Updated: Jul 13
A misunderstood princess - reframing impostor syndrome (by Nathalie Cordell)
Do you live in fear of being found out? Do you keep bouncing between feelings of being superior and worthless?
When people tell you how good you are, do you say to yourself that they are just trying to be nice or have very low standards?
You may have already heard of impostor syndrome but have you heard the story of the Princess on the pea by Hans Christian Andersen?
'What on earth does impostor syndrome have to do with a fairy tale about a fussy princess?!', I hear you ask. Well, let me explain…
Most of us are looking for something, though we are not always sure what it is. Success, happiness, truth, love… In the story, the Prince is looking for a princess to marry. But it is very clear that “she was to be a real princess”. What most of us are indeed looking for, are the lost parts of ourselves. And when we can’t find them within, we look for them outside. Like the Prince, who “travelled about, all through world, to find a real one, but everywhere there was something in the way.” We often experience that there is “something in the way”. And we keep thinking that these obstacles are outside of us – like the demanding boss, or imperfect partner, etc. So we keep searching. What we don’t realise is that these obstacles are in fact within us – the feeling of unworthiness that means we don’t go for the job that we don’t think we deserve, or that makes us chose a partner that will treat us badly because that’s what we expect. That feeling of unworthiness is precisely what the perfectionist is desperately trying to protect us from.
Though perfectionism might be seen as a quality by some, it is often described with less flattering names like finicky, nit-picker or control freak.
In fact, the Princess in the story is often seen as being fussy, picky or demanding, just as the Prince is in his search for the perfect wife.
But she is also described as being over-sensitive. So what is this sensitivity really about and what’s with the pea?!
The Princess in the story represents the unspoilt, undistorted feminine quality.
The image of the dishevelled and dripping princess is quite at odds with the image of the princess that has been fed to us by society, be it in the magazines, media or old Disney movies – that of a pristine, always made up, never angry, never dirty and ever perfect princess.
But the true feminine quality is not what appears on the outside but rather what happens on the inside – intuition, sensitivity, emotional intelligence and creativity.
And the mother, a wise woman, knows that what her son needs is a true princess, in order to be complete. For we all need to reconcile the feminine and masculine within us in order to be complete.
But how do we know she is a true princess? That’s where the pea comes in… for the pea represents our true self – that which is so fragile and so delicate that we hide it under layer upon layer of social and psychological adaptations. So in the end, we either stop hearing its call altogether, or we only feel it as a small discomfort, a dissonance or subtle annoyance - like a small pea, hidden under twenty mattresses and twenty eider-down quilts, that only the sensitivity of a real princess can detect. For her, that call is loud and clear, enough to make her “black and blue all over”. And that is what makes her a true princess and worthy of marrying the Prince.
So are you in touch with your inner princess? Or has that young and delicate part of you been banished outside the castle of your consciousness? Maybe she is still lost in the storm of your unconscious, looking for a castle and a prince to make her feel safe so she can reveal her true tender-skinned quality?
One way to heal the perfectionist (and the impostor syndrome that hides behind it) is to reconnect with that sensitive part of you, so you can hear the call of your true self.
So next time you want to call the perfectionist side of you, or someone else, a ‘control freak’, you might want to think of that story and remember what the Princess really brings to it.
As a coach, I have learned to tune in to that princess sensitivity so I can help my clients recognise the layers of adaptation that are preventing them from hearing the call of Self. Our coaching space becomes the “castle” for them to feel safe enough to drop their internal barriers so they can be more attuned to their own needs and respond to their inner calling.
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 Andersen, H. C., (1997). The complete fairy tales. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth editions