“You’re more than enough, Michelle. You always have been and you always will be.”
Have you ever felt as if you’re blushing and bluffing your way through the working day? Have you doubted your own worth? And has some small secret voice from deep within yourself ever whispered not-so-sweet nothings in your ear? “One day they’re going to find out that you don’t know anything,” it insists, “and that’ll be it for you.”
You’re not alone: ‘impostor syndrome’ affects plenty of us on a daily basis – and it can strike anyone, no matter how successful or famous they are. Even Michelle Obama, easily one of America’s most beloved First Ladies, has now admitted that she used to feel as if she wasn’t… well, not that she wasn’t good enough, but that she wasn’t enough full stop.
As such, the Becoming author has, as a part of CBS News’ Note to Self series, written a letter to her younger self, giving advice to the young woman heading off to college at Princeton. And what she has to say is incredibly powerful.
“Dear Miche,” the letter begins. “There you are, in your jean jacket and braids, a long way from that little apartment on the South Side of Chicago. You’re at one of the finest universities in the world. You’re smiling, and you should be, you worked hard for this. But even now, after you reached your goal, you’re still not quite sure if you belong and can’t get one question out of your mind: ‘Am I good enough?’ There aren’t many kids here who look like you. Some arrived on campus in limousines. One of your classmates is a bona fide movie star, another is rumored to be a real-life princess. Meanwhile, you got dropped off by your father in the family sedan.”
Obama continues: “Years from now, you’ll learn that your parents had to take out new credit cards to pay your tuition. But Michelle, what you’ll come to realise one day is that you’re only seeing what you lack and not everything that your story has given you. You grew up surrounded by soul and jazz and a deep, anchoring love. Your parents taught you to keep your word and treat people with respect. They encouraged you to develop your own voice and use it. Those lessons are more valuable than anything material. They’ll come in handy in the future, in settings I won’t spoil for you right now.”
Of course, the former First Lady of the United States reflects on her relationship with her now-husband, Barack, as well as the births of their two children.
“You’ll open your heart to someone whose upbringing was nothing and everything like yours, all at the same time,” she says. “He’s driven by a hopeful set of ideals. He’s grounded and kind and absolutely brilliant. And he’s pretty good looking, too. I thought you’d appreciate that. His certainty about his path will feel like a challenge to yours. You’ll learn that even the best relationships take work but that’s okay, that’s normal and it’s what gives your partnership its strength… yet you’ll still struggle to find a balance between your family, your husband’s rising career, and your own sense of self. Be patient. You’ll get there.
“And just when you think you’ve done it, the four of you will be shot out of a cannon into the unknown.”
Obama goes on to reflect on her years in the White House, admitting that “everything you’ve fought for so hard – stability, balance, confidence – will feel like it’s at risk.”
Addressing the countless trolls who have spoken out against her, she adds: “You’ll be attacked by people who’ve never met you and don’t really care to. They’ll try to harm you for their own gain. Don’t stoop to their level, no matter how gratifying it might feel in the moment. Hold tight to those values your parents taught you.”
And, while she admits that her countless fans will make it “easy to think you’re something special”, Obama advises herself to “remember that there are millions of people who grew up like you did and don’t get this kind of spotlight.”
“Reflect the light back on them,” she says. “There are so many people out there like you, Miche. Black girls and minorities of all kinds, working-class kids from big cities and small towns, people who doubt themselves, who are uncertain about whether they belong but have so much to offer the world. Share your story with them, the struggles and the triumphs and everything else. Show them that there’s more beauty inside than they can see right now.”
She concludes her letter by writing: “You’re more than enough, Miche. You always have been and you always will be. And I can’t wait for you to see that.”
Of course, Obama is not the first woman in the spotlight to address her impostor syndrome – and we doubt she will be the last. In 2016, Lupita Nyong’o shared her own self-doubt with Time Out: saying: “What’s it called when you have a disease and it keeps recurring? I go through [acute impostor syndrome] with every role. I think winning an Oscar may in fact have made it worse. 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.”
Emma Watson, similarly, told Rookie: It’s almost like the better I do, the more my feeling of inadequacy actually increases, because I’m just going, ‘Any moment, someone’s going to find out I’m a total fraud, and that I don’t deserve any of what I’ve achieved. I can’t possibly live up to what everyone thinks I am and what everyone’s expectations of me are’.
“It’s weird — sometimes [success] can be incredibly validating, but sometimes it can be incredibly unnerving and throw your balance off a bit, because you’re trying to reconcile how you feel about yourself with how the rest of the world perceives you.”
And even Jodie Foster, in her interview with 60 Minutes, said she thought winning her Oscar for The Accused was “a big fluke”.
“I thought it was a big fluke. The same way when I walked on the campus at Yale, I thought everybody would find out, and then they’d take the Oscar back.”
Speaking about impostor syndrome previously, at a school in London’s Islington, Obama said: “I still have a little [bit of] impostor syndrome, it never goes away, that you’re actually listening to me.
“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.
“If I’m giving people hope then that is a responsibility, so I have to make sure that I am accountable.”
She added: “”We don’t have any choice but to make sure we elders are giving our young people a reason to hope.”