Oprah Winfrey is an expert on how to “live your best life” — but is the true secret to her success that she’s never questioned whether she deserves it? While discussing her latest book, “Build the Life You Want: The Art and Science of Getting Happier,” co-authored with Arthur C. Brooks, the “queen of all media” revealed that she’s never experienced the all-too-common feeling known as “imposter syndrome.”
“I don’t have any of that imposter feelings that so many people have,” she told People magazine. “I didn’t even understand it; I had to look it up.”
For those unfamiliar, imposter syndrome — also known as “imposter phenomenon,” “fraud syndrome,” “imposterism,” or “perceived fraudulence” — entered the lexicon in 1978, thanks to psychologists Suzanne Imes, Ph.D., and Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D. Tellingly, it was first observed as a feeling common among “successful women and other marginalized groups,” notes the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The phenomenon has since been defined as “a behavioral health phenomenon described as self-doubt of intellect, skills, or accomplishments among high-achieving individuals.”
Researchers further explain that individuals experiencing imposter syndrome (IS) “cannot internalize their success and subsequently experience pervasive feelings of self-doubt, anxiety, depression, and/or apprehension of being exposed as a fraud in their work, despite verifiable and objective evidence of their successfulness.”
Undisputedly one of the most successful people in the world, Oprah recalls that her now-measured response to success and failure was instilled early on by her father.
“I remember as a young girl being a strong orator in the national competition for speaking and winning the local championships, then the state championships. And then placing, I think it was No. 3 or something, in the nationals,” she said. “And I remember after every contest, the families whose kids were just in the contest were going to celebrate, and their families were all excited. My father’s thing was, ‘Get your coat.’”
She continued, “I learned, in all these years, every exciting thing that would happen to me it was always, ‘That’s good, get your coat.’ Get your coat. I don’t know if that was ingrained in my personality or I just learned that nobody’s going to be excited about it, so you might as well just get your coat and go. I don’t have high highs, and I don’t have low lows. Which is a good thing, because no matter what I’m going through, I know I’m going to come out of it and be OK.”
Easier said than done; if you’ve ever experienced imposter syndrome, you’re far from alone. In fact, even one of Oprah’s mentors, the venerable poet, author and academic Maya Angelou, once admitted, “I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’”
While heavily discussed, there is no concrete biodata on imposter syndrome. However, it is worth noting that, just as it was 45 years ago, it is more commonly observed “in females than males and in marginalized groups (minority racial and ethnic groups, socioeconomic status),” according to NIH, adding: “Groups with a reportedly high prevalence of [imposter syndrome] include students, minority groups, and select workforce members in high-pressure, high-stakes settings.”
In short, imposter syndrome seems most commonly observed among demographics who have historically been challenged on their worthiness, intelligence and eligibility. Further, there is a correlation between IS and disorders like burnout, depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues, including maladaptive personality traits that can lead to serious disorders like alcohol and substance abuse, eating disorders, and even self-harm.
As a Black woman from humble beginnings, Oprah’s seeming ability to escape this level of self-doubt to achieve historic success is especially remarkable. As the 69-year-old media maven tells People, rather than causing her to question her deservedness, it is due to her marginalized background that she is “proud of [herself].”
“I look around at the space that I’ve created for myself, and I recognize that I came from a great-grandfather who was a slave and who for 10 years after slavery could not read, but 10 years after slavery could read. And who negotiated with a local farmer to pick 2,000 bales of cotton in exchange for 80 acres of land,” she said. “And so, now that I sit on land that I own, land that I worked for, learned land that I earned, I feel the essence and presence of all that has come before me to allow me to be in this space.”
“I didn’t have a grandfather, a great-grandfather who could give me land,” she added. “But now…I am able to have my own and to know that I work for it. And it wasn’t a husband that did it. It wasn’t a brother or an uncle or whatever did it, but I did it.”
As she told People, she did it by leveraging the low expectations others might have of a Black woman — while she grew “The Oprah Winfrey Show” into a multimedia empire.
[That was] “the real reason I was able to own that show and have the percentages of the show,” she said. “They would’ve never agreed to it if they had thought that it would … Never.”
So, how do you fight imposter syndrome? Professional intervention and support may be the best defense for some, but it also helps to remember the famous adage, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Oprah and her co-author Brooks agree that true satisfaction takes both effort and self-recognition. It also entails seeking fulfillment through the process rather than fleeting feelings of happiness, external validation, or ultimate perfection in the result — all of which are unsustainable. For Oprah, that means “the ability to live in the space of true appreciation for a life; not just well lived, but well-earned.”
Maiysha Kai is theGrio’s lifestyle editor, covering all things Black and beautiful. Her work is informed by two decades of experience in fashion and entertainment, great books, and the brilliance of Black culture. She is also the editor-author of Body: Words of Change series.
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