New York City, NY

Feeling like a Fraud

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

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Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Straight out of a Sex and the City or Entourage episode, the poseur is excessively trendy, exclusively wears designer labels, skillfully name drops and is fastidious about being at the most cutting edge events and places. Pretending who one is not, so as to appear exceptionally ‘special’ is the mark of the poseur.

Poseur is a pejorative label as it suggests a hollow persona, a mere facade and a susceptibility to selling out in order to fit in. Beneath the pretentious mask and the snobbery is shame. The shame of being ordinary, of not being enough. From this shame people are divided into camps of winners and losers based on superficial measures of status. For the poseur, to not stand out as a remarkable, sought after being is sacrilege.

According to psychologist Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development the stage of identity versus confusion occurs during adolescence, between the ages of approximately 12 and 18. This is where the poseur is developmentally stuck. S/he is seeking an identity, a sense of self-based on appearances and connections.

A teenager who defiantly dyes their hair purple and identifies with Goth subculture is age-appropriately experimenting with who they are and where they fit in. When it’s a fifty-year-old woman (or man) undergoing extensive cosmetic procedures, wearing loud makeup and provocative clothing it suggests confusion with defining who s/he is in accordance with their developmental stage in life.

Along with developmental stagnation, poseurs are afflicted with narcissistic injuries. We need a foundation of healthy narcissism to form a constant, realistic sense of self, mature goals and principles, and an ability to form deep relationships. Poseurs lack these capabilities as their narcissistic wounds incite the use of primal psychological defenses such as denial, distortion, and splitting. These defenses assist with blocking out unwanted facets of reality from conscious awareness and configuring an all or nothing, black or white narrative which maintains a false locus of control. All this is necessary so as to preserve an idealized self.

Some folks refer to the plight of the poseur as imposter syndrome, the fear of being exposed as fraudulent, incompetent and inferior.

The Celebrity Poseur

Fame is a coveted platform for poseurs. It affords them greater credibility which is sustained through celebrity worship and the cult of personality.

The venerating of famous people reveals our need to admire others in ways which delude reality and obscure critical thinking. We gleefully and blindly buy into presentation and personae, even to the extent of romanticizing nefarious people. Examples of this trend are evidenced in the exalting of folks like Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein and BBC star and philanthropist Jimmy Saville. Likewise, the glorification of the British Royal Family obscures a history of unabashed support of Hitler and the Nazi regime, as well as extensive colonial tyranny in India and capitalizing from the African slave trade.

Literary personae J.T. Leroy is also exemplary of how we buy into the poseur world and the cult of personality. An alter ego and pen name created by Laura Albert, J.T. Leroy was spotlighted by A-list celebrities who were enthralled with the eloquent account of a gender-bending, HIV+, cross-dressed, child prostitute who was pimped out by their mother at truck stops. When New York Magazine revealed that the entire narrative and personae of J.T. Leroy were a hoax, outrage followed and Albert was charged with fraud.

Clearly, the power of the celebrity poseur is colossal. The tendency to view celebrities as role models or political and cultural pioneers speaks to a collective disconnection from self-regard and personal authority. The illustrious celebrity poseur may serve as a narcissistic extension for fans. The poseur’s devotees are afforded a respite from their deflated egos and unsatisfying lives by vicariously living through the one they worship.

Ordinary Simplicity

The poseur’s need to be ‘special’, even worshipped reflects an absence of humility. Humility respects our innate humanity and is, therefore, the trajectory to authenticity. It is from this place that devotion to self-exploration can unfold.

For the poseur, self-exploration would mean confronting the painful toxic shame, emptiness and self-loathing that underlies the pretentious affected false self. It would mean dismantling a personae that shuns our messy intrinsic nature and confronting the annihilating terror of being real.

If the poseur is courageous enough to take this journey, s/he needs to be willing to explore facets of life that embrace the ‘ordinary’. Immersion in nature, meditation, philosophy and relational dynamics grounded in truth and vulnerability can assist with shedding pretension and discovering the simple beauty within oneself, and in what exists all around.

Finally, through psychological excavation and aligning with what was repudiated as mediocre and unremarkable, the poseur might glean the greatest reward; being truly at ease with oneself and with others. Only then can s/he come to fully understand what French philosopher and politician Charles de Montesquieu imparted,

“To become truly great, one has to stand with people, not above them.”

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY
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