Editor’s Note: CNN Senior National Correspondent Sara Sidner moderates a timely discussion with former First Lady Michelle Obama, Amal Clooney and Melinda French Gates about their shared mission to empower girls across the globe. Watch exclusively on CNN Sunday, November 20 at 8 p.m. ET/PT.
I have a tormentor. And that tormentor is never far away. That tormentor is always ready to strike. That tormentor is me.
The torment is self-doubt. I’m a so damn tired of it. It is not always present. It tends to coyly creep in and then grow like a weed that strangles creativity, originality, motivation, novel ideas and, most of all, self-confidence.
It jabs me with cruelty, whispering in my ear that I don’t belong, that I can’t do it, that I am an imposter. It never recognizes accomplishments. It tells me my achievements are not mine but the result of luck or someone else’s brilliance.
When it beats me down to a feeling of almost nothingness before I disappear into despair, something inside me leaps up and fights like hell against it. That is what saves me from its grip.
I trick myself into believing that I am alone in this struggle with myself. It seems like everyone else has it together.
And then I sat down with three of the world’s most recognized, powerful, wealthy, well-educated and fierce women and asked them if they had ever experienced self-doubt.
They answered with stunning honesty that hit me like a defibrillator to the heart.
“Yes, every other moment I feel self-doubt,” former first lady Michelle Obama said matter-of-factly.
She did not stop there:
“Society intentionally does that to women and girls. It starts at a very early age. We question our value, our worth, we question how we look, how we talk, where we’re from. There are people with power who want us to stay small, they want us to stay doubtful, and so our culture reinforces that.”
Obama then offered her advice to young girls in particular who are struggling with self-doubt:
“The one thing I want young girls to understand is that those feelings are real, they are not crazy. They are indoctrinated in us all and we carry them around with us our entire lives,” she said. “I don’t care how far you go (in life), whether you go to the White House, you are constantly battling away those negative messages of being not enough. And yes, I deal with that too.”
A reminder of just some of the things that Michelle Obama has accomplished:
After growing up in Chicago’s South Side, she graduated cum laude from Princeton. She is a Harvard educated lawyer. At a Chicago law firm, she was a mentor to a man named Barack Obama who would later become her husband and the first African-American US president. She became America’s first Black first lady. She is a world traveler, a New York Times best-selling author, a philanthropist and a mother of two.
I’m exhausted just writing down all the things she has done so far in her life and yet she battles doubt too.
Melinda French Gates co-founded one of the world’s largest private charitable organizations. She was a general manager at Microsoft and a computer scientist. She holds an MBA from Duke University. She is consistently ranked as one of the world’s most powerful women by Forbes magazine.
And yet doubt finds a place in her life, too.
“I think it’s important to tell all girls that you can be whatever you want to be. You can be a mom and a working mom or a working woman and not a mom. Or be a mom and stay home. All of these choices are OK,” French Gates said.
She shared advice that she would have given to herself when she was younger:
“I would say to my 25-year-old self, you knew in high school who you were. And you let go of some of that for lots of reasons: situations, college, people around you,” French Gates said. “You knew who you were. And once you learn to ‘re-be’ the girl you were in high school, is when you grew into the full woman that you could be.”
Amal Clooney emigrated to England as a toddler with her family during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. Clooney, a lawyer, has become a force in the international courts representing victims of genocide, war crimes, mass atrocities and political persecution. She literally goes after war criminals.
And it turns out sometimes self-doubt comes along on her journeys to get justice. But she overcomes it with this mindset:
“I would say define failure as not trying. Because actually going for things and falling flat on your face is fine, it’s a learning experience, it makes you stronger,” Clooney said. “But if you don’t try and if you don’t actually follow your dreams or even admit what they are, and go for it, it’s something that will stay with you.”
So it turns out the only person we need to prove anything to is ourselves. Lesson learned, ladies. Lesson learned.