What Is Impostor Syndrome? Michelle Obama Says She Suffers From Common Psychological Phenomenon

Michelle Obama told an audience in London Monday that she has long felt “impostor syndrome” over her status as a “symbol of hope.”

The former first lady was speaking with author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at a sell-out event to promote her autobiography, Becoming, the BBC reported.

“I still have a little impostor syndrome, it never goes away, that you're actually listening to me,” she told the audience at the Southbank Centre.

"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."

The term “impostor phenomenon” was coined in a 1978 paper by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, who noticed that successful women sometimes expressed fears that their achievements were down to luck.

“Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the impostor phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise,” the paper stated.

Read more: Michelle Obama says "I have been at every powerful table you can think of...They are not that smart"

GettyImages-1076856202 Former U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama speaks with Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at The Royal Festival Hall on December 03, 2018 in London, England. Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Subsequent research has shown impostor syndrome isn’t limited to women, and can affect people in all walks of life. Something like 70 percent of people may experience the phenomenon, according to a 2011 article published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science.  

Clance went on to create a test which estimates how severely impostor phenomenon encroaches on an individual’s life.

"Despite evidence to the contrary, millions of perfectly bright, capable people have difficulty internalizing or owning their accomplishments. Instead, they attribute them to things like luck, timing and personality," imposter syndrome expert and author Valerie Young told Newsweek. "People who experience impostor feelings worry that others will find out they are not as 'smart' or talented as everyone 'thinks' they are."

There are plenty of reasons why someone might experience impostor feelings, Young added, from parents and teachers that constantly tell kids they are smart to occupations that test intellect day in, day out.

It’s not an official psychiatric disorder, as listed in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, but the feelings of self-doubt impostor syndrome breeds can lead to stress, depression and anxiety, Psychology Today previously reported.

Young recommended three crucial steps for dealing with impostor syndrome. Firstly, she said, it's important to normalize impostor feelings. "When we realize that fear and self-doubt are normal, you can stop trying to eliminate impostor feelings, and instead focus on talking yourself down faster."

Next, you need to "reframe" your thoughts. Instead of thinking, "Oh my God, I have no idea what I’m doing,” when surprised with a huge project, for example, try thinking, "Wow, I’m really going to learn a lot,” Young advised. 

Finally, she said its important to keep trying to change your thoughts, even if you don't feel any better at first. "Over time, you’ll start to believe the new thoughts and your feelings will slowly catch up."

In the end, "the only way to stop feeling like an impostor, is to stop thinking like an impostor."

During her talk, Obama similarly advised young women experiencing self-doubt to work on getting “those demons out of your head."

She also reassured audience members that people in positions of power weren’t as intelligent as they might appear. "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," she said.

This article has been updated to include comment from Valerie Young.

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