In a December 2018 talk at an all-girls school in North London, Michelle Obama was asked how she felt about being viewed as a “symbol of hope.”
That’s when the former First Lady disclosed something countless millions of women and men around the world experience, but often don’t have a name for. “I still have a little [bit of] impostor syndrome, it never goes away, that you’re actually listening to me.”
Impostor syndrome describes a core belief that we’re not as bright or competent or talented as people think we are. That we’ve somehow managed to fool college admissions officers, hiring managers, clients, patients, the American public… basically, anyone who believes otherwise.
The term impostor phenomenon, as it’s more accurately known in the world of psychology, was coined in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in a paper titled The Impostor Phenomenon Among High Achieving Women.
Impostor feelings still tend to be more common in women, including a whopping two-thirds of working women the UK and just under half of female medical students in the US.
However, men are hardly immune.
I’ve met countless men who struggle with these same, “I’m in over my head and they’re going to find out” feelings; among them an attorney who argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, a commander with the Canadian mounted police, a winner of the MacArthur “Genius Grant,” and a NASA astronaut.
Before unpacking Michelle Obama’s impostor syndrome, I need to make a few things clear.
First, I’ve never met the former First Lady. Even if I had, I would never pretend to speak for her.
But I do understand impostor syndrome.
It was my own nagging feelings of fraudulence as a 21-year-old doctoral student that became the impetus for my academic research.
Back then impostor syndrome was considered a largely female issue. I was interested in exploring the broader topic of internal barriers to women’s occupational achievement. In other words, what leads so many of us to feel undeserving of our success? To feel anything other than the intelligent, competent person we really are?
Much of what I discovered from interviews with a racially diverse group of women executives, academic advisers, clinicians, and social service providers apply to male “impostors” too.
Over the years my understanding of both the sources of and solution to impostor syndrome has deepened. Something I’ve had the honor to share with a wide cross-section of audiences in North America, Asia, and Europe.
Next, impostor syndrome has nothing to do with pretending to be a surgeon or a pilot.
To the contrary, people who feel like impostors are anything but. Behind every “impostor” is indisputable evidence of accomplishments and abilities.
Over the years I’ve addressed audiences of students from the high school level through PhD, nurses, engineers, social workers, librarians, physicians, diplomats, optometrists, romance writers, cancer researchers, accountants, chemists, psychologists, college professors, deans and other school administrators, jewelers, attorneys, scientists, financial advisers, and managers and professionals at organizations as diverse as Merck, McDonald’s, and Microsoft. Each person accomplished in their own personal and professional way.
Finally, some may wonder why I’d focus so much on Michelle Obama? It’s a legitimate question, especially when you consider all the other well-known people who’ve copped to impostor feelings.
Partly it’s because the former First Lady’s statement was considered news by Newsweek, the BBC, CBS News, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and scores of other major outlets in the US and abroad.
However, the more important reason to unpack Michelle Obama’s professed impostor syndrome is that it was even bigger news to her many admirers.
As word of her speech got out, social media erupted with people who were stunned to learn that Gallup’s most admired woman in the world, shares the same self-doubt as many of the rest of us.
In reality, no one should be surprised.
Because the more we unpack her lived experiences, the more the question becomes, not how could Michelle Obama have impostor syndrome, but rather, how could she not?
She Knows What It’s Like to Not Belong
There are lots of perfectly good reasons why accomplished people feel like impostors. Some, like being a student, working alone, or being in a creative field are situational.
A less talked about source has to do with the notion that a sense of belonging fosters confidence.
When we walk into a classroom, a workplace, an executive boardroom, or indeed, the White House, the more people there who look, or for anyone with a distinct regional or working-class accent or for whom English is a second language, who sound like us, the more confident and therefore, competent we’re apt to feel.
Conversely, when there are few people there who look or sound like us, it can and for many, does impact how confident and competent we feel.
Belonging is something Michelle Obama has had to deal with all of her life. In her address to the majority black and immigrant students, Mrs. Obama spoke of how those in power can make women, working class people, and people of color feel like they don’t “belong.”
Even in the most welcoming environments, impostor feelings can be triggered. That’s what happened to Charles Taylor.
The Colorado farmhand who had also dealt with drug addiction and homelessness became a rising star at the famed Metropolitan Opera, a place more known for blue bloods than blue collars. Said Taylor, “I still fight the feeling of being a fraud, a ruse.”
When you’re among the very few or, like the only black first-year med student at the University of Toronto featured in this attention-grabbing article, the only person like you, it can rattle the confidence of even the most qualified, knowledgeable, or talented among us.
She Knows What It’s Like to Be Stereotyped
Not having a sense of belonging is further complicated when you’re also a member of any group saddled with negative stereotypes about intelligence or competence.
This alone can trigger impostor feelings because now you need to prove yourself in ways others may not.
As Mrs. Obama told her young audience, “I still feel that at some level I have something to prove because of the color of my skin, because of the shape of my body… who knows how people are judging me.”
Another reason stereotypes fuel impostor syndrome is because they can easily be internalized as the truth.
Something that, as many as 300 studies have shown, can, in turn, affect behavior. The phenomenon, known as “stereotype threat,” was first documented by Stanford researchers Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson.
Precisely because we all “know” females are lousy at math, merely informing female students prior to a math exam that the test is gender neutral causes them to perform better. But telling female students the opposite, that the test had demonstrated gender differences in the past, they performed substantially worse.
Stereotype threat comes into play in subtler situations as well.
Just by including a checkbox for gender on a math test which has the effect of reminding women of their gender, can cause them to perform worse than men.
Similar findings have been found based on race and class.
When African American students were told they were being tested on verbal ability it triggered racial stereotypes about intelligence causing them to do worse than students who did not receive this information.
Likewise, when students in France were reminded of their socio-economic status, those from low-income groups performed more poorly than those from high-income groups.
Stereotypes impair men’s performance as well.
Men who were told a test measured “social sensitivity” on which “men do worse than women,” performed more poorly than those who were told the test measured “complex information processing.” Women’s performance did not differ. As importantly, men taking the first test who reported using less intuitive, more deliberate strategies showed greater declines in performance.
Even so-called “positive” stereotypes also limit us because they can falsely alter behavior.
When a golf putting test was framed as measuring “natural athletic ability,” African American students did better than White students. But when the test was positioned as testing “sports intelligence” the opposite was true for both groups.
Similarly, when reminded of their ethnic identity Asian American women performed better on a math test than a control group. But when primed to think about their female identity, they did worse.
She Has to Represent Her Entire Group
Precisely because stereotypes do exist, people in marginalized groups wind up serving as the representative of their entire social group.
This pressure is especially intense when, like the former First Lady, you’re the first in a role.
Upon her retirement, Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor reﬂected upon her pioneer status as the first woman to serve on the highest court in the land.
“My concern was whether I could do the job of a justice well enough to convince the nation that my appointment was the right move. If I stumbled badly in doing the job, I think it would have made life more difﬁcult for women.”
It’s a similar sentiment to that of a recent college graduate who spoke of the tremendous anxiety she had about being the ﬁrst blind employee person at her new company. “If I’m not ‘Super Disabled Person, I worry the next time someone with a disability applies for a job, they’ll think, ‘Uh- oh, we tried one of those people, and it didn’t work out.”
You don’t have to be blind to see the pressure that comes from feeling like you have to represent not just yourself, but your entire social group. Pressure that can make women like Michelle Obama, and others from marginalized groups, more vulnerable to the impostor syndrome.
If Mitt Romney had won the presidency over Barack Obama, every Mormon on the planet would have been praying, “Please don’t screw up, please don’t screw up.”
Instead, it was black Americans who held their collective breath.
She Grew Up Working Class
Another group vulnerable to impostor syndrome are first-generation college students and first-generation white collar professionals.
Mrs. Obama is no exception.
“It doesn’t go away,” she told the students, “that feeling of ‘I don’t know if the world should take me seriously; I’m just Michelle Robinson, that girl on the south side who went to public school’.”
Likewise, when Sonia Sotomayor stepped onto the campus of Princeton from her poor neighborhood in the Bronx, she said she felt like “a visitor landing in an alien country.” For the entire first year, she said, “I was too embarrassed and too intimidated to ask questions.”
It’s not hard to imagine how being raised by parents more apt to be cleaning the boardroom than presiding over it, might cause one to feel like a poser. I know I can. While I was studying for my doctorate, my mother Barbara was working as a second shift custodian at the same university.
As a first-generation professional who has “made it,” you may find yourself in the precarious position of feeling like you don’t fully fit in. There may be an underlying sense that, “I don’t really belong here. I don’t really deserve this.”
While hobnobbing in your new world, you may half expect to be tapped on the shoulder and asked to leave.
Looking back, Sotomayor said, “I have spent my years since Princeton, while at law school and in my various professional jobs, not feeling completely a part of the worlds I inhabit. I am always looking over my shoulder wondering if I measure up.”
She Was Constantly Underestimated
Messages and expectations from family, teachers, and even peers can play a significant role in fostering future impostor syndrome. By Mrs. Obama’s own account, it was her parents’ unwavering belief in their daughter that laid the foundation for her future success.
Not everyone is so fortunate. And for some, the impact of being underestimated by parents can linger for years.
Crooner Andy Williams spoke of never being able to get out of his head what his father told him when he was a child. “You’re not as good as them, so you have to work harder.” Words that prompted a “crisis of confidence” Williams said haunted him throughout his career.
Still, not everyone in Mrs. Obama’s young life was supportive.
“I found myself having to walk a bunch of different lines. There were some kids who didn’t like kids who were smart and got good grades. There were kids who criticized the way I talked and said that I talked like I was white, which is another way of saying that you think you’re better than other people.”
Peer pressure is powerful. But arguably, teachers and guidance counselors have an even more powerful impact on shaping aspirations. Sometimes for the better or, as is more often the case for poor white, black, Latino, and Native American students, for the worse.
Of her own school years, Mrs. Obama told her young audience, there were, “Teachers who underestimated me every step of the way.” One even told her point blank that she wasn’t “Princeton material.”
Fortunately, she didn’t listen.
She’s Highly Educated
Not only did Michelle Robinson graduate from Princeton cum laude, but she went on to earn her law degree from Harvard.
Logically you’d expect being highly educated to either prevent impostor syndrome or cure it.
As a professor at one of my talks put it, “This is crazy, I have a Ph.D., I shouldn’t feel like an impostor.” I had to break it to her, “Actually, you feel like an impostor because you have a Ph.D.”
It’s counter-intuitive but, the more educated you are, the greater the chance of succumbing to impostor syndrome.
When you have an advanced degree, you feel a certain amount of pressure to measure up. That feeling can be even more intense if, like Mrs. Obama, you have degrees from not one, but two Ivy League schools.
There are plenty of people who can relate to one or more of these same experiences.
However, there are two ways in which Mrs. Obama’s impostor syndrome experience differs from that of the vast majority.
She Had a (Big) Connection
From the Kennedys to the Clintons to the Bushs to the daughter and son-in-law of the current president, family connections have catapulted numerous people onto the world stage. The same of course is true for Michelle Obama.
It’s likely not lost on her that being seen as an international symbol of hope is inextricably linked to having the good fortune to fall in love with and marry a man who would go on to become president of the United States.
She’s a Genuine Star
First Ladies have always been relatively popular with the American public. Some including Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy, and Barbara Bush were widely admired.
Yet it’s hard to imagine another contemporary who could sell out 20,000 seat arenas both at home and abroad as Mrs. Obama has.
Michelle Obama may have married into her fame, but if her 25 second standing ovation at the 2019 Grammy Awards is any indication, the former First Lady has become a bona fide star in her own right.
You might expect a certain degree of stardom would make a person feel more confident.
Instead, it can cause you to question yourself even more because the reactions of those around you can be so skewed. “[W]hen you’re a celebrity,” wrote A.J. Jacobs in The Guinee Pig Diaries, “anything that emerges from your mouth that vaguely resembles a joke is cause for gut-busting laughter from everyone within earshot.”
With all that adoration, it’s easy to see how anyone with an ounce of humility would question whether they really deserve all the attention.
(One person who doesn’t take Michelle Obama’s fame too seriously is her mother Marian Robinson who, in a humorous text exchange, asked her daughter if she’d “met any real stars” at the Grammys.)
Where Do We Go From Here?
A few years ago, I was asked to lead a workshop on impostor syndrome for a group of black and Latino engineering Ph.D. students attending a program designed to address the depressingly few engineering Ph.D.s of color in academia.
Students had the option to schedule some private time with me ahead of my talk. Of the nine who did, three began with nearly identical words: “I know I’m supposed to tell myself I deserve to be here, but I still feel like an impostor.”
They do of course deserve to be there. The problem is, self-affirmation, while helpful, is no match for impostor syndrome.
Those who know the pain of impostor syndrome need to take the momentum from the former First Lady’s speech and do more. Here are seven places to start.
1. Do examine childhood messages — but don’t get stuck there
Even well-meaning parents can inadvertently send messages that impact how competent and confident their children later feel.
If the only response to earning all As and one B is, “What’s that B doing there?” the child quickly learns that the only thing that’s acceptable is perfection.
And for kids, praise is like oxygen.
Other kids earned outstanding grades and yet received no praise at all.
Regardless of the many reasons why good parents might not praise a child for academic achievement, it can set them up for a lifelong craving for approval.
Then there are young people who got a little too much oxygen.
Kids who are constantly told they’re extraordinary, brilliant even.
Sooner or later they run into something hard – advanced calculus, mastering a second language, art, public speaking which causes them to question their parent’s assessment.
No child is immune from the impact of family messages and expectations.
I meet students who feel intense pressure to excel in medicine, law, or engineering. And when they fall short of their family’s expectations, they judge themselves lacking. I’ve met others who wanted to become doctors or lawyers or engineers but, like Mrs. Obama, we’re told to lower their sights. I’m not a psychologist, but I’d wager to say that far more damage is done by underestimating young people than the opposite.
I encourage anyone with impostor feelings to examine how significant adults in your life responded to early successes and failure. Consider too whether you’ve met, exceeded, or fallen short of your parent’s expectations for who or what you’d become. Then look at how, if at all, that may have contributed to how confident and competent you feel today.
At the same time, recognize that we weren’t all raised by the same parents and we certainly didn’t all get the same messages.
Even with the most supportive parents, no one grows up in a vacuum.
So do explore your own childhood experience. Just don’t get stuck there.
If you make impostor syndrome all about family dynamics, you can spend years in therapy and do little to move the impostor needle.
By thinking of impostor syndrome in purely individual terms, we risk missing important situational and social reasons that can explain why any of us – including someone who serves as an international symbol of hope – might experience impostor syndrome.
2. Understand the legitimate role luck, timing, connections, and other external factors play in success
A defining characteristic of impostor syndrome is the tendency to attribute success to external factors but see failures and mistakes in terms of personal inadequacy.
It’s the difference between believing people raved about your presentation because “they just like me” or “I had a great audience,” but blaming yourself if you bombed.
To counteract this, people with impostor syndrome are often encouraged to keep a list of their accomplishments. I understand the thinking here.
But what happens if you really did get a lucky break or got an easy instructor?
What if you did happen to be in the right place at the right time?
Or, what if, in Mrs. Obama’s case, you really did marry the ultimate connection?
Connections do, of course, help. From legacy admissions to college to nepotism in job hiring to getting a heads-up about an unannounced job opening, the well-connected can get ahead far faster and with far less effort.
However, connections are just one factor. Someone may have put in a good word with the boss, but once hired, you had to deliver the goods.
Mrs. Obama’s biography will always begin with, First Lady of the United States. The same is true for the other 44 women to hold that title. But that takes nothing away from what each brought to the role.
Besides, Michelle Robinson was accomplished long before she became Michelle Obama.
She was an associate attorney in a prestigious law firm where she was assigned to mentor Barack Obama while he was a summer associate, held several administration positions in Chicago city government, served as Associate Dean of Student Services at the University of Chicago, was founder and executive director of a non-profit, and sat on several boards.
If more people with by impostor syndrome took into account the legitimate role things like luck, timing, personality, connections, and other external factors play in success, there’d be a lot less to feel fraudulent about.
Indeed, the major premise of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success is that many of the world’s most successful people rose on a tide of advantages, “some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky.” Among them was Bill Gates.
As he was about to enter seventh grade Gates’ parents sent him to an elite private school. Even luckier for him the Mothers Club used proceeds from a school rummage sale to buy the students a new-fangled thing known as a computer terminal. By the time the first PC came along a few years later, Gates was way ahead of the geek pack with thousands of hours of programming experience under his belt.
Anyone can be lucky. It’s what you do with luck that makes the difference.
Gates’ classmates also had access to this early computer. But Microsoft® was not started by the Lakeside class of 1973. Rather it was co-conceived and built by the person who had the wisdom to work with the advantages presented to him, the initiative to take action, and the perseverance to see it through.
Fast forward to 2019 and Gates agrees. “I don’t deserve my fortune. ‘Nobody does. It has come through timing, luck, and through people I worked with. I certainly worked hard and I think software has been a beneficial thing, but I benefited from a structure too.”
Looked at more broadly, if you were lucky enough to have grown up in an industrialized nation then you had a better chance of not being born into severe poverty and hence a better shot of achieving financial success as an adult.
Similarly, if you had the good fortune to attend a decent school, or to catch the attention of a great mentor, or to work in an organization who understands the benefits of a diverse workplace or to advancing people from within – then lucky you, because your prospects for success just went up considerably.
Rather than being an excuse for your success, remember external factors play a legitimate role in everyone’s success.
3. Keep going regardless of how confident you feel
If you’re waiting until you feel 100 percent confident to step up your game, good luck with that.
No one feels confident 24-7.
New challenges will always create a certain amount of inner tension. But that doesn’t mean you aren’t up to the task. Not only should you expect to feel afraid, you should worry if you don’t.
Two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington certainly never took his starring role in the Broadway hit Fences for granted.
In a 2010 interview on Good Morning America he said, “That last five minutes before you go on that first [Broadway] preview, if you don’t have that ‘what the hell am I doing here [feeling]’ if you don’t have that, then they say it’s time to quit.”
When normal performance jitters do strike, step back and “reframe” the situation. That’s what Elizabeth Alexander did.
After President-elect Obama tapped Alexander to be the Inaugural Poet there was a flurry of interviews leading up to her big performance. One question everyone wanted to know was “are you nervous.” (A question I would venture to guess was not put to the first Inaugural Poet, Robert Frost).
Each time Alexander spoke of feeling excited, thrilled, honored, humbled – but never scared. Why? The way she put it in a 2009 48 Hours interview, “To be scared, would not be helpful.”
The second you feel normal fear kick in, take a deep breath then calmly remember, “This is not helpful right now.”
Then decide which emotion would be helpful in that situation. How about exhilaration, anticipation, honored, challenged, wonder, joy, pride, enthusiasm, or determination?
Instead of waiting until you feel confident to step up your game, keep going and trust that over time you’ll start to believe the new thoughts.
Besides, there’s a reason famed psychologist Fritz Perls described fear as “excitement without breath.” Your body has the same physiological responses to both fear and excitement – nervous stomach…sweaty palms… dry mouth. And since your mind only knows what you tell it, “it” doesn’t know the difference.
So, as you head to the podium or into the job interview or into your first client meeting — or into the White House — keep telling yourself, “I’m excited… I’M excited…I’M EXCITED!”
4. Keep going regardless of how society may make you feel
I often speak at colleges. Afterward, there’s always a small cluster of students who want to speak privately.
Frequently they’re looking for advice on how to deal with the stress of being the only woman or person of color (or both) in their class or science lab or sometimes the entire department.
There are no easy answers. But if that rings true for you too, all I can do is tell you what I tell them.
If you belong to any marginalized group, the reality is, you may indeed feel the need to prove yourself in ways others don’t.
Despite the added pressure that comes from being the first woman to officiate an NFL championship game or the youngest person to ever make partner in your firm or the first African American First Lady – the fact is, none of us can control what another person may, or may not, think about us. We can only control our response.
In the wise words of another First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
5. Do talk about impostor feelings – but don’t dwell on them
Talking about impostor syndrome is an essential first step to overcoming it.
When you normalize the feelings as the former First Lady did, it helps take the shame out of them. After all, if Michelle Obama feels like an impostor, why wouldn’t the rest of us?
Which apparently, was her plan telling her young audience. “I share that with you because we all have doubts in our abilities, about our power and what that power is.”
Giving voice to these irrational feelings of inadequacy is important. Unfortunately, however, too many people stop there.
I know people who’ve have spent decades fretting aloud about their supposed ineptness. At the first sign of insecurity, they declare to their beloved, or their friends or co-workers, or sometimes even to their faculty advisor or manager, that they really don’t know what they’re doing… that this time is different… this time they really are going to fall flat on their face.
The supportive listener is quick to reassure them. “You’re worrying about nothing.” “You’re amazing, you’ll do great like you always do.”
Naturally, being “impostors,” they don’t believe them. Even when the other person has felt the exact same way, this kind of sharing still has its limits. But not necessarily for the reason you might think.
Just as commiserating about an expanding waistline with friends won’t make us feel any thinner, endlessly talking about our impostorism will do little to make us more confident.
Simply said, you can’t share your way out of impostor syndrome.
In fact, adolescent girls who co-ruminate about negative thoughts and feelings with their friends actually experience higher levels of anxiety and depression.
Similarly, boys who dwell on negative thoughts and feelings with friends experienced the same negative effects. However, researchers found boys more likely to cope with negative experiences by, for instance, shooting hoops or playing a video game or doing other things to distract themselves.
6. The only way to stop feeling like an impostor is to stop thinking like an impostor
It’s been over three decades since I wrote my dissertation about internal barriers to women’s occupational achievement.
Back then I didn’t have the language of impostor vs. non-impostor thinking. However, what was apparent even then is that removing those internal barriers requires a fundamental shift in how we think about competence, about failure, mistakes and criticism, and about confidence itself.
I now know that how we think about each of these things is both the core cause of impostor syndrome and the solution.
People who feel like impostors hold themselves to unrealistic, unsustainable standards of competence. We can hit the mark sometimes, but not all the time.
Masters at comparison we tend to see others as so much more knowledgeable or capable than us.
It’s easy to do. Especially when you come from a group that does not have a long history of belonging in certain fields, or in white collar jobs, or at the highest levels. We see important people doing important work and think it’s surely beyond our abilities or comprehension. And because we confuse confidence with competence, we may be so intimidated we never even try.
Michelle Obama’s unique vantage point into the world of the great and powerful wizards of industry, finance, science, politics, and art offered a wake-up call to “impostors” everywhere. “Here is the secret,” she told her young audience. “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.”
For many on social media, that alone was an enormous revelation.
Learning that there are people there who are “not that smart,” fostered a collective sense that, if they can do it, then maybe so can I.
But that’s only part of the competence story.
True there are those who have risen to their level of mediocrity. But there are also plenty of executives, board members, world leaders, and others with a seat at the table who really are intelligent and capable. The same is true for people who occupy cubicles or run small businesses or make art.
Women and men who are fully capable and still humble. Who have good days and bad, successes and setbacks, yet are still able to move more or less confidently through their academic or professional lives unencumbered by impostor syndrome.
It’s not because they’re any more intelligent or competent or talented. The only difference between them and us, is in the same situation that’s likely to trigger an impostor feeling in us – a job interview, a promotion, starting a new business – they’re thinking different thoughts.
How to Think Like a Non-Impostor
Specifically, non-impostors think differently about three things: Competence, failure (which includes mistakes and criticism), and fear.
Which actually is incredibly good news, because it means we don’t have to choose between being self-important or arrogant on one hand and impostor syndrome on the other.
Instead, there is a third option: Learn to think the way non-impostors do.
Someone had taught the students in Mrs. Obama’s audience – or any of us – that it’s possible to ditch impostor syndrome and still have healthy humility, even well-deserved pride in our work?
Instead of being crushed by even constructive criticism, seeing it as proof of our supposed shortcomings, we saw it for the gift that it is and actively sought it out in order to continuously improve?
We were driven to constantly improve — not out of the fear of being found out — but simply because we get that we’re all just a work in progress?
We understood there are times when everyone has to struggle to understand or master something? And that the more we do anything, the better we’ll get.
What if we knew that nothing is going to be perfect the first time – or sometimes the 96th time (which is how many times I’ve edited this post). Or, ever! That everything can be improved upon.
We knew that it’s okay to ask for help or not know the answer or fall flat on our face and try again?
We knew we can be crushingly disappointed if we fail to get the job or the promotion or land the client or win the election, but not ashamed? That the only time we should feel shame is if we didn’t really try. And, if that’s the case, then yes, shame on us.
We reminded ourselves that while the pressures are real, we don’t have to be the spokesperson for our entire group?
We knew that it’s entirely possible to walk into a new situation – a new job or promotion or, yes even the White House — and feel like “I’ve ‘got this”? Not out of arrogance, but because we understand that it’s okay to be in the midst of a learning curve?
In fact, what if we knew that we can be scared out of our mind, and still not feel like an impostor because we understand, that fear is a normal response to stepping into the unknown?
For those 300 British high school students Mrs. Obama addressed, it’s the difference between getting into Oxford or Cambridge or any university and thinking, “Oh my God, everyone here is brilliant and I have no idea what I’m doing” and thinking instead, “Wow! Everyone here is brilliant — I’m going to learn so much!”
What we want is to stop feeling like an impostor.
But that’s not how it works. In fact, feelings are the last to change.
The only way to stop feeling like an impostor is to stop thinking like an impostor.
7. Recognize that it’s not all about you
Everyone loses when bright people play small.
Instead of the proverbial question, “What would you do if money were no object?” try asking, “What sort of difference would I make if fear was not a factor?”
There are people out there right this very minute who want and deserve to benefit from your full range of knowledge, abilities, and skills. Widen the lens even further and you’ll see that in a world where poverty and illiteracy disproportionately effects women and children, the world needs all-hands-on-deck. Yours included.
You don’t need to run out and solve world hunger, secure world peace, or save an endangered species. But you can help raise or mentor the next generation of strong girls and sensitive boys. You can raise your hand in a meeting. You can raise your hand for a project, a promotion, a raise. You can throw your hat into the ring or throw caution to the wind. And if someone is making you feel less intelligent or capable or qualified than you really are, you can raise heck – and plenty of it.
At the core of Michelle Obama’s message is this: Whatever you do, you owe it to yourself – and to all of us – to start acting as bright and capable and yes, powerful as you really are.
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Great article! Thank you for all you do to help so many of us working through feelings of impostor syndrome and better self-understanding.
You’re very kind Cybele. Thanks for taking the time to read what is a very long post! (A lot to unpack there!)
What an excellent post, Valerie!! You have been an incredible influence in my life and in my personal growth. This work is so valuable and needs to be out in the world. And you have done that! You never quit. I can’t even begin to thank you for your work, inspiration and gifts to all of us who’ve been lucky enough to be your students. The world is certainly a brighter, more informed place with all of the people who’ve encountered you and this much needed message!
You are so kind to take the time to write Suzi. It’s people like you who make the work I do have meaning. Thank you!
Thank you, yes it is a long article but, I needed this today. I was feeling low self-worth and appreciation and felt like I deserve more. Thank you.
This is one of the most important topics for women of color. Thank you so much for honoring our struggles and shedding light on our challenges. This struck a chord so deeply and it shocked me how much. This needs to be in every diversity and inclusion training program!!
Thank you for taking the time to comment Ali. I totally agree — there’s a strong connection between impostor syndrome and diversity and inclusion. We need to do less psychologizing and more contextualizing. When you consider the social reality of any group who must contend with stereotypes about competence or intellect and/or who has to represent their entire group, feeling like an impostor is to be expected.
Amazingly explained! I’ve read a lot about Imposter Syndrome but nothing quite like this.
Thanks, Deborah — that means a lot to me. And hey, if you happen to know how to reach the former first lady, feel free to pass it along… that way I can live my dream of Michelle Obama and me becoming best friends 🙂
Dear Dr Young, thank you for working so hard for 3 decades plus, as well as possessing the skills to articulate your learning for all comers to easily understand and apply. Your beautifully crafted narrative is touching and that any Nobel prize winning author (…Maya Angelou…) would be proud of. I am signposting my peers and junior surgical colleagues to this page in particular (as well as the infographics, for those who prefer hardcore data.) Hopefully, you will be helping them become phenomenal impostors and unleashing the real them.
Thank you for taking the time to write Niel. And I truly appreciate you sharing my work with your peers. Impostor syndrome is common in information dense rapidly changing fields like medicine where we feel to be “truly smart” we should be able to keep up. In reality, no human possibly can.