Our Deepest Fear Is Not That We Are Inadequate. Our Deepest Fear Is That We Are Powerful Beyond Measure

Nelson Mandela? Marianne Williamson?

Dear Quote Investigator: A mystical motivational speech begins with this line:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.

The speech has been attributed to statesman Nelson Mandela and spiritual author Marianne Williamson. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: In 1977 Marianne Williamson encountered the popular and controversial three-volume spiritual work “A Course in Miracles”. She studied the text and performed the workbook exercises which produced positive experiences in her life. In 1983 she began to lecture to small groups about her interpretation of the course. Her audience grew over time, and in 1992 she published the bestseller “A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles”. The following passage appeared in chapter seven. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do.

The passage by Williamson finished with the following sentence:

As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Within a few years the text above had implausibly been reassigned to Nelson Mandela. For example, in 1996 a columnist in “The Tennessean” of Nashville, Tennessee wrote this: 2

I like how Nelson Mandela put it in his inaugural address when he said:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant gorgeous, talented and fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God . . .

In 1998 “The New York Times” printed an item about the widespread misattribution: 3

Commencement speakers this year are turning to Nelson Mandela for words of inspiration to share with graduates. Hillary Rodham Clinton quoted the President of South Africa in her address to Howard University, as did the astronaut Mae C. Jemison in her speech to Duquesne University. Johnnetta B. Cole, the former president of Spelman College, cited him to Mount Holyoke.

The wisdom: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.

Problem is, Mr. Mandela never said it.

According to “The New York Times” the commencement orators should have credited Marianne Williamson.

The 2004 compilation “Women’s Wicked Wisdom: From Mary Shelley to Courtney Love” included the following entry: 4

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
Marianne Williamson

In 2007 the website of the Nelson Mandela Foundation posted an article about the misattribution: 5

In her book A return to love: Reflections on the principles of a course in miracles, Ms Marianne Williamson writes “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” This quote, and especially Williamson’s closing words “As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others,” is often incorrectly credited to Mr Mandela.

This quotation is commonly thought to come from Mr Mandela’s 1994 inaugural speech as president of South Africa; however Mr Mandela did not use the quotation in any of the three public addresses at the time of his inauguration.

In 2017 the verified twitter account of Marianne Williamson tweeted that CNN (Cable News Network) had misattributed her words to Nelson Mandela: 6

For those who saw my quote from A RETURN TO LOVE misattributed to Nelson Mandela last night on the CNN Heroes Awards show, here is the Mandela Foundation official correction: https://www.nelsonmandela.org/news/entry/deepest-fear-quote-not-mr-mandelas/ …. I’d be honored had Mr. Mandela quoted the words, but he didn’t. An urban myth.

In conclusion, Marianne Williamson should receive credit for the passage she wrote in 1992. The attribution of the words to Nelson Mandela is incorrect.

Image Notes: Silhouette illustration of figure with open arms from avi_acl at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Gabriele Ermen whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks also to Christine Zhang who pointed to a June 2019 article in “The New York Times” that described this common misquotation. In addition, thanks to previous researchers such as Ralph Keyes and Fred R. Shapiro who identified this misquotation.)

Notes:

  1. 1992, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles by Marianne Williamson, Chapter 7: Work, Quote Page 165, Published by HarperCollins, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1996 February 16, The Tennessean, Section: Weekend, Just being ordinary human being is an extraordinary thing by Fiona Soltes (Staff Writer), Quote Page 3, Column 4, Nashville, Tennessee. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1998 June 3, New York Times, Quoting Mandela, but for One Problem, Quote Page B12, Column 2, New York. (ProQuest)
  4. 2004, Women’s Wicked Wisdom: From Mary Shelley to Courtney Love by Michelle Lovric, Chapter: Life & How To Live It, Quote Page 17, Chicago Review Press, Chicago, Illinois. (Verified with scans)
  5. Website: Nelson Mandela Foundation: Living the Legacy, Article title: ‘Deepest fear’ quote not Mr Mandela’s, Date on website: November 9, 2007, Website description: The Nelson Mandela Foundation was established in 1999 when its Founder, Mr Nelson Mandela, stepped down as the President of South Africa; its mission is “to contribute to the making of a just society by promoting the legacy of Nelson Mandela, providing an integrated public information resource on his life and times, and convening dialogue around critical social issues”. (Accessed nelsonmandela.org on June 30, 2019) link
  6. Tweet, From: Marianne Williamson @marwilliamson, Time: 5:56 PM, Date: December 18, 2017, Text: For those who saw my quote from A RETURN TO LOVE misattributed… (Accessed on twitter.com on June 30, 2019) link