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Are Your Superhero Dreams Making You Depressed?
Gal Gadot
Mental Health

Are Your Superhero Dreams Making You Depressed?

Why striving for the superhero ideal can leave you feeling super depressed.

Striving to be the best version of yourself across multiple areas of your life is obviously not a bad thing. When done in a balanced way, ambitiously working toward a career goal, striving to look your best or achieving personal milestones have obvious benefits for your mental and emotional health.

However, recent research shows that the motivation behind these achievements determines whether or not you'll feel fulfilled once you complete them. And if your desire for achievement is fueled by earning the acceptance and respect of others rather than a personal desire to complete them, you may be suffering from what's known as the superhero ideal.

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If this sounds familiar, it's time to look at what you want to accomplish in life and why these achievements are so important to you. Here's everything you need to know about the superhero ideal and how to combat feelings of perfectionism.

What Is the Superhero Ideal?

Three superhero kids

Psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair coined the superhero ideal in 1986. Originally called the superwoman ideal, it has been updated to the more inclusive superhero ideal since people of any gender can be affected by it.

In her research, Steiner-Adair discovered that college students were working toward unrealistic ideals across key areas of personal appearance, social popularity and academic accolades. Failure to thrive across all three of these areas simultaneously was causing depressive episodes among students.

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Steiner-Adair originally examined the correlation between the superhero ideal and disordered eating habits, which were found to be more prevalent among college-aged women who put pressure on themselves to achieve a desirable physical appearance, popularity and academic success.

In a more recent study, Steiner-Adair found that the antidote to the depressive episodes correlated with the superhero ideal was cultivating authentic friendships. She defined these friendships as connections that were not fueled by popularity, appearance or achievement but rather allowed students to be their true, authentic selves.

What Causes the Superhero Ideal?

man looks in mirror

The pressure to perform can come from many different areas of life. Parents that constantly equate academic achievement with self-worth, critique the way their kids choose to dress or their physical appearance, or speak of their own youthful days of popularity in school can make a person inclined to strive for the superhero ideal.

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The age of social media has made the superhero ideal even more prevalent and accessible. Being able to compare yourself to peers all over the world can easily make a person feel like they're falling behind in life. When it comes to beauty standards, seeing heavily edited and filtered social media photos can bring up feelings of inadequacy in these areas. Additionally, watching social groups interact with each other and post pictures at events where you were not invited can leave us feeling left out and falling behind.

How to Combat the Superhero Ideal


In true superhero form, being authentically yourself with others has been shown to alleviate the depressive symptoms associated with the superhero ideal. A recent study on the superhero ideal found that students who could be their true selves in relationships with their peers, parents and teachers experienced less depressive symptoms than those who did not have these types of social connections. 

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The power of social connections has long been correlated with positive mental health outcomes. There's even evidence that having regular interactions with a number of acquaintances can boost feelings of happiness. However, forging relationships where you feel comfortable enough to be yourself can be a process that takes time and effort.

How to Create Authentic Relationships

young couple flirting outside smiling
(Photo by Giorgio Trovato on Unsplash)

Authentic connections are crucial for managing the detrimental effects of the superhero ideal. Here's a look at how to forge these essential types of friendships.

Approach friendships with intent

The superhero ideal of friendship is synonymous with popularity. For the college students involved in these studies, fostering friendships that will secure an invite to a party or open doors to having a large circle of friends might seem most appealing. However, creating authentic friendships means identifying meaningful reasons behind wanting to form a connection with that person. Take note of your interactions with the person you're considering befriending, and be honest about what qualities a person with whom you'd be able to be comfortable in your own skin would have. Does this person match that description?

Start communicating consistently

Make it a point to engage in conversation whenever you and your potential new friend cross paths. This may be before or after a class you both take, while folding laundry in your building's laundry room or wherever you interact.

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If you're in need of an icebreaker, complimenting the person or asking an open-ended question are great places to start.

Be a good listener

Listening to a person's response is just as important as asking a question that starts a conversation. Instead of thinking up your next question while the person is speaking, be an active listener and take in what they're saying. This will help you form a thoughtful response.

Be authentic

When engaging in a new friendship, the superhero ideal may kick into high gear, making you feel like you need to impress this person with your accomplishments. Instead of focusing on your work, try talking about shared interests that are important and genuinely interesting to you, and see how the person responds.

Don't take rejection personally

Not everyone may be in a place to start a friendship – and this has nothing to do with you. Respect their boundaries if someone is not receptive to your conversation or attempts to get to know them. It's more important to form authentic relationships with those who are open to them than to convince everyone you meet to be your friend.

Be Genuine, Not Perfect

Positive smile quotes 1024x576

The superhero ideal is exactly that – an ideal. The belief that achieving a certain social status, reaching a level of academia or being physically attractive is the key to happiness is a popular social construct. In practice, it's been proven that striving to achieve in these areas has a greater potential to leave us feeling depressed and unworthy. If working toward the superhero ideal is impacting your mental health, try shifting your focus toward building genuine bonds with others. 

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