Michelle Obama: I still have impostor syndrome

Talk of the town: Over 40,000 people tried to buy tickets to Obama’s speech in London on Monday.

Is a little anxiety good for us? This week, Michelle Obama has been in London sharing stories of her time as first lady. Despite her success, she revealed she often felt fear and panic.

She is one of the most influential people in the world: a bestselling author, powerhouse lawyer, fashion icon and social campaigner. Despite all this, Michelle Obama often feels like she does not belong.

“I still have a little impostor syndrome,” she confided to British school students on Monday. “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.”

Impostor syndrome is when a person feels like they do not deserve their success. It is characterised by feelings of insecurity, self-doubt, and a fear that you will be “found out” by people you think are superior.

“You have to start by getting those demons out of your head,” Obama says. “The question I ask myself — ‘am I good enough?’ — that haunts us, because the messages that are sent from the time we are little [are]: maybe you are not, don’t reach too high, don’t talk too loud.”

Obama herself has had an extraordinary life. Born in Chicago to a working-class family, she describes herself in her early years as “the striver”. She studied hard, won a place at Princeton and became a lawyer at a prestigious US firm (where she met Barack Obama).

Their journey is described in her new memoir, Becoming. Just two weeks after its release, it became 2018’s bestselling book.

In a review for The Atlantic, Hannah Giorgis claims that it is Obama’s honest retelling of her “moments of fear and frustration” that have made the book so popular, and its author so relatable.

Indeed, as Obama also hinted on Monday, powerful people are often not so special.

“Here is the secret,” she said, “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.”

Can anxiety be good for us?

Becoming

It can be, some argue. The fact that a role model like Michelle Obama suffers fear, frustration and anxiety too should give everyone strength. Being anxious about where your life is heading can help you focus on your goals, plan more effectively, and have greater empathy for other people. Be open about your fears, and you will find ways to overcome them.

Not necessarily, others respond. Too much worry can have a crippling impact. Research by psychologists shows that anxiety can make people freeze, flee or break down in stressful moments — making the situation worse. While we should help people be more open about their fears, we should encourage feelings of empowerment and confidence too.

You Decide

  1. Is Michelle Obama a good role model?
  2. Would you like to go into politics?

Activities

  1. Are there things in life that you are anxious about? Think about this question individually and write down any thoughts that you have. For each idea that you have, write down ideas about how you can overcome this problem or anxiety. If you want to, share your ideas with the classmates around you.
  2. Michelle Obama is seen as a role model by many people. Think of another person in the public eye that you think is admirable. Do some research into their life. Write a two-minute speech explaining why this person is a good role model too.

Some People Say...

“The one way to get me to work my hardest was to doubt me.”

Michelle Obama

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Michelle Obama also revealed how she felt when she met the Queen. “I had all this protocol buzzing in my head and I was like ‘don’t trip down the stairs and don’t touch anybody, whatever you do’,” she recalls. In the end, the Queen told her to “just get in [and] sit wherever,” adding that all the fuss around royal protocol was “rubbish”.
What do we not know?
Where Michelle Obama’s career will take her next. In her book she states that she has “no intention of running for office, ever.” However, that does not mean that she will exit politics entirely, as she wrote: “I continue, too, to keep myself connected to a force that’s larger and more potent than any one election, or leader, or news story — and that’s optimism.”

Word Watch

Social campaigner
As first lady, she led campaigns focusing on poverty awareness, education, nutrition, physical activity and healthy eating.
School students
Obama was speaking to an audience of 300 students at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School in Islington. She also spoke at a sellout event at London’s Royal Festival Hall (pictured).
Impostor syndrome
The term “impostor phenomenon” was coined in a 1978 research paper.
Princeton
A prestigious Ivy League university in New Jersey, US. Three US presidents, numerous billionaires and several foreign leaders have studied there.
Bestselling
According to the book’s publisher, Penguin Random House, the book has sold over two million copies in America and Canada alone.
UN
The United Nations.
Research
The positive or negative impacts of anxiety on individuals are charted by the Yerkes-Dodson curve. See the Psychology Today link in Become An Expert for more.