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Michelle Obama speaks openly about living with impostor syndrome

“I’m just Michelle Robinson, that little girl on the south side who went to public school”

When it comes to the women we look up to, Michelle Obama is right up there at the top.

The former First Lady inspired us to fight for change and believe in a better world throughout her eight years at the White House, during which she launched global initiatives such as Let Girls Learn, added a touch of cool to pretty much everything she did and always seemed to have an empowering quote to hand.

And she has continued to make us do mini fist punches of joy since leaving the White House, too, especially with the publication of her first memoir, Becoming, last month.

In the book, which is already the fastest selling of the year, Obama talks openly about the barriers she has faced – and overcome – in her life, from growing up in a poor area of Chicago’s South Side, to struggling with her fertility and going to marriage councilling with her husband.

And one of the main barriers she has faced – and still tackles – is impostor syndrome, which she described yesterday as “feeling like I don’t belong”. 

Michelle Obama: living legend

Speaking at a north London school as part of the UK leg of her book tour, Obama recalled how she first experienced the feeling when her school counselor told her she wasn’t “Princeton material”.

“I still remember that feeling of doubt, that feeling of another adult placing a barrier on me that I didn’t even have for myself,” she said. “The person whose job it was to help young people reach their dreams, she saw me and whatever she saw in me told me that my dreams were too high.”

Described as “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative, despite evidence of high achievement”, impostor syndrome is a common condition – in fact, it affects around 70% of us at some point in our lives. 

And it’s more prevalent in women, with two-thirds of women in the UK reporting that they have experienced it at work in the last year. 

Michelle obama impostor syndrome

“I still remember that feeling of doubt”

Brilliantly, Obama did make it to Princeton, but she never forgot her counselor’s words, and felt that she had a “stigma in [her] own head”.

So she found herself looking around and focusing on the Princeton students who weren’t as talented, or as hardworking, or as gifted as she was, helping her to realise that the doubts in her head were actually hers and hers alone.

“I had to overcome the question ‘am I good enough?’” she said. “It’s dogged me for most of my life. Many women and young girls walk around with that question in their minds.”

To tackle this insecurity, Obama had a simple plan: hard work, and plenty of it.

“I overcame that question the same way I do everything – with hard work,” she said. “I decided to put my head down and let my work speak for itself. I felt like I had something to prove because of the colour of my skin and the shape of my body, but I had to get out of my own way.”

michelle obama princeton

A young Michelle Obama at Princeton

Obama was clearly hoping to inspire some of her audience, which was made up of 300 (understandably) enthralled schoolgirls from both Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (EGA) School and Mulberry School. Obama has a long history with both schools, having first visited EGA in 2009 – a visit that would go on to inspire her focus on education during her time in the White House.

“It was a government-funded, inner-city secondary school in the Islington neighbourhood, not far from a set of council estates,” she wrote of the school, when describing her 2009 visit in Becoming. “More than 90% of the school’s nine hundred students were black or from an ethnic minority; a fifth of them were the children of immigrants or asylum seekers.

“I wasn’t fully prepared, though, to feel what I did when I set food inside the school,” she continued. “Something inside me began to quake. I almost felt myself falling backward into my own past…

“Their faces were hopeful, and now so was I. For me it was a strange, quiet revelation; they were me, as I’d once been. And I was them, as they could be.”

Michelle Obama impostor syndrome

Obama at EGA in 2009

Obama went on to invite 37 EGA students to hear her talk at Oxford University in 2011, and later invited some to visit her in the White House in 2012. She followed this up with a visit to Mulberry School in 2015, whose pupils she also invited to the White House later that year.

And she was clearly keen to be as honest as possible with her young audience, as she went on to describe how she still struggles with impostor syndrome today.

“It never goes away,” she said. “It’s sort of like ‘you’re actually listening to me?’ It doesn’t go away, that feeling of ‘I don’t know if the world should take me seriously; I’m just Michelle Robinson, that little girl on the south side who went to public school’…

“It takes time and maturity and successes under your belt to realise that you’re good enough.”

Becoming by Michelle Obama is available now.

Images: Copyright Callie Sell/Aurora Photos; Courtesy of the Obama-Robinson Archive; Getty Images; Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton; Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy

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