How Michelle Obama overcame her insecurities to discover her true purpose as first lady

Former first lady Michelle Obama receives a hug from a student as she meets with 20 high school senior girls at Whitney Young Magnet School on November 12, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. 
Scott Olson | Getty Images

With any new role, it can be easy to feel out of your depth.

Studies suggest that as many as 70 percent of people have suffered from a sense of inadequacy, or "imposter syndrome," at some stage in their lives. And it turns out, that's no different if you're the first lady of the United States.

Michelle Obama, in her new book "Becoming," reveals that she felt "overwhelmed," "unworthy" and "uncertain of [her] purpose" when her husband's appointment as president propelled her to become the country's first African-American first lady.

In fact, Obama said it wasn't until two months in, when she met with a group of schoolgirls from north London, that she figured out the real purpose of her role.

"At this point, I'd been first lady for just over two months," Obama writes in her memoir, released on Tuesday. "In different moments, I'd felt overwhelmed by the pace, unworthy of the glamour, anxious about our children, and uncertain of my purpose."

It was early 2009, and the Obamas were in the U.K. on their first official overseas visit. While President Barack Obama was meeting with officials, the then-first lady was invited to a government-funded, all-girls secondary school in London's Islington neighborhood. Like herself, the majority of the girls there were ethnic minorities from modest backgrounds.

US First Lady Michelle Obama watches a concert by pupils during a visit to the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School in Islington, north London. 
Dominic Lipinski - PA Images | Getty Images

As she watched a performance by the girls — a medley of Shakespeare, modern dance and a Whitney Houston song — she says she was transported to her past. Suddenly, she says, she couldn't help feeling disheartened by the barriers that inevitably lay ahead of them, no matter their academic abilities.

"You had only to look around at the faces in the room to know that despite their strengths, these girls would need to work hard to be seen," the former first lady says of the students at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School.

"There were girls in hijab, girls for whom English was a second language, girls whose skin made up every shade of brown," she says. "I knew they'd have to push back against the stereotypes that would get put on them, all the ways they'd be defined before they'd have a chance to define themselves."

But then she saw the young girls' optimism. In that moment, she says, she realized that despite her own feelings of inadequacy in the role, being first lady would open up a door of opportunity for so many others like her.

"Here, finally, speaking to those girls, I felt something completely different and pure — an alignment of my old self with this new role," writes Obama.

"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," she continues.

"The energy I felt thrumming in that school had nothing to do with obstacles. It was the power of 900 girls striving."

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