible and bound to occur. If the illusion of omnipotence can be relinquished, possession of the ego ideal can be relinquished; its loss is experienced and mourned.

A new ideal object can be installed as a symbol in the internal world, where it can sense a measure of goodness, which is aspired to and not possessed. Rebellion and disturbance, when successful, simultaneously attack the good object alongside the bad object. With the realisation of such destruction, love can be liberated, and the feeling of guilt and remorse can usher in a depressive position.

The original ego-ideal results from the subject`s narcissism, leading to an illusion that the infantile ego is possessed by perfection. An illusionary state of excellence has been achieved, distorted by idealisation and experienced as real. The ego-ideal is meant to be a state of becoming, wherein healthy development, the sadistic superego is defeated by the ego, no longer under the dominance and influence of the superego.

During the Oedipus conflict, the child attributes ideal qualities to the relationship between their parents, which they feel excluded from. They can’t accept a difference between the generations, deny their smallness and vulnerability, and attempt omnipotently to enter the primal scene by identifying with one of the parents. A bid towards independence that overthrows the established authority is unconsciously experienced as an oedipal murder, where the initial omnipotence is recognised and relinquished.

The relinquishment of omnipotence is a characteristic of the hero’s journey.

The hero travels from the known world into the unknown, facing challenges and temptations and emerges in battle with superhuman forces. The hero sometimes derives hope and assurance from a helpful mentor, whose guidance protects them, but they eventually descend into the abyss connected with death and despair.

He takes advantage of the descent and its experience, gaining important knowledge and making him powerful as he embarks on his journey. The hero can face and submit to the father’s power (superego) and relinquish his omnipotence in the act of atonement. He then can return to the real world with a gift to bestow on humanity. If the hero fails to embark on his adventure, he remains an ordinary mortal via cowardice or acceptance of his limitations.

His failure to rebel denies him the experience of life enhancement, involving heroic battles leading to victory and defeats. He has to be willing to suffer the defeats that failure brings to develop and strengthen his consciousness. If he is unwilling to give up his omnipotence, he remains trapped in an unrealistic fantasy where the power leads to triumph and superiority or defeat and humiliation.

Separation – Individuation

Towards the end of the first year, the infant begins to explore and become excited by new achievements and wants to show off newfound skills. During the practising stage, where the infant develops a sense of separateness from his mother, he is unashamedly exhibitionist and narcissistic. As an observer, the mother needs to share and attune to the infant’s pleasure and curiosity and not begrudge or shame his excitement.

Narcissistic confidence is followed by the rapprochement crisis, set up by the collapse of illusionary omnipotence. Now the child is small, alone in the world, the infant becomes tentative and wants his mother to be ever-present to regain reassurance, omnipotence and safety. An unresponsive or unavailable mother will lead to abandonment fears as the infant struggles to separate due to rejection, shame and humiliation. A pathological protective organisation is established as a psychic retreat from experiencing anxiety again.

The mother`s main task is to disillusion her child after she has helped establish a place and opportunity for illusion and omnipotence. If the infant can eventually mourn and contain such disillusionment, he can endure more discomforts of reality. As he resumes the primary relationship after disillusionment, the child must tolerate feelings of need and dependence while keeping his individuality. With the help of significant others, they can persuade the child that such damage to infantile pride is not a catastrophe, and the relationship can continue. These feelings of disillusionment require the loss of the ego ideal and the omnipotence associated with it through the mourning process.

Steiner, J.(2020) Illusion, Disillusion, and Irony in Psychoanalysis, Routledge; 1st edition