Impostor Syndrome Explained Through Pop Culture

The term “imposter syndrome” has entered common parlance for a few years. What exactly does it correspond to?

In fact, it dates back to the 1970s, when psychologists studied and interviewed a hundred women in prestigious professions. Impostor syndrome applies mainly to the professional field. It is not a disease, but a form of disorder related to low self-esteem and the feeling of failure, with a background of depression. People who have it feel like they don’t deserve the job or title they’re known for.

It is a mixture of anxiety and lack of self-confidence that causes a sense of imposture and leads them to deny the righteousness and merit of their success. They tell themselves that at some point others will realize that they are not who they thought they were. His great fear is being “unmasked”. They find it difficult to accept the notions of success and failure. They are often perfectionists and would like to always do better, even if it means exhausting themselves at work and ending up burnt out.

Reminds me of Reese Witherspoon’s character in revenge of a blonde

Yeah that’s right ! She is a gifted student and impostor syndrome often affects self-taught people with high intellectual potential. They understand very quickly and complete tasks without much effort. As a result, they doubt its quality. They reject any recognition of their work and success. They attribute them to luck, to external knowledge, to the piston… They have the impression of deceiving others, but it is delusional.


Revenge of a blonde is a good example, because the syndrome affects women much more. In reality, it manifests itself above all among minorities. In Western countries, white men from good families are generally less affected.

Can this syndrome also manifest itself in love stories?

I associate it more with work. In love it will manifest itself in another way, through a feeling of unjustified insecurity. They are people who are victims of an anxious or ambivalent attachment, and who have a very strong need for connection and recognition. It can also manifest in someone who has a very nice physique and who will think that he is not loved because of his intelligence and her personality. These people have so little self-confidence that they will sabotage themselves. They feel that they are not up to the task, so they will organize themselves not to be and check their beliefs.

It is interesting to evoke it in the context of love relationships, because romantic comedies play with the lever of imposture. I am thinking in particular of The heartbreaker, where is real. Romain Duris lies about his identity and must ruin Vanessa Paradis’s relationship. Similarly, many characters are built around lies. It raises the dramatic irony.

Emma Watson, Kate Winslet, Rachel Zegler… Many actresses have admitted to suffering from impostor syndrome. Why does this phenomenon particularly affect this profession?

There are several explanations. The issue of self-image is already very present in this sector. When you are a celebrity, it is very difficult to distinguish between yourself and the image you send to others. And there may be some delay between the two. They may have the impression of being in a trap, because they both have a superiority complex and also have a great need for recognition. You don’t become an actor if you don’t have a little problem with your self-esteem. You go ahead, you want others to look at you… It’s special. In a sense, you’re confident enough to show off, but at the same time, you’re not confident enough to need it.

© DC Movies

The #MeToo movement has shown that these professions are also highly affected by sexual harassment, including rape. He can play. Actresses may feel reduced to an object, have the feeling of being adored and recognized for their physical appearance, or wonder about the reasons for their presence in the casting. It is very simplistic and creates complexes. The interesting thing is that impostor syndrome does not go away with recognition. You can have all the Oscars in the world, if you think you don’t deserve them, you will remain in this deep insecurity.

According Journal of Behavioral Sciences70% of people in the world are affected by this syndrome at some point in their lives. It is therefore a very widespread phenomenon, but ultimately it is not very well represented in pop culture…

It is underrepresented, because it is based on a feeling. It talks about our narcissistic mechanisms sabotaged from within, about our feeling of legitimacy… It is difficult to transfer it to the screen and put images on it. The novel would be a better way to talk about it, because it allows us to access the psychology of the character and the interior of him. From a dramaturgical point of view, it is more complicated. A character’s actions cannot be motivated solely by this syndrome. For example, we can talk about this phenomenon through the fear of succeeding, and find it in characters who fall. Batman can be an example of his inability to love and live a love story. He assumes the fact of being a vigilante, but does not give himself the right to succeed in other areas.

Are there other representative characters of this syndrome?

Cinderella! She is a beautiful, intelligent and generous young woman, but her self-esteem is undermined daily by her stepmother. She is in a perverse and toxic system that permanently puts her in a situation of failure. But, one day, the fairy godmother allows her to appear as a princess. In reality, she already has all the characteristics of her: she has the beauty, intelligence, and finesse of this rank. The godmother simply gives her an outward acknowledgment and shows her who she really is. She releases her potential. But she Cinderella does not want to believe it, she thinks that she is a fraud. For her, everything stops at midnight. When the prince searches for the owner of the vair slipper, she is hesitant to come forward because she thinks she is not good enough.

©Touchstone Images

Also, we don’t know how she feels in the castle, after her marriage. I imagine she feels that she is out of step, as Grace Kelly might be. It must be very difficult to find your place in this society, with these labels. We find the same idea in Pretty Womanwhich is clearly a modern view of Cinderella. He has a really low self-esteem, linked to his professional situation. She doesn’t acknowledge the fact that she can truly be loved.

What are the causes ?

One of them has to do with our relationship with our parents and the way they raised us. There must be enough emotional security for the child to face the failures as well as the successes of life. This is what happened to the Williams sisters and we can see it in The Williams Method. The father did his job well on this level, even if we can question him on other points. Thanks to him, they are sure of themselves and their abilities. They think they can be the best in their discipline. Parents must protect their children to become independent, but a middle ground must be found.

They must show them that they are the eighth wonder of the world, but at the same time offer them the lucidity so that they understand that they are not. is complex Do not enter the: “You’re great”, “You suck”, because it can create insecurities. They should not educate them “in a bad way”, nor as kings. If you are too accommodating to them, they will think that everything is because of them. For them to be in a sufficiently reassuring situation, they must act as the godmother in Cinderella : show them their skills and then leave them to their fate.

Is this syndrome inborn or does it develop throughout our lives and our experiences?

We build it. It may depend on our relationship with our parents, the school system, or sports activities. Their ways of operating will generate different trusts. For example, in sports, you constantly put your title on the line, so you learn to have confidence in yourself, even in defeat. It is something that is being built, but we also know that minorities are the most affected by this phenomenon.


You do not choose to be born a woman or of such an origin, so when you find yourself in a minority in a country, you inherit this syndrome more easily and you have to deconstruct it. It’s a limiting belief that puts a glass ceiling over your head and makes you feel like you can’t stand for who you are. That is why we are so moved by these biopics that tell us the story of people who have done great things despite their origins.

Are Luke Skywalker’s neuroses related to this syndrome?

The question of whether he is the chosen one does not really arise. I really don’t feel that he is affected by this feeling of imposture.

But this question is central to Harry Potter! He can’t believe that he really is the chosen one…

Yes, this is a good example of impostor syndrome. He doesn’t understand what is happening to him. He is the chosen one, but that seems strange to him. The interesting thing about him is that he has a very strong dark side, because he is Voldemort’s horcrux. He assumes the part of him as sorcerer, but not the power of him. In general, the characters who are assigned the role of “chosen one” do not believe in it, such as Frodo. They constantly wonder: “Because I ?”. They tell themselves they can’t do it, they’re not good enough, etc. They are orphaned characters and their emotional security has not been well built. In Harry Potter, it’s a mess. His uncle and his aunt ostracized him, mistreated him… So, of course, when they tell him that he is the chosen one, he has a hard time believing it. They always told him how bad he was. Furthermore, he is deeply endowed. Magic tricks don’t require him to work hard, he’s just strong. So he constantly questions himself.

There is a great work of recognition and self-love to be done. You have to identify the feeling of imposture when it arises and express your emotions. So, it is necessary to accept its qualities and its defects. You also have to know how to differentiate between impostor syndrome and humility. Doubt is necessary to progress in life. On the other hand, we should not always doubt the fact that others wish us well for no reason. You don’t have to question everything. One of the most effective tools is the adoption of a benevolent look towards oneself and towards the other. You have to be kind and accept being afraid, making mistakes, being judged, disappointing, failing, and succeeding. We must stop being tyrants with ourselves and accept compliments.

emma scaly is a psychoanalyst, actress, director and co-author of Station. the series review.

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