Michelle Obama has said she still feels “Impostor Syndrome” after all, adding that “it never goes away”.
While promoting her new best-seller, Becoming, the former first lady had some advice on how to overcome “Imposter Syndrome”, which she and other powerful, successful women, such as Oprah and the late Maya Angelou, have also spoken about. The comic Tina Fey believes that with imposter syndrome she wavers between egomania and an overwhelming feeling of “I’m a fraud! Oh God, they’re on to me! I’m a fraud!” John Steinbeck, one of America’s greatest writers and a Nobel Prize winner, wrote to friends that he felt like a complete fraud as a writer.
It’s a common experience for people across age, genders and accomplishments, but what to do about it?
That feeling of not being good enough and the fear of being found out takes a huge toll on performance and esteem. It’s not just the famous and the celebrities who feel like frauds, many top corporate executives also have this chronic problem. The automatic negative thoughts that keep us doubting ourselves despite evidence to the contrary.
The good news is that real imposters never feel imposter syndrome.
It’s estimated that 70% of people report feeling some level of imposter syndrome, the feeling that they don’t deserve to be where they are in life, combined with the anxiety of being exposed as a fraud. You can take an imposter syndrome test here to find out how much of an imposter you feel you are. A score of 80 or higher shows a strong feeling of being a fraud, 61-80 shows you frequently feel like an imposter, and 41-60 indicates you moderately experience feeling like an imposter.
As the former first lady said to an all-girls school in North London: “It never goes away, that feeling that you shouldn’t take me seriously. What do I know?”
She went on to say: “I share that with you because we all have doubts in our abilities, about our power, and what that power is. Here is the secret. I have been at probably every powerful table that you can think of, I have worked at non-profits, 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 standard for smart.”
Her point: “They are not that smart” is another way of remembering that “you are smart enough.”
Everyone makes mistakes and learns as they go. And when the stakes seem higher, or you are entering new territory, those new challenges can be so overwhelming you want to curl into a ball and avoid what makes you uncomfortable. Yet it’s facing new challenges that make us stronger and more able to overcome things that scare us.
Michelle Obama recounts her feelings on becoming 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 show 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.
The secret? Don’t let the automatic negative thoughts about yourself into your head, and never assume you are lesser than anyone in the room. We all must climb in life, in work, and in our relationships to be the best we can be. And the reality is, you might fall, but if you are always climbing, always trying, the likelihood is that you will, at the very least, fall uphill.
Are you good enough? Yes, you are. Just keep that in mind. Say it to yourself. And just keep climbing.
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