Monday, May 19, 2014

Pardoner syndrome

Academics and other high-achievers are familiar with "imposter syndrome": the conviction that one doesn't really deserve to be where one is (and sooner or later will be found out). A lot has been written about this phenomenon and its problems--and occasionally its unexpected upsides. Imposter syndrome may keep someone from fully recognizing her own strengths, acting authoritatively, or taking risks. On the other hand, it can sometimes act as a spur to excellence (inspiring her to become the person others believe she already is) or serve as a healthy check on arrogance.

I'm interested, though, in the more vicious sibling of imposter syndrome, which I call "pardoner syndrome." A long time ago, I had a professor whose reading of Chaucer's Pardoner stuck with me. The Pardoner, of course, is the guy who sells pardons--years off your time in purgatory--and other weird miracles associated with the religious relics he carries around with him. In the course of his prologue and tale, Chaucer's Pardoner tells all the other pilgrims what a stupendous charlatan he is and how he goes from town to town, fooling the rubes with his fake relics (pigs' bones instead of saints' bones; a magic mitten) and sermons that prick their guilty consciences until they fill his purse with gold.

It's a mesmerizing performance. Then, at the end of it all, the Pardoner invites his fellow pilgrims to come up and buy his pardons and kiss his relics. The outraged Host tells the Pardoner he's gonna make him kiss his relics (if you know what I mean!), and is only barely prevented from beating the Pardoner up.

A question readers often ask is, why the fuck does the Pardoner do this? Why, after letting his audience in on all his tricks, does he then treat them like just another bunch of dupes?

My Chaucer professor argued that the Pardoner is in the theological condition of despair--he knows the way to salvation but believes he's too wicked for God to forgive--and that although he's contemptuous of his listeners, his whole performance is one of self-loathing. On some level, he wants his audience to see through him. If he can fool them, great: he'll feel briefly superior and briefly better about himself (and he'll keep raking in the cash). But what he's actually looking for is someone to thrash his ass.

I'm not a Chaucerian so I don't know if this is an eccentric reading or a common one, but it strikes me as having real psychological truth behind it. If it's not what Chaucer intended with his character, it's still a recognizable phenomenon in the world. If an imposter complex involves, let's say, believing that you were an admissions mistake at your fancy college and fearing being found out, a pardoner complex involves repressing the full knowledge of that fear and transforming it into arrogance. So maybe you half-ass all your schoolwork and act like a dick to your peers and professors, as if daring them to call your bluff and fail you (as you secretly believe you deserve).

The pardoner is someone who half buys his own bullshit--and who desperately needs for others to buy it--but who's just barely holding things together. Rather than doing something to help compensate for his anxieties and insecurities, he decompensates by underpreparing, being a jerk, picking fights, as if to force his own worst outcome. We talk about criminals who "want" to get caught, for example, or certain emotionally abusive partners whose own self-loathing means they're both desperate for love and contemptuous of anyone who thinks they deserve it.

I'm not sure I've ever seen pardoner syndrome in action in the workplace, though I'm sure it exists. Actual frauds and con men are probably more often sociopaths than victims of pardoner syndrome (and from the outside it can be hard to tell the difference between pardoner syndrome and blazingly clueless overconfidence), but there must be people who, for example, go up for a promotion with an embarrassing lack of credentials, or give a major presentation before a client while woefully underprepared, who fall into the category of half-seeking their own comeuppance.


sophylou said...

Oh, I saw cases of this in grad school for sure, and I'm also pretty sure I dated at least one of these guys. Do not recommend.

pat said...

I've seen such behavior, but it was explained to me differently by a therapist. He recommended a book which posited that it was the behavior of someone who needed to be winning, rather than to accomplish anything in particular, and therefore had to start a new fight immediately after winning one.

I've always associated it with the data about how testosterone levels change after winning or losing a battle, and viewed it as a chemical addiction. That would only explain it in males, though.

Sisyphus said...

Oh, man, I don't know what prompted this, but I have been thinking a lot about this as I finish up the grades and have to record a lot of instances of students choking, tripping on the finish line, or starting with a heroic effort to make up for the rest of the semester too late to actually succeed. It might be a separate thing, since the arrogance isn't necessarily there or it gets replaced by clowning or a more general acting out, but there is a lot of similarity.

Susan said...

I wonder if there's another version, more like what Sis mentions: the student who thinks they are not really good enough, but instead of compensating by working harder, self-sabotages in some way.

I am just reading a grad student paper from a student who may partly fit this: ze has done a bunch of different things, but never finished any; is very smart, but lurches from crisis to crisis. The result is a final paper that is a disaster, because it doesn't really do the assignment, which involves a new skill for hir. Instead of an essay reviewing scholarly viewpoints, ze writes an essay saying what's true.

Historiann said...

Like Sisyphus, I too wonder what inspired this post! I like your link it to Chaucer. The Pardoner is like a Harold Hill who informs his marks before they buy the band uniforms and instruments that he'll be on the next train out of town.

Also like Sis, I've got an epic proportion of students who will get Ds or Fs because they failed to read the syllabus and understand how grades are calculated. These are people with perfectly good brains who perhaps have a major block when it comes to academic achievement. I don't get it, but then I didn't come from a place where being good in school was regarded by parents or peers as something suspect or even just ambivalent.

Flavia said...


My sympathies!

Sis, Susan, Historiann:

I think that's not quite the phenomenon I'm describing, though you're right that there are lots of ways of self-sabotaging, and all of them are sad (and we never truly know, from the outside, what they're "about"). But for me the crucial twist is the radical resistance of self-knowledge--the refusal to face their own feelings of failure, incompetence, lack of ability, whatever, which might actually allow them to address those fears--that then manifests itself as arrogance or superiority.

PhysioProffe said...

But for me the crucial twist is the radical resistance of self-knowledge--the refusal to face their own feelings of failure, incompetence, lack of ability, whatever, which might actually allow them to address those fears--that then manifests itself as arrogance or superiority.

This is my parents in a nutshell when it comes to getting what they want socially with family and friends. I call it "can't get out of your own way disorder".

Miss Self-Important said...

Pardoner Syndrome seems to describe the Hugo Schwyzer meltdown of last fall to a T.

Flavia said...


Sympathies to you, too!


Hadn't really tracked the story at the time, but looking it up now--yes, that sounds about right.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I think I've seen two of these in action. Neither of them colleagues, mind you, but people whose bluster and dickishness seemed to me to be masking a truly deep insecurity. An "attack them before they attack me: type.

servetus said...

Wow. Yes. This.

Flavia said...


I'm fortunate in not (to my knowledge) having had colleagues who match this description, either. The ones I'm sure about have been the partners/ex-partners of a couple of friends--but I strongly suspect I know some people in the larger profession who qualify as well.