It was fun and heartwarming to interview Tara Sophia Mohr for the Confidence Chronicles – True Stories of Becoming Strong series.
I learned a lot. I believe you will too.
Take a few deep breaths, slow yourself down and fall into the pleasure & wisdom of Tara’s words.
About Tara: Tara Sophia Mohr is following her calling: restoring women’s voices where they are missing in order to amplify women’s impact in the world – both for the well-being of women and for the well-being of our civilization.
This calling led her to create two anthologies of Jewish women’s writings about the Passover holiday, giving thousands of families a way to add women’s perspectives to a religious ritual where women’s voices had been entirely absent.
It drives much of her present work: coaching women leaders, leading the Playing Big global women’s leadership program, and leading The Girl Effect Blogging Campaign, through which hundreds of bloggers write about the importance of investing in girls’ education in the developing world.
Tara believes most brilliant women don’t see their own brilliance and are “playing small” and they know it: not speaking up, doubting themselves, seeing themselves as “not yet ready” to launch the big idea, the organization, to put themselves at the table. The 10 Rules, and the other work she does with women leaders are about learning how to quiet self-doubt, clarify purpose, and become comfortable with taking bold action in the workplace and in the world.
Cherry: You coach women, brilliant women, and you say that most of the time they don’t own their brilliance, or they don’t see it. I was wondering if you see your own brilliance.
Tara: <slight scream> Oh, you’re starting with such a hard question. <good naturedly> Where do you get off doing that?
I have the same struggles as so many women and that’s why I have been able to see this issue clearly. We can perceive what’s in other people when it’s also alive in us.
I have a lot of interest in helping women:
- play bigger
- find their voice
- share their voice in the world
My interest in these challenges comes from being on that journey myself. I’m up against the same things that get in all of our ways. So it’s a topic that is continually part of me.
Cherry: I know that with myself. The reason that I work with women and confidence – particularly related to choices they make for their “future selves” – is because of similar issues I’ve had and the tremendous learnings I’ve had because of my experiences.
Tara: Yes, yes.
Cherry: You’ve said you don’t think it’s possible for you or anyone to completely overcome self-doubts.
Tara: That is my point of view.
My perspective is that we are hard wired to have a vicious inner critic inside. The inner critic manifests itself a little bit differently in each of us.
It might be saying, “Oh, this is gonna go horribly” creating in you a picture of the worst-case scenario before you give a presentation, or go into a negotiation, or send off an email.
Or it might be telling you
- you’re no good
- you’re not qualified
- you don’t know enough
- you’re a this, you’re a that
Or it might be talking to you about the size of your thighs.
Whatever it is, we all have a form of that inner critic voice, and I actually believe that voice is our instinct for safety, our original, very ancient and primitive instinct for physical safety.
It’s the alarm bell in our system that was designed to warn us of danger — a physical danger to us, a predator or a potential disease spreading and trying to keep us safe and alive. It’s an evolutionary instinct.
That instinct for physical safety now, in our modern era, when our physical safety is not at risk, is firing all the time when we are facing potential emotional danger or emotional risk such as criticism or failure. So that alarm bell sounds any time we’re really stretching and making ourselves vulnerable to possible emotional discomfort or hurt or pain.
The instinct for safety tries to keep us in a box by voicing those self doubts. It’s kind of like, if it’s mean enough to us, it can push us right back into the safety zone.
Cherry: How do you deal with self-doubt when it creeps in for you? How do you get past it?
Tara: I like to use the metaphor of a guy driving in the lane next to me on the highway and he won’t get ahead of me and he won’t really go behind me.
It’s really annoying ’cause he’s kind of right there, neck and neck with my car, distracting me. I always picture the car like a beat up minivan and there’s a guy with his elbow hanging out the window. It’s just distracting.
That’s how I think of the voice of fear or the voice of the inner critic. It can be present, along side of us, and we can be aware of it but we don’t have to crash because of it.
We can learn to just notice it as that slightly annoying, slightly distracting thing. We don’t have to take direction from that voice because we’ve recognized it doesn’t tell the truth.
Cherry: Okay, got it. That was a good metaphor. I like it. I’m going to picture that beat-up mini-van driving beside me with an irritating guy hanging out his window the next time I hear my inner critic. I can ignore him or change my speed to get the guy out of my peripheral vision.
Tara: Good. Good.
Cherry: When I was doing research for this call, I came upon a paradox, or at least something I saw as a paradox. You said you lost some of your confidence while getting your higher education; yet when most of us think about higher education, we think about it as something that generally bestows confidence on people. Can you talk about that?
Tara: Yes, it’s a topic I find really fascinating.
I was privileged to have a very high quality prestigious education. I did my undergraduate degree at Yale. I was an English major studying Shakespeare and poetry in a very competitive environment. Then after working in the non-profit sector for a few years, I decided to go back to school to learn how to manage organizations and learn more about leadership. I went to business school at Stanford University.
Those experiences developed my mind, particularly my left brain, but they did not nurture my heart or soul. In fact they were very tough places for my heart and soul. They’re competitive and patriarchal by nature. Both of those schools are still quite male dominated.
It was difficult to ever find or share my voice. To take risks. To find a place that felt like home.
Since getting my degrees and going out on my own – pursuing what I love and working with brilliant women – the more I find I am not at all unique in that story, that for many women higher education is an experience of becoming very dislocated and disconnected from their own voices.
In fact, in the classes that I teach on the inner critic and on playing bigger, I’m getting brilliant women in the classes who know they are not playing big. It’s a diverse group, but I often have women PhD students or professors from some of the top academic institutions in the country, and they are really struggling with issues of voice and confidence.
Cherry: That’s upsetting.
Tara: I think it’s hugely upsetting. We are taking our best minds, talented young women, and we’re putting them into a system that does not work for many of them.
There are some women who really thrive within that environment. But for many of them, they come out the other side with the degree but without a solidity and confidence in their own voice.
Cherry: I’m sitting here, as you can tell, almost speechless, which is rare for me. I’m thinking about you and what I know about you and that wonderful story – I believe it’s on your website – that you told about when you were 14 years old and your school didn’t have coming-of-age stories about women, and you started a brilliant campaign to change that.
You were willing to take on the system at age 14, which is a tough age for kids. You used your voice then, and I juxtapose that with the fact it was in higher education at prestigious schools, who had accepted you as meeting their standards, and yet that’s where you lose your voice.
Recently I was thinking about this because I was in an environment where there were a lot of university administrators and college students and I was thinking about what would happen if we were to look at the whole university and graduate school experience through the lens of relationships.
If we were to look at relationships as a key source of grounding, nourishment, psychological health, how would the college experience fare? I think for many schools, it would fare very poorly because you’re taking kids away from many of their connections.
You are not giving them any support. Maybe there’s a senior student who lives in the dorm or a couple who lives in the dorm who are serving 300 people. They’re not in any kind of small group setting or a mentorship setting. They’re given a lot of new challenges and stresses without support.
I think about that a lot because I’m a very relational person. I need a sense of connection and belonging to find my platform for sharing my voice. The kinds of institutions where most kids get higher education don’t ground people in that. It’s really left to chance.
Cherry: Agreed. And again unfortunate for many, many people, not just women, I’m sure.
Women perhaps fare worse because overall, I mean, it’s a generalization, but overall we are more relational than men. But it’s got to be difficult for both genders.
Tara: If you look at the rates of binge drinking, substance abuse, eating disorders, depression, and anxiety on campuses, it’s not a picture of thriving human beings. I think many college institutions have not taken responsibility for students’ well-being, just their education. And I think that’s unfortunate.
Cherry: Right, ’cause that’s only dealing with part of the person, obviously.
It was after you received both degrees that you stopped writing for about seven years. You said that you were too afraid to write because your inner critic told you, you couldn’t live up to all the praise you’d previously received on your writing, which is yet another paradox.
Tara: Yes. Writing is one of my deep, deep loves and it is so core to who I am now and was when I was growing up, but I think two things happened.
One, I believe that the inner critic voice and the critical thinking part of our mind are like very close cousins and when we’re strengthening the critical thinker in our minds we can often accidentally strengthen the inner critic. So in academic institutions if you are analyzing everything and analyzing literature and critiquing poems and everything is coming from that evaluative point of view, how can you sit down and write something without your own mind shredding it to pieces?
Cherry: That’s a really good observation.
Tara: I think that’s why so many academics struggle with their own creativity and playfulness. Their critical mind is so strengthened and then it gets applied to everything.
But the other piece that you’re referring to is I really had an a-ha moment when I read Carol Dweck’s research. She’s a psychology researcher at Stanford, and she’s looked at the negative effects of praise on kids, and one of the things she sees is that when you praise children in a way that emphasizes their inherent talent or gifts when you say, “Oh you’re such a great writer”, “Oh you’re so good at math”, or “Oh, you’re such a great soccer player”, that children then become less willing to take on challenges or stretches or new tasks in the area where they’ve just been praised, because they believe they’re not gonna live up to the praise, and ruin it.
With children who were given a compliment about their effort: “Wow you put so much effort into studying for that English test, I’m so proud of you” or “Wow, you’re a really hard worker” – those kids will leap to the next challenge because they think it’s gonna get them more praise around how hard of a worker they are.
Cherry: I know that research. My son and daughter-in-law took in a foster child that they’re now adopting. One of the parenting books my daughter-in-law read was Raising Happiness and she gave to me. It refers to that research. It was valuable and interesting.
Many parents have, with great wonderful intentions, been giving their kids tons of compliments on their inherent abilities, without knowing there could be negative consequences.
Tara: Praise can often be a trap and it certainly made me a little bit afraid. When I wrote that blog post, so many people wrote and said, “Oh, my gosh. That’s exactly what happened to me and now I can put my finger on it.”
Cherry: In your individual coaching and playing big program you work with women to help them recognize their brilliance. Go from playing small to playing big. How do you handle the issue of praise with the women, Tara?
Tara: That’s great. I really believe that acknowledging the potential and the brilliance of people’s ideas is a great thing to do. I think that when I share feedback – and I think this is a great rule for feedback in general – I like to share the impact that someone’s idea, or whatever, has had on me. So I might say to someone, “I’m so moved by the work you’ve done on yourself over the past two weeks”. Of course it has to be authentic and then they feel the power of themselves but it’s not about someone telling them who they are.
I think that’s a great rule for giving praise or criticism in general because whenever we give feedback we’re really only talking about the impact that someone has had on us.
Cherry: I started thinking about my 4 year old granddaughter. I know about praising for effort, trying not to praise just for results but it can be difficult sometimes. All of a sudden the words are out of my mouth. It’s like, “Oh, darn. That wasn’t the best way to say it.”
I’ll have to think about praise in terms of the impact on me ’cause there’s certainly ways that I can do that too.
Tara: I notice for myself too that praise and criticism become very distracting when I am not clear about my own reasons for doing something, and therefore, I’m looking to the praise or criticism for my own validation. So praise and criticism used to be so weighty for me in terms of writing.
The way that I actually reclaimed my writing and got it back was when I became so frustrated and hurt so much from not having that creative outlet in my life. So there was a day when I said, “I am taking this back for me”. I finally fully understood the writing has to be for me and it’s less important what other people think.
And so as a result of that, when people praise my writing, I still enjoy it, but it’s gone from being the cake to the icing on the cake, and that is a really big difference.
Cherry: I am very glad that you are to that point and that you’ve come back into your writing, because your writing is beautiful.
This is a wonderful note to wrap up this interview: To feel good about yourself, look internally for a sense of self worth rather than for external validation. I think that you made that point very well, Tara, and thank you so much.
Tara: Thank you, Cherry.
What effect has praise and/or higher education had on you? Let’s get the dialogue going in the comment section.