Wisdom//

6 Powerful People on How They Manage Their Impostor Syndrome

Clearly, the nagging feeling doesn’t discriminate.

BEN STANSALL / Contributor / Getty Images
BEN STANSALL / Contributor / Getty Images

On her book tour for her bestselling Becoming, Michelle Obama spoke about her experience facing impostor syndrome — and made an eye-opening revelation about what helped her ease her insecurities.

“I still have a little impostor syndrome....It doesn't go 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,” Newsweek reports her saying.

The former first lady is not the only powerful person who has opened up about feeling unworthy of her success. Here’s what she and five other successful people have revealed about how they overcame their insecurities at work, so you can do the same.

Michelle Obama realized that the people at the “powerful tables” aren’t always smart

During a book tour stop in London, Obama said young women have to push the "demons out of your head," revealingthat she too asks herself if she's "good enough," Newsweek reported. Obama noted that women internalize this doubt from an early age, adding that this feeling is especially pertinent among women of color.  

So she offered this "secret" for women across the board: "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 U.N.: They are not that smart."

The candid nature of the former first lady’s book has resonated with many, but in comments like these during her tour, she has made it crystal clear that there’s more room for young women in high places than they might initially think.

Sheryl Sandberg learned that both "confidence and leadership are muscles"

In the wake of the untimely death of her husband, the author of Lean in and COO of Facebook admitted to hitting a confidence low. Her friend, Adam Grant, an author and professor at the Wharton School, gave her advice that would ultimately change her thinking. “He suggested that every night before bed I write down three things I did well that day,” she explained during the 2015 Grace Hopper Celebration, as reported by Forbes. “I tried to do this, although some days I had such a hard time thinking of anything I did well that I’d end up listing ‘Made a cup of tea.’ But over time, focusing on things I’d done well helped me rebuild my confidence. Even if it was small, I could record something positive each day,” she said.

"Confidence and leadership are muscles,” Sandberg continued. “You learn to use them or you learn not to. If you are afraid to speak up at a meeting, every time you force yourself to do it, you get better at it. If you’re afraid to take your seat at the table, every time you take your seat at the table and you realize no one tells you to go get back to the back row, you learn to do it.”  

Helen Mirren lets her self-doubt drive her success.

The legendary actress talked to Esquire about self-doubt in 2011, saying, "It would be wrong to think that you're always right and correct and perfect and brilliant. Self-doubt is the thing that drives you to try to improve yourself."

Mirren made it clear that if you’re anxious about your performance from time to time, it means you care — and that’s a good thing.

Jennifer Lopez kept going in the face of doubters, and saw her determination pay off.

After an advance screening of her new movie Second Act, the actress and singer appeared on a panel with Thrive’s Arianna Huffington, where Lopez discussed her experience with career self-doubt and feeling unworthy despite her early successes.

“I don’t let the opinions of others really influence how I think about myself, and that took a long time, because in the early part of my career I did and it made me feel really bad about myself,” she said, as reported by InStyle. “So I came out and my first song went to no. 1, my first album went to no. 1, and my first movie went to no. 1, and I was like ‘yeah, I’m killin’ it.’ And then everyone was like, she can’t sing; she can’t dance; she can’t act; she’s just a pretty face; or her butt is big, or whatever they were saying about me, and I started thinking ‘yeah, that’s true.’ And it really hurt me for a long time. Despite the hurt and the pain I just kept going,” Lopez said, revealing one of her secrets for getting over her impostor syndrome. “I just couldn’t allow myself to let that become who I was. I was like ‘no, I’m going to make another record, I’m going to make another song, I’m going to make another movie; I’m a great actress; I’m a great singer; I’m a great dancer. I’m great at this stuff and I’m going to keep going.' And I did. And that’s all I did — I kept going...and it started paying off, but more than that I started believing in myself, I started believing in the fact that I wasn’t an impostor, that I wasn’t a fake, that there was a reason I kept doing this and people kept hiring me.”

Lupita Nyong'o remembers why she’s pursuing her passion in the first place

The actress spoke to Time Out in 2016 about dealing with impostor syndrome while filming 12 Years a Slave, as well as in other roles. “What’s it called when you have a disease and it keeps recurring? I go through it with every role. I think winning an Oscar may in fact have made it worse,” she said. “Now I’ve achieved this, what am I going to do next? What do I strive for? Then I remember that I didn’t get into acting for the accolades, I got into it for the joy of telling stories.”

Thinking about what drove her to pursue her passion helps Nyong'o defeat persistent feelings of impostor syndrome, and that reframing could do the same for all of us.

Tina Fey learned that almost everyone feels like a fraud

"The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania, and a complete feeling of: 'I'm a fraud! Oh god, they're onto me! I'm a fraud!'” Fey told The Independent in 2010, adding, “So you just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud. Seriously, I've just realized that almost everyone is a fraud, so I try not to feel too bad about it."

The fact that Fey knows she’s not alone brings her comfort. Given that impostor syndrome affects some 70 percent of people, we all can take comfort in the fact that we’re not alone in our mission to overcome it.

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