Self-doubt is common. That’s why I originally shied away from the recent “Imposter Syndrome” label surge, feeling we’ve become too absorbed with placing our personalities into neat little boxes. But when self-doubt begins to impede you from attaining goals for fear of “being found out” and never truly lets yourself enjoy your hard-earned successes—well, I began to understand the hype.
Two psychologists, Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes, first identified what they called the “impostor phenomenon” in 1978 as a way to describe those—mainly women—unable to internalize their accomplishments.
This is something Michelle Obama has been candid about throughout her career, reminding the world—through uplifting speeches and a touch of humor—that we are all uniquely flawed and figuring things out as we go.
In her memoir Becoming, she opened up about her time studying at Princeton University:
“I tried not to feel intimidated when classroom conversation was dominated by male students, which it often was. Hearing them, I realized that they weren’t smarter than the rest of us. They were simply emboldened, floating on an ancient tide of superiority, buoyed by the fact that history had never told them anything different.”
During the Beat the Odds summit, she gave a speech as part of her Reach Higher initiative where she mentioned her time with the Royals:
“You always think that somebody else knows more than you do. I’ve been at probably every powerful table there is to be at… I have been on boards with some of the top CEOs…. I’ve had dinner with the frickin’ Queen! I’ve been to the summit of world leaders…. They’re not smarter thank you. I’ve met these people.”
As a keynote speaker at the 13th annual Pennsylvania Conference for Women, she touched on her time in the White House:
“It took some time to find [my] voice. It takes time to live life and have those experiences where you fail but then succeed, where you try hard things and exercise bravery and then it works out. Or, you get a seat at the table and you realize that the people around it are no smarter with no better ideas. A lot of that just comes with life experience. That has definitely developed for me over time.”
Self-empowerment is an ongoing triumph.
We see Obama battling Imposter Syndrome at each new level of achievement throughout her life—from attending a prestigious university to making positive waves of change in the White House. Which just goes to show you: feeling like an impostor doesn’t have much to do with what you have done. It has to do with how you feel.
We feel like imposters not because we’re imperfect, but because we fail to see how deeply unpolished everyone around us is beneath the surface. So if she can experience, discuss, and overcome feelings of inadequacy and still make her voice heard—maybe we can, too.