the psychology of black swan

Black Swan is a psychological thriller film directed by Darren Aronosfky. Based on the Japanese film, Perfect Blue, the film was released in 2010, and revolves around a talented and ambitious ballet dancer who lands a lead role in a production of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake”. As she prepares herself for the demanding and polarizing role in which she must portray both the innocence of a White Swan and the seductiveness of a Black Swan, she becomes consumed by her pursuit of perfection.

Prevalent with themes of perfectionism, obsession, and overbearing parents, Black Swan urges individuals to evaluate the fragile balance between personal aspirations and external pressures, while providing an opportunity to reflect on the influence of societal expectations and familial dynamics on individual well-being.

Disclaimer: I would like to emphasize that the following content is the product of my personal insights and observations as a passionate student of psychology. I do not hold any professional licence or credentials in psychology, and my interpretations are solely for educational and exploratory purposes. Please note that my analysis is not intended to replace or substitute for any formal psychological analysis, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns about your own psychological health or well-being, please seek guidance from a qualified and licensed mental health professional.


The film centers on Nina Sawyers, a young and accomplished ballet dancer who aspires to achieve artistic perfection. The film opens with Nina as a member of a renowned New York ballet company. When the company’s artistic director decides to substitute the lead dancer in an upcoming production of “Swan Lake”, Nina is selected to portray the duality of the lead role: both the innocence of the White Swan and the seductiveness of the Black Swan.

The plot focuses on Nina’s rigorous preparation for the demanding dual role, which not only requires technical precision, but also the ability to embody juxtaposing characters. As she immerses herself into the role of the White Swan, she in turn begins to struggle in uncovering her repressed sensuality for the Black Swan. Her pursuit of perfection gradually drives her to mental and physical breaking points.

 Nina’s strained relationship with her mother, Erica, only adds to the difficulty of preparing for the role. Erica is overprotective and domineering as she projects the unfulfilled ambitions of her own career onto Nina. Consequently, Erica’s influence exacerbates Nina’s desire for perfection and undermines her self-confidence. The film probes the complex emotional dance between mother and daughter, emphasizing on the manner in which Erica’s control is a driving force for Nina’s perfectionism.

As the pressure intensifies, Nina’s mental state deteriorates. She starts to develop disquieting hallucinations and delusions that distort reality from her feverish imagination–her quest for perfection becomes a descent into madness.

Nina’s transformation takes a dark turn as she mirrors the persona of the Black Swan, and embraces her sensual, uninhibited side. This change results in increasingly erratic behaviour that jeapordizes her mental health and her relationships within the ballet company.

In the film’s climactic ending, Nina completely immerses herself into the role of the Black Swan during the performance of Swan Lake. However, the distinction between performance and reality has now become perilously blurred, and the film culminates in an ambiguous ending, leaving the audience to interpret the nature of Nina’s fate.



Perfectionism is a psychological trait characterized by an individual's unyielding pursuit of perfection and unflinching drive to attain exceptionally high standards, frequently accompanied by an intense dread of failure or falling short. Those with perfectionist tendencies set unattainable objectives for themselves and frequently engage in self-critical behaviours as they strive for an unattainable level of excellence. Perfectionists frequently associate their self-worth with their accomplishments, making their self-esteem susceptible to the results of their efforts.

Perfectionism may range from healthy and adaptive to unhealthy and maladaptive. With adaptive perfectionism, individuals set high standards for themselves while maintaining a healthy concept of self-worth. It can inspire motivation, diligence, and excellence without causing undue anxiety or tension. In the beginning of Black Swan, Nina's initial commitment to improving her ballet technique may have been an example of adaptive perfectionism. Her dedication to improving her skills stems from her authentic love of dance. 

On the other hand, maladaptive perfectionism is characterized by excessively demanding standards that result in extreme stress, anxiety, and negative self-evaluation. In Black Swan Nina's fixation on attaining perfection in her ballet performance is a case of maladaptive perfectionism. Her need for perfection causes her extreme distress, fosters her self-doubt, and compels her to engage in self-destructive behaviours, including self-harm and hallucinations.

In Black Swan, Nina’s perfectionism seems to be consistent with symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), a mental health condition characterized by persistent and intrusive thoughts (obsessions) that lead to repetitive behaviours or mental acts (compulsions) intended to alleviate the distress caused by those thoughts. 


  • Perfectionistic Thoughts: Nina has an obsession with perfection, evidenced by her relentless pursuit of it as she prepares for her ballet performance

  • Fear of Failure: Nina has an intense fear of failure and falling short as she dances

  • Body Dysmorphia: Nina constantly scrutinizes her body and displays a need to maintain her weight and appearance to a certain image


  • Repetitive Behaviours: Nina is constantly seen readjusting her ballet shoes, or meticulously arranging furniture in her apartment

  • Self-Harm: Nina’s habit to pick at her skin could be a compulsion to manage her stress or feel in control

  • Checking Rituals: Nina is constantly checking her surroundings, such as the locks on her door

Nina’s perfectionism also has profound effects on her overall mental health and emotional well-being as she experiences anxiety, low self-esteem, and depression.

As she strives for flawlessness in her ballet performance, her desire to get every move right becomes all-consuming. This constant pressure to meet her own impossibly high standards leads to a series of psychological and emotional reactions that heighten her anxiety and ultimately contribute to her psychological breakdown. Her anxiety often manifests in physical symptoms, such as trembling hands, a racing heartbeat, and even physical pain. Nina's internal dialogue is also riddled with negative self-talk. The harsh self-criticism she engages in amplifies her anxiety, as she constantly berates herself for not meeting her own unattainable standards. As her anxiety increases, Nina isolates herself from her peers and loved ones. She becomes consumed by her own thoughts and fears, leading to a heightened sense of loneliness and alienation.

Nina's struggle with low self-esteem is another poignant depiction of how perfectionism can erode an individual's self-worth. Perfectionists often base their self-esteem on their achievements and how well they meet their own impossibly high standards. When these standards are not met, feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt can intensify, leading to a destructive cycle that impacts both their mental well-being and their perception of themselves. Nina's self-esteem is closely tied to external validation, particularly her mother's approval. The demanding expectations placed upon her by her mother, Erica, drive Nina's need to seek her mother's affirmation. Her belief that her worth hinges on her ability to meet these expectations contributes to her fragile self-esteem. She fears that if she fails to meet her mother's or the ballet company's expectations, she will be rejected or replaced. 

Furthermore, Nina's mental state deteriorates as the weight of her pursuit of perfection takes a toll on her overall well-being, leading to symptoms that align with depression. The constant striving for perfection, coupled with the fear of falling short, is emotionally draining. Nina's relentless efforts to meet her own high standards exhaust her both mentally and physically, contributing to a sense of emotional exhaustion. As the film progresses, her enjoyment of dance diminishes as her passion becomes eclipsed by the demands of perfectionism, leading to a loss of pleasure in something that was once a source of joy. The repeated cycle of striving and not achieving her unattainable standards also fosters a sense of hopelessness, and her inability to break free from this cycle contributes to her growing sense of despair. Physical symptoms of Nina’s depression can also be evidenced through her physical appearance, with her exhaustion and stress manifesting in visible manners.

𝐨𝐯𝐞𝐫𝐛𝐞𝐚𝐫𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐩𝐚𝐫𝐞𝐧𝐭𝐬

Overbearing parenting, also known as overprotective parenting, is a parenting style characterized by excessive involvement, control, and intervention in a child's life. While intent may be motivated by affection and concern, the result is an environment in which the child's autonomy and individuality are stifled, which could impede their ability to establish healthy coping mechanisms and make choices on their own.

Overbearing parents typically exhibit a variety of traits and behaviours that can hinder their child's growth:

  • Excessive Involvement: Exceedingly involved in the lives of their children, frequently mandating their decisions and choices without allowing for independent thought and growth.

  • Micromanagement: constantly offering unsolicited advice on inconsequential matters while continuing to monitor their child's actions.

  • Lack of Boundaries: having difficulty respecting their child's personal boundaries, resulting in an intrusion into the child's personal space.

  • Decision Making: making decisions on behalf of the child, even in circumstances where the child is capable

The correlation between overbearing parenting and the development of perfectionistic traits is apparent through multiple expressions. The persistent necessity of fulfilling elevated parental expectations might induce children to embrace perfectionism as they strive for parental validation. The apprehension of disappointing their parents may motivate children to pursue perfection in order to evade unfavourable consequences. Also, the upbringing of children in such contexts may engender a tendency to depend on external validation and accomplishments as a means of establishing self-worth, which could potentially result in the manifestation of perfectionistic tendencies. Moreover, the absence of autonomy that arises from excessively protective parenting hinders the development of proficient coping mechanisms and decision-making capabilities, so indirectly promoting the inclination towards perfectionism. 

The portrayal of the relationship between Nina and her mother, Erica, in the Black Swan serves as a vital and intricate component that highlights the psychological odyssey of the main character. The domineering and authoritative demeanour exhibited by Erica gives rise to an oppressive atmosphere that significantly impacts Nina's personal identity and ambitions. The nature of their relationship is marked by a combination of dependency, manipulation and a tense yet mutual desire for fulfilment. Erica, who was a former ballet dancer herself channels her personal aspirations that were left unfulfilled onto Nina, so experiencing vicarious fulfilment through her daughter's professional trajectory.  Erica's own unachieved ambitions serve as the impetus for her thorough oversight of Nina's training, fostering the conviction that attaining perfection is not merely expected but obligatory. Erica consistently subjects Nina to relentless criticism and high standards, leading Nina to internalize the belief that success is equivalent to perfection. Nina's self-concept is influenced by these experiences, resulting in a profound apprehension of disappointing her mother and a persistent motivation to obtain her mother's validation by relentlessly striving for perfection. Additionally, Erica’s persistent encroachment into Nina's personal life significantly restricts her ability to make autonomous decisions, resulting in a dependence on Erica's guidance for the development of her own identity and success. As Nina assimilates the notion that her value is contingent upon her capacity to fulfil her mother's exceedingly lofty criteria, her aspiration for flawlessness evolves into a strategy for acquiring validation and inclusion. Erica's control establishes a cyclical dynamic wherein Nina's accomplishments are, to some extent, directed towards Erica rather than being solely for her own benefit. This further amplifies Nina's preexisting inclination towards perfectionism and heightens the magnitude of the pressure she experiences.

The complex mother-daughter dynamic between Nina and Erica serves as a prime illustration of how overbearing parenting can foster a persistent propensity towards perfectionism. Erica’s control and Nina's unattained ambitions shape her convictions and actions, propelling her to the limits of her cognitive and emotional capacities. The depiction of the characters' relationship in the film serves as a painful illustration of the significant impact that parental figures can have on defining an individual's self-perception and the decisions they make, often to the detriment of their mental health.

𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐭𝐫𝐚𝐧𝐬𝐟𝐨𝐫𝐦𝐚𝐭𝐢𝐨𝐧

The symbolism of the White Swan and Black Swan  serves to depict the inherent duality inside Nina's psychological state and her transformation. The White Swan symbolizes purity, innocence, and grace, which are characteristics that Nina has been cultivated to display throughout her upbringing as a result of her mother's influence and her own inclination towards perfectionism. In contrast, the Black Swan symbolizes sensuality, freedom, and unrestrained expression–qualities that are repressed due to Nina's pursuit of perfectionism and her mother's authoritative influence.

Nina's transition symbolizes a symbolic conflict between two facets of her identity. As the protagonist immerses herself further into her role and gradually adopts the attributes associated with the Black Swan, her internal conflict escalates. The symbolic conflict serves as a reflection of the broader narrative around her personal struggle with perfectionism and the overwhelming influence exerted by her mother.

The climactic ending in which Nina fully inhabits the identity of the Black Swan serves as a significant point in the film, symbolizing her transformative journey and her plunge into her inner darkness. As she embodies the character of the Black Swan, she displays unrestricted movements, seductive emotions, and a self-assured manner. This was a juxtaposition to her previous portrayal of the White Swan, characterized by meticulousness but devoid of genuineness.

This scene symbolizes the melding of Nina's conflicting identities as she merges the roles of the White Swan and Black Swan. It is more than a mere performance, as it represents a significant psychological breakthrough in which she faces and transcends her personal internal conflicts. The occurrence is  both cathartic and eerie, as Nina's liberation comes at the cost of her mental health.

The ending serves to emphasize the underlying themes of duality, transformation, and the intricate nature of the human mind. Nina's complete embodiment of the Black Swan character symbolizes her defiance against the all-encompassing pursuit of flawlessness that has engulfed her, while also serving as a repudiation of her mother's domineering influence. This particular instance represents a significant juncture in the protagonist's journey of self-exploration and personal growth, even as it hints at the subsequent deterioration of her psychological well-being.


Nina's story resonates with the broader issue of how parental influence shapes individual development. Parents undoubtedly have a significant impact on the lives of their children, providing guidance in shaping their beliefs, aspirations, and even decisions regarding their future careers. Nevertheless, as exemplified by Nina's personal encounter, an imbalance between parental ambitions and a child's individuality can have adverse effects.

Instances of overbearing or authoritarian parenting can be observed in various domains, encompassing academic pursuits, sports, and artistic endeavours. Similar to Nina's mother, well-meaning parents may unintentionally contribute to the development of perfectionism in their offspring. Parents of this nature may establish elevated expectations, closely supervise their child's endeavours, and prioritize accomplishment over independence. The outcome frequently entails a high-pressure environment that fosters similar perfectionist inclinations as demonstrated by Nina, potentially leading to enduring effects on mental well-being and self-perception.

     Black Swan is layered with themes of perfectionism and overbearing parents. From Nina’s transformation into the dual personas of the two swans which highlights her battle with perfectionism, to the intricate dynamics between Nina and Erica, illuminating the potent connection between parental control and the development of perfectionism, and finally, its implications of anxiety, low self-esteem, and erosion of autonomy, Black Swan provides a captivating canvas for examining perfectionism and overbearing parenting. It vividly illustrates how external pressures, coupled with internal drives, can lead to a destructive cycle of unrealistic expectations, anxiety, and self-doubt. The film offers a stark reminder of the toll that unchecked perfectionism and overbearing parental influence can take on an individual's mental well-being, and showcases the complexities of navigating one's aspirations while maintaining a sense of self and autonomy.

 As the examination of these thematic elements draws to a close, I urge readers to further explore the intricate interplay between perfectionism, overbearing parenting, and their ramifications on psychological well-being. Please take a moment to reflect on personal experiences or those of acquaintances, and contemplate the ways in which societal pressures and parental expectations can exert influence on an individual's trajectory. These themes have a significant impact that extends beyond the realm of fiction, shedding light on broader discussions surrounding mental health, individual development, and the complex relationship between ambition and self-discovery. Through active engagement with these concepts, it is possible to cultivate awareness, empathy, and  potentially instigate significant transformations within today’s society. 

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