Michelle Obama has imposter syndrome, too—and some advice for dealing with it

Who, them?
Who, them?
Image: AP/Invision/Owen Sweeney
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Reports from Michelle Obama’s book tour promoting her new memoir Becoming (Crown, 2018) have been a salve for the spirit in a tumultuous year. Like the book, her talks in front of massive crowds have managed to be inspiring, without being overly optimistic, out of touch, or contrived. What the New York Times declared of her memoir is also true of her appearances: It’s not all unicorns and rainbows here.

The latest highly relatable subject she has touched on is imposter syndrome, the feeling of not being good enough and the fear of being found out for it. It’s something that many people experience, including acclaimed artists, scholars, and top corporate executives. “I still have a little [bit of] impostor syndrome, it never goes away, that you’re actually listening to me,” the US former first lady told an audience at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School, an all-girls high school in North London, the BBC reported. “It never goes away, that feeling that you shouldn’t take me that seriously. What do I know?”

“I share that with you because we all have doubts in our abilities, about our power and what that power is,” she said, a little while later adding:

Here is the secret. I have been at probably every powerful table that you can think of, I have worked at nonprofits, I have been at foundations, I have worked in corporations, served on corporate boards, I have been at G-summits, I have sat in at the UN; they are not that smart.

In a sense, that’s not a particularly comforting thought. Shouldn’t the people in charge of things be smarter than the rest of us? On the other hand, this is the assessment of an accomplished public leader, a graduate of Princeton and of Harvard Law School, a spouse to a former US president known for his intellectualization of things, a woman for whom some 40,000 people sought tickets online to see her at a separate event in London, where she was interviewed by the acclaimed writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It’s possible we don’t share the same standards for smart.

Her point, perhaps, is that each person she met at those tables was, in the end, just a person, who probably occasionally made stupid mistakes, asked the wrong questions, missed the picture, were blinded by their biases—all the things that most humans do, no matter how wonderfully educated or experienced. The students she spoke to would one day be capable of holding their own at those tables. “They are not that smart” is another way of remembering, “I’m smart enough.”

In Becoming, Obama’s self-doubt is a recurring motif, one contrasted with her husband’s easy self-assuredness. But she shares a different mantra she’d lean on when her feelings of imposter syndrome intensified, as they did when she became first lady:

I stood at the foot of the mountain, knowing I’d need to climb my way into favor. For me, it revived an old internal call-and-response, one that tracked all the way back to high school, when I’d shown up at Whitney Young and found myself suddenly gripped by doubt. Confidence, I’d learned then, sometimes needs to be called from within. I’ve repeated the same words to myself many times now, through many climbs. Am I good enough? Yes I am.

One of the psychologists who coined the term imposter syndrome has speculated that 70% of people will experience it to varying degrees. The feeling can be powerful for women as they gain stature at work, especially in male-dominated fields. The struggle to overcome self-doubt is that much more vexed when you’re raised in a working-class family, as Michelle Obama was, and venturing into a middle- or upper-class environment.

In London, she spoke about the hurdles facing black women in particular. She has been haunted by the “Am I good enough?” question because, as she said, “the messages that are sent from the time we are little is: maybe you are not, don’t reach too high, don’t talk too loud.”

“The size of our hips, our style, our swag, it becomes co-opted but then we are demonized,” she observed.

My advice to young women,” she later said, “is that you have to start by getting those demons out of your head.”