Overcoming Imposter Syndrome by Normalizing Hardship

Michelle Obama was asked what hurt her most during her tenure as First Lady. She responded by saying, “The shards that cut me the deepest were the ones that intended to cut,” referring to the negative comments on social media. Among such comments include ‘she is an ape in heels,’ ‘her daughters don’t like her,’ and ‘I really think she is a man.’

She did not say things like, ‘’I’m too self-confident to get affected by comments from people I do not know’’. Or, “words don’t affect me.” Or, “the person saying that is too low for me to get affected by what they say.’’ She expressed the hardship that she experienced … and she is among the most powerful people in the world. So …

Emotional exposure

What makes us want to appear as if difficult moments do not feature in our lives? What makes us feel a need to show the world and ourselves that negative experiences do not affect us? Yes, sometimes we don’t even allow ourselves to feel the pain. We go into denial.

Is that human?

This way of being possibly comes from comfort. The comfort of not being emotionally exposed. (When have we ever grown from a place of comfort? … but that’s another article). Emotional exposure is not something we are used to seeing. Therefore, we probably haven’t learnt and hence do not know how to BE in emotional exposure. For example, as children, most of the ‘well-adjusted’ adults around us very rarely showed the emotions that come along with hardship. Maybe because they had to ‘be strong’ for the young ones. As a result, they appeared to have ‘had it all figured out.’ So, there and then, we might have internalized an inverse correlation: the less hardship, the more one ‘has it all figured out.’

Keeping score

Now that we are adults, we all have an idea the hardships that come along with figuring things out. While speaking on the topic of leadership, Warren Buffet talked about the inner scorecard (what goes on internally) vs. the outer scorecard (what we present to the world). We are constantly bombarded with the outer scorecard of those ‘ahead’ of us. Of those we aspire to be like. The outer scorecard of being cool, calm, and collected … and the number of likes on social media. So, we use this as a benchmark, something to work towards. An unrealistic benchmark. A benchmark that even the most powerful people in the world do not meet.

Imposter syndrome is defined as ‘despite having numerous degrees, accolades and various honours, you still feel perpetually incapable, unqualified, or unsuccessful.’ Valerie Young, an expert on imposter syndrome, talks about a link between a sense of belonging and imposter syndrome in an article in TIME magazine. “A sense of belonging fosters confidence. The more people who look or sound like you, the more confident you feel. And conversely, the fewer people who look or sound like you, it can and does for many people impact their confidence.” You may experience imposter syndrome because you do not know that other people in a similar position as you are going through hardships, just like you are.

You do not know this because you only know of their outer scorecard. Many people do not talk about their hardships, so you may think that you are an isolated case for experiencing the hardships in your path. Hence, you feel like an imposter. You don’t see your success. You don’t own it. Sad. Yet, you are being human. Embrace your humanness in its entirety. That includes the pain, the hurt, the doubts, the difficult moments. Own that too.


One way to BE in pain and keep moving is by embracing self-compassion. And no, by self-compassion, I am not talking about manicures and massages (those don’t hurt though). I am talking about truly seeing, accepting and being unapologetic about your humanness: the wins, the losses, the accuracy, the mistakes, the comfort, the pain, the ease, the difficulties, the yin and the yang. Accepting that you do get affected by things, both negatively and positively. And understanding that everyone does. It is a shared state of being. You are not experiencing this in isolation. Be there for yourself, the way you would a dear friend.

Then, start crafting a way forward. In this way, you are able to think more clearly—as opposed to denying the uncomfortable feelings, causing your clarity of thought to be compromised and clouded by denial, self-judgement, and ‘faking it.’ Kirsten Neff, an associate professor conducting research on self-compassion, speaks more about this in an article featured in the BBC website’s WorkLife section. The article describes how self-compassion, and not self-esteem, leads to success.

Picture this. A young person, currently overwhelmed in hardship, listening to Michelle Obama talk about ‘shards that cut her deepest,’ yet, she pushed, and continues to push through. How would this young person feel after learning this about Michelle Obama? Inspired?

That’s positive influence. That’s power. That’s leadership.

Anne is  certified Integral Coach based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Through her unconventional approach, she loves to unlock potential by paying particular attention to the individual’s unique essential self.

Photo by Bonface on Unsplash