This summer as I’m taking some downtime, I’m sharing some of my favorite and your favorite posts from the archives. Hope you enjoy these selections!

Love, Tara

I didn’t grow up in a rough environment. I grew up being told, almost every day, that I was special.

I grew up with lots of love from my family.

I got a good education and good grades.

I got lots of feedback that I was intelligent, talented and could do all kinds of things in the world.

So how is it that I ended up self-doubting, not really doing my thing in the world, and had to fight like hell to find my way back?

What happened? How does it happen to so many of us?

I don’t know the answer, but I have some ideas about the strains of the answer for me.

One strain has to do with what Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck has uncovered in her pioneering research. Her studies show that when children are praised for their innate abilities (i.e. “You are so smart. You are so good at math”) they become paralyzed by the compliments. Rather than becoming more confident, they become averse to doing the activity again, because they are afraid of disproving the compliment. They become afraid of falling short, particularly as the level of challenge increases. Sound familiar?

On the other hand, children that are praised for their effort (“Wow, you worked so hard to learn that – great job!”) learn to link effort with validation and love, and they go back in, again and again, for other challenges. Rather than getting caught up in ideas about their intrinsic abilities (am I good at this or not, smart or not, etc.) they fall in love with the process of working at something to get better at it.

I’ve written about this before here, because when I read Dweck’s research it so strongly resonated with my own experience. In my childhood, I was so used to being told I was brilliant and amazing, so used to being at the top of the class that I found it very difficult to stay in the game when I wasn’t.

As my talents put me in ever more competitive environments, excelling at anything came to involve lot of trial and error, and receiving a lot of negative feedback. I wasn’t used to that, at all. I found it intolerable, emotionally, creatively. I stopped doing the creative things I loved, like dance, theater, and to some extent, writing poetry. I turned to more left-brain pursuits where my performance felt less high-stakes, and that was one of the major turns I took away from my authentic self and my right work.

The other thing that happened was that I lost my spiritual connection. For me, playing big and making an impact has always come from a spiritual foundation. For me, achievement itself has always stemmed from a spiritual foundation.

What I mean by that is this: when I get down on my knees in the morning, and say, to a power greater than myself, “I want to be of service, I want to bring more light and love and sanity into this world,” when I have a regular connection to spiritual texts – from book of John to the Tao De Ching to Pema Chodron -then…big ideas start flowing.

With those ideas come inspiration and motivation that give me a magic carpet ride into action. And with all of that are tears in my eyes, and a sense of poignancy and gratitude about the miracle that I get to do this next thing, that I get to serve and live and express in this particular way.

I remember the first time I realized, with some shock, that spiritual connection translated to all kinds of achievement in the secular realm. These ideas and sense of purpose I would receive through my spiritual life would win me all kinds of awards, and got me into the most prestigious schools. This seemed like a big secret most people didn’t know about – the secret of what actually can bring achievement and success. It’s certainly not the only road to worldly success, but it’s seems much more pleasant than the toiling and scheming one. When I fell out of that spiritual connection, I lost my access to the guidance and inspiration for sharing my voice in the world.

The third thing that happened had to do with my environment. Though it had many, many strengths, my university was not, for me, a particularly empowering or supportive place. I just never quite found my voice there, my creative self or my leader self. I’m not sure why this is – I think it had something to do with being suddenly uprooted from everything I knew to go there. I think it had something to do with the patriarchal and conservative nature of the culture. And it had to do with the way my need for a very safe environment for my creative work couldn’t be met there.

All three of those strands: the need for praise I brought into adult life, the loss of spiritual connection, and the environment I was in – each contributed to a piece of loss of self. I can see that now that I’m on the other side. I can see how each piece created the other – how, for example, my university context contributed to that loss of spiritual connection, how stopping my creative pursuits was such a painful denial of the the truth of me that it then became uncomfortable to face my life during that spiritual time – so the spiritual time fell away.

Right-path-hood, connection to self, is a virtuous cycle and a vicious one. When we gain one anchor in our lives that connects us to our core, authentic selves, we literally gain energy to create more of that. When we lose some strand connection to ourselves, we are weakened by that, and are therefore much more likely to lose more strands soon.

As a coach, I never asked my clients “why” questions, because “why” sends us into the past and sends us into an analytical mode – neither of which are so potent for making change in the present. Most of all, I don’t ask why questions because it immediately sends our minds into hypothesis-making, and we tend to make up answers in order to answer the question asked. Our “why” suppositions, full of projections and denial and oversimplifications, are usually wrong.

But as I teach my course on Playing Big, and as my work increasingly grows in this direction of helping women recover their voices, I want to know why. I want to pull back the camera, go up for the birds eye view, look at the landscape, and ask: “Why? What happened here? How did so many of us lose and shut down our voices, or turn away from our right paths? What is the primary, fundamental cause, if there is one, and what are the secondary ripples that happen from there? Why are so many of us still paralyzed in sharing our voices in the world?”

Why? What happened for you? Please tell me in the comments.

Love,
Tara

Join the discussion 26 Comments

  • liz says:

    Thank you for the post on “what happened” – it gave me food for thoughts as I drove home from work. I spent the last 19 months on a sabbatical from the rational brained work I landed in over 20 years before. All of the three points you made were fitting – the relationship between ‘being smart’ ‘top of the class’ and not wanting to fail – stakes too high, so not pursuing was easier. And what most resonated was the spiritual foundation as the base to success, rather than the ‘toil and scheming’ – amen. I pray to live that truth, as you have done. Everyday I pray and I think for me it’s about letting go. Thanks again.

  • Darlene Cary says:

    Tara – I agree the whys can take us into a never-ending loop that can keep us from our “productive” work.

    I think a balance is needed to delve the whys while stepping into our true voice. Ideally, one can feed the other.

  • Lindsay says:

    This post is very inspiring and causes me to ask myself “why?” on a number of issues. The praise as a child really resonates and it’s one of those things that I had never thought about from that perspective. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in therapy trying to figure out what my happy healthy life looks like and I couldn’t pin anything wrong on my upbringing because my parents were so full of praise. But the point you bring up is so true. It makes sense as to why I stopped doing things that could have been great but I was afraid of failing. And why I need so much outside validation in everything I do today. The validation piece is something that currently frustrates me so much about myself because it’s not healthy for me to need so much of it especially given how it can often lead me astray doing things that aren’t right for me or hurtful to those I love I’m definitely at a crossroads in my life and I’ve identified the environment I need to be in – and it’s not my current one. And I suppose this is a bit of a tangent but I’m paralyzed by fear of the unknown to take that step out of what’s comfortable even though it very well may lead to something far more amazing. Anyway, I digress. I find your posts inspiring and thought provoking. So, thank you for that.

  • ali says:

    Thank you Tara, what a beautiful and life-confirming way to start my morning! Yes, we are hindered and off course, but what struck me most about your essay was when you knelt to the ground and asked to be of service. This, too, has been my path to authenticity and good works. Still needs to be encouraged which you just did.
    Now the why of things is part of the mystery of each individual self. Sometimes it isn’t completely necessary to seek the why and get caught up in our stories. The why will come as we accept and love our wounded parts as much as our working parts–nurturing the whole lot almost from a distance with an inward smile that can come from a surrender to love what is and to move from that place.

  • I can totally relate to everything you said here, Tara. Once again, your words have opened my eyes, opened my heart, and given me so much to think about. Thank you.

  • Angie says:

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful piece. It totally resonates with me as I enter the next stage of my life. Some days I’m so excited at the thought of living my dreams and being true to myself, and other days, I’m full of fear. But I think it may be the fear that motivates me!

  • Anna Sontag says:

    This is a stimulating conversation. Tara’s insight about being praised for our achievements versus our efforts totally brings true for me.

    And though it’s insightful to understand why …I think that’s a very tricky place, because if we stay in the “why,” we never get out of the past into the present. One caveat here – the question of why is helpful for a research or prevention perspective.

    I will never fully know the motivations of others especially when I was a child and I cannot be certain of those times because I don’t remember them very clearly.

    So as I acknowledge that my beliefs about the past may or may not be true, I can come to the present with insight about my goals and choose my behaviors from an empowered perspective.

    The difference in my life since I have released myself from the mysteries of the past has been an amazing freedom that enables me to step into the empowerment Tara offers.

    Blessings to Tara and the gift of offering our work to the universe ~~ thank you Tara!

  • Hi Tara,
    I love exploring this topic and others that lead into it. I began my own website SoulSleuth to expand on it. Then I started to doubt myself and stopped writing and posting on it in May. Even though I have a very good start I have stopped -out of fear of so many things, many of which you mentioned in your post.
    I also write personal essays on a WordPress blog which has done well. In fact, right now I am wrestling with a post about this very topic!!!! this happens frequently that you and I are on the same wavelength at nearly the same time. I look to you for reassurance, which I undoubtedly find in a very friendly way.
    I am coming to the conclusion that it all is part of this unbelievably complex issue of trust.
    What do you think? I should have my WordPress post up soon. I’d be honored if you visited and read it at spiralnotes.wordpress.com.
    -Mimi

    Thanks for everything you do.

  • a voice

    A voice,
    a voice so quiet
    a voice,
    so small a molecule,
    it is a vibration,
    coming from far off,
    arriving when it arrives,
    sometimes, needing other
    vibrations to precede it
    so it can be heard.
    It needs to be needed
    to be heard, it needs to be
    listened for, for those vibrations
    to arrive when they do.
    It is too small a sound
    to reach the human ear,
    it has to be felt by the soul.

    Cate McNider
    7/17/13

  • Sally Graver says:

    In grad school someone once said to me, “You’re really hard on yourself. Your parents must have had really high expectations.” (I was very bright and always did well in school.) “No, all they wanted was for me to be happy.” “Oh, so since they didn’t have expectations for you, you put expectations on yourself that were much harder than anything they would have done.”
    Also, I was accustomed to getting results, praise and being among the top bunch of students. When I got to UC Berkeley grad school and encountered students at a whole different, higher level, I just stopped. Also, German lit was not my path! But school was all I knew. Fortunately, I dropped out and am now on my own path. 🙂 Thank you for what you do. It makes a difference in how I live and work. For me, too, Spiritual is Source.

  • Sheaupyng J Hsu says:

    I can surely relate to not confident to make my voice known in my universe. My root issue is growing up in a dysfunctional family in Taiwan, even thought I am proud to say it’s Little China, the Free China. Still I didn’t have a voice in my original family because no one gave me praise, my parents never gave me hugs, kisses or said “I love you”. But, Tks be to my Creator God, My Abba Daddy, when I found my Jesus, as the Way, the Truth and and the Abundant life, I found my true ID and my true voice of praise and worship which carry me through trails and tribulations in the past as a single mom..and now even more I have to voice out so much in my prayer and devotion time because my two teen-girls, everyday life could be full of surprises…and challenges…Yet, Life is a journey, it can only bring true fulfillment and lasting satisfaction when we find the answer of the fundamental questions: who I am? and what I am here for? I found the answers in the Person of Jesus Christ, Hope you, too!

  • Sally Graver says:

    Dear Mimi, Thank you! I went to your SoulSearch site, then watched the video. Really glad I did. Forwarded to several others.
    Do keep up your good work.
    Sally

  • Lisa Froman says:

    I can completely relate to this post. I grew up in a similiar way and have experienced the same insecurities throughout my life. No matter what I accomplish. I wish I would have figured this out sooner because I spent my life praising my only son in all areas….and I believe it harmed his self-esteem. It seems to have taken away his motivation to compete and to make mistakes. He’ll play it safe and be unhappy before he will take a risk at the unknown. I wish I had done some things differently when he was growing up but I just thought I was expressing love. Sigh.

  • Sarah says:

    Not so much praise as a child, my brothers were far more celebrated. Moreover, I grew-up in an Athiest home where anything spiritual was skoffed at. My childhood was liberating, no expectations meant that I could explore anything I wanted. I explored spiritual belief systems, and music, and art, and dance, and academics, and, and… I put myself through college after a few gap years, working to save money and gain perspective on what I wanted to do with my life.

    I was living a challenging but truly authentic life that had meaning, an upward trajectory with stature, praise and respect. It was guided from a spiritual place(I was the Lord’s instrument)and my home, office, husband, community and colleagues supported me – everything- the cosmos seemed to be supporting me.

    Then I became a consultant.

  • Donna Bailey says:

    I have been helping people find their way, their voices, passion;etc. for almost four decades. Recently. I was doing some deep writing in my journal after a really difficult relationship ended. There had been several incidents in which I realized my voice was a central issue . As I wrote, letting the words come from deep inside myself, I wrote ” you have to choose between your voice and having a loving partner.” it stopped me, brought me to tears. And then I realized how deeply embedded it was and knew what my work would be next.

  • April Taylor says:

    Fear…..I am afraid my voice will hurt others. My soul intent in this world is to share love but if my voice is misunderstood or not aligned with others it does the opposite. How can I have a voice when it may hurt others, Expecially those that I love the most?

    My experience is the same growing up but it resulted in a trophy child, similar to a trophy wife. Seen, shined, shown but not heard. I find solace in my God and walk the line that keeps the world in unassuming peace.

  • Autumn Fearing says:

    What happened to my voice- get married and you feel like you have to whisper, have kids and your whisper gets drowned out by little screams, when you finally feel like you have a moment to speak you can’t think of anything to say. My hope is to one day be able to recognize my own voice.

  • Maria says:

    Hi Tara,
    Like you, praise created an urgent need to retain a special position so I defended, protected and learned to cover up any deficiencies I thought I had. Also mum kept telling us “they say….” and even though I wondered who “they” were, it was apparent that their opinion or judgment was better than mine could be. So I learned to doubt myself.
    I also remember in senior high school being faced with the choice of taking an arts or science direction in my subject choice. At the time there was a big push to get girls into science, so I got a lot of advice to do science as it led to better jobs (supposedly). So that’s what I did, even though my true talent lay in languages, and although I’ve had a very fulfilling life, if there was one thing I could go back and change, it would be that.

  • I fall somewhere between the spectrum of high praise from my father, who also sexually molested and physically violated me. To the high expectations of both parents. I found this confusing since my mother also was also violently abused by my father.

    Somehow I managed to get through undergraduate and graduate school, but am still seeking my authentic voice, life and profession.

    Writing is cathartic for me. My skills were validated by winning a national writing competition. Now I am beginning to write again. My inner-critic has a lot to say, but I sit with that and continue to write my memoir without expectations or following rules of how to write it.

  • Tracy Warner says:

    Thank you so much for this post/email, this is exactly spot on with the questions that I have been asking myself lately and have been exploring through my current readings and meditations. I originally noticed my shut out creativity a few years ago and thought that it was due to being a taught civil engineer. Now I know that it has been a bigger part of my overall journey here on earth. I am currently reading a lot about our menarche and our womanhood adventure. I don’t know if this is the answer, but is my most current search for answers. I am very excited that you are also working on this and I look forward to reading more from you (or helping you if I can provide more insight) in the future.

  • Tracy Warner says:

    Thank you for sharing Catherine. That is beautiful.

  • anonymus says:

    Thank you for this, each point spoke so to how I’m feeling post college. I felt loss in so many aspects of self; I used to be quick, agile and powerful, I feel none of those things right now. Especially because I’m used to getting positive reinforcement even with negative feedback, I wasn’t sure how to deal with just the negative. I felt misdirected, undesirable and confused. It led me to analyze each interaction and doubt myself. Although I didn’t completely fail, I feel as though I’m still seeking for an answer for why didn’t I shine? I don’t think I’ll ever find an answer, but this note really helped me realize that in some ways I am moving forward and making my own journey.

    Thanks Tara

  • María says:

    Everything you wrote resonated with me. I was also raised to high expectations. I pretty much have to be either President or an author so successful, I could actually live of my writing. I’m not surprised that, though I am fascinated by politics and would rather read and write than eat, I’ve never delved into either realm. I’m a teacher. And I love it. I’m happy and challenged and satisfied. But it feels so small, compared to what I was “raised to be”. I’m trying to feel my way through, figuring out if I’m happy or just comfortable, if I should follow this path that I’m in, or make a turn to grander enterprises. Would I be doing it to please myself, or to live up to the expectations? Will I even dare? Do I actually want to? It’s a vicious circle. And cultivating my spirituality more might be the trick. I’vepurposefully neglected it, simply to be as “harcore” as I’m supposed to be.
    While I try to sort these issues out, I’ll be making sure I continue praising my students for their efforts, not their products.

  • Julie says:

    I save your posts until I have time to really read carefully and then spend time reflecting. As others have noted, this one rings so true! Discovering this pattern – fear of failure related to high expectations – released me from a level of anxiety and doubt I had previously experienced. I also identified an element of passivity that I wanted to overcome. Because of my natural talents and successess, the next step was always obvious and easily achieved. I reached a point where things stopped coming to me on their own. I actually have to go for what I want! “I can see that now that I’m on the other side.” Woo-hoo! I am all in right now. I’m actively exploring my next career move. I am motivated and excited. I love the exploration and reflection process, and I am learning a lot about myself. By the way, I just used the Franklin Covey Mission Statement Builder and found it to be a great tool to bringing some clarity to my dreams. I also had the opportunity to do the StrengthFinders assessment through work. That brought a lot of AHA’s as well. I have no connection to either of those organizations; I just share them as useful tools for other like-minded people.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
    Julie

  • Hana T. says:

    I’m struggling.

    Between the “I should do’s” and the “I want to do’s.” And between being and doing.

    I’ve been here in Peace Corps Macedonia for nearly two years now. Despite a few project successes, I don’t feel like I’ve done much. I’ve got this perverse drive to “do, do do!”

    The first goal of Peace Corps is to foster an exchange of skills (both ways) between Volunteer and Host Country. While I swim upstream in my never-ending project to-do list, trying to impart my American “can-do” attitude on the people of my village, I struggle to accept the one skill that Macedonia has been trying to teach me since I arrived here. How to BE. Every day is a lesson in “being.”

    I struggle with fear of failure, fear of missing out if I don’t maximize the efficiency of my “doing” here. Even now, I sit at my desk at work in my little village, paralyzed amidst the warring of my “I shoulds” and “I wants” in my head.

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