Give Yourself Permission to Be Different

Tara Rae Bradford

 

Introduce yourself! Who are you and what do you do?

I’m Tara Rae Bradford, and I empower high-achieving, empathic givers to share their gifts with the world so they can start a movement for the greater good. I’m the Founder and CEO of Imposter to Influencer, an international speaker, and writer. I’m also the (soon to be) host of Handle Everything, a podcast that shares stories of people who open doors to opportunities.

 

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is feeling like a fraud, even though your achievements would suggest you are competent or even overqualified. While it was originally studied in high-achieving women, it has since been shown to also occur in men. It is not a psychological disorder listed in the DSM V (a diagnostic tool published by the American Psychiatric Association), but it can be associated with anxiety and depression. Some other characteristics of someone with imposter syndrome include worrying about what other people think, living in fear of being discovered as a fraud, lacking self-confidence, feelings of frustration about never being able to achieve enough, holding oneself to unrealistic self-imposed standards of achievement, perfectionist tendencies, constantly trying to prove one’s competence by doing everything yourself, never asking for help, and believing everything you do should be quick and easy.

Many things can make this phenomenon worse, such as being told to fake it til you make it—which actually keeps you stuck because you already believe you are a fraud—or working in an environment that promotes fear (i.e. fear of losing one’s job). Varied cultural and societal expectations, as well as ancestral patterns, can also contribute to or worsen feelings of imposter syndrome. Additionally, having unmet childhood needs or being portrayed as the “golden child” by parents can lead to overachieving that carries into adulthood in order to have your needs met or your worth validated by others.

Imposter syndrome has negative consequences for those who experience it, including excessive stress and worry, difficulty relaxing, natural tendency to be overly selfless or self-critical, and a propensity to overwork oneself and experience burnout, all of which can lead to chronic health problems. The condition is not without its strengths, however, because many high-achieving people with imposter syndrome are also incredibly resilient, life-long learners who are adept at handling stressful situations, creatively solving problems, and anticipating the needs of others with generosity and empathy.

 

Did you suffer from imposter syndrome? Do you still suffer from it at times?

I think the most significant time imposter syndrome showed up for me was right after I graduated from nursing school and I took my first job as a critical care nurse. The first day off of orientation I felt myself wondering if they made a mistake to let me take care of patients, after all my entire time in training and orientation I had always had another nurse there looking over my shoulder watching my every move. It was unnerving to go from that to having nobody there. It lasted about a year and, looking back, I think my behavior at work including coming in early, leaving late, offering to help people, triple checking everything I did, and hardly ever taking a break or leaving the nursing unit to eat lunch probably made me look like a model employee on the outside.

I volunteered to be a mentor to new nurses, took extra classes, enrolled in additional training and certifications, and found mentors I looked up to. I also saved every thank you card or nice e-mail I received from patients and families to look back at them when I was feeling uncertain about my work performance. Over the first 5 years of my career, it slowly dissipated until there was hardly a trace.

Looking back on my life, I think developing imposter syndrome at work was the culmination of learned behaviors during my earlier years. Things like being told not to question authority, that it’s weak to ask for help or if I need help then I must not be very smart, that little girls can be pretty or smart—but not both—can all have a lasting impact on how a child grows up and behaves as an adult. Combining those societal messages with the pressure to get good grades, go to college, and get a good job that gets instilled in us from a young age, it’s really not surprising that so many high achievers or Straight-A students grow into adults with Imposter Syndrome.

Fast forward to today, and I like to think I have continued the practice of finding mentors and being a mentor as well as recognizing my accomplishments. One thing I’ve noticed in conversation with my more experienced mentors is they never talk about feeling that they’ve “made it.” Some will say they still don’t feel they’ve made it, or they never stopped long enough to think about making it. I think those examples lend themselves to the idea of being a lifelong learner and consistently stepping out of our comfort zones.

The good news is I started my career over a decade ago and now I notice the imposter feelings and am able to set them aside so I can continue to move my work forward in a meaningful way for myself and others.

What are some common thoughts and feelings associated with imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome can vary from person to person, but it is always characterized by a feeling of not being good enough combined with a fear of what other people will think, which can be a very oppressive mindset, however, when it is recognized that the oppression is self-imposed you are taking the first step to breaking free from it so you can live your best life. 

The number one fear in the United States is public speaking and research has shown the fear is not of speaking in itself, it’s of speaking in front of an evaluative audience, which means the audience is paying attention to what you are saying and has the opportunity to judge you or disagree with you. I believe the same fear is present in imposter syndrome, we are more afraid of what other people think and that blocks us from acknowledging our own thoughts, which can be really dangerous to your overall health and wellbeing especially if you endure this level of stress over a long period of time.

When we regularly experience social evaluative threat—the fear of what other people are going to think—it activates our neurological system to release hormones that signal we are in danger. These hormones tell our bodies to only perform vital functions and slow down processes the body sees as irrelevant, such as digestion, to work in favor of running away from the imaginary bear that is chasing us. The problem with this is the bear doesn’t go away and we never get the feeling we have outrun it so our bodies can feel we are out of danger and can release the hormones that allow us to relax and resume regular bodily function.

If you think about it, going to work 40-60 hours a week and being afraid of other people finding out about you being a fraud the entire time is activating your fight, flight or freeze response on a consistent basis. So if you’re experiencing difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep or problems with digestion it might be because you have the imposter stressor lingering long after you leave the office.

Is imposter syndrome a one-size-fits-all feeling? Or are there different forms of imposter syndrome?

At the core of Imposter Syndrome is a questioning of one’s competence, so I think it is valuable to break down the stages of competence we all go through when we are learning something new so we can assess where we are in the learning process and see a clear path forward to the next stage. These are the 4 stages of competence: 

  • Unconsciously incompetent

  • Consciously incompetent

  • Unconsciously competent

  • Consciously competent 

You can learn more about each of these stages in my YouTube video here.

Dr. Valerie Young also outlines 5 subgroups of Imposter Syndrome in her book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Imposter Syndrome And How to Thrive in Spite of It. You can find them outlined in this article in Fast Company.

What should I do to start overcoming imposter syndrome? What about imposter growth syndrome?

I can think of about 15 things that someone could do to overcome imposter syndrome, but I am going to narrow it down to the three things that helped me the most when I first realized I had imposter syndrome. 

First, believe change is possible. The fact that you are concerned about your level of competence means you are a high achiever and you want to do a good job. If you don’t believe it’s possible, then nothing else I tell you will matter. On my own journey, believing change is possible started with me giving myself permission to change and then taking an action I thought was really bold and I believed at the time people would disapprove of when I moved to New York City. 

Once you make the decision to change and give yourself permission to be different, or a more authentic version of yourself, it’s important for you to train your brain to separate facts, thoughts, and feelings. When was the last time you started a sentence with the words, “I feel like…” and then followed them with an explanation rather than an actual emotion. For instance, “I feel like you aren’t listening to me” isn’t actually describing an emotion so our natural tendency is to blur the lines between facts, thoughts, and feelings. A great book that offers a framework for how you can begin separating these through journaling is Brooke Castillo’s Self Coaching 101. The tool she teaches in the book will help you solve any problem for the rest of your life, and it has helped me tremendously.

Finally, approach the world with curiosity and experiment with new ways of thinking. When I started being curious and asking “Why?” with the intention to better understand, it allowed me to stop thinking in terms of right and wrong or knowing all of the answers all the time and invited me to adopt a beginner’s mindset, similar to a child who is learning something new. Taking this approach to learning new skills allows you to be kinder and gentler with yourself, the way you would be with someone you don’t expect to know it all. The best example I can give of experimentation and curiosity from my own life is in networking. When I first moved to New York City, I only knew two people who lived here and I had a temp job that was only going to last 3 months. I’m an introvert so going out and meeting people alone did not come naturally to me, but I knew I didn’t want my New York City story to be, “She worked a temp job for 3 months, and then left.” I wanted it to be an adventure. At the time I was working as a nurse and I already knew a lot of nurses, so I decided to put myself in situations where I was the only nurse because I was curious about other professions. The unintended consequence of showing up in a room full of fashion designers or investment bankers and introducing myself as a nurse was: more curiosity! Other people were naturally curious about why I was there and we were able to have more meaningful conversations. Along the way, this experience led me to entrepreneurship and starting my own company.

Are there any resources that I should read?
https://tara-rae-bradford.mykajabi.com/blog/overcome-imposter-syndrome-in-leadership

The 4 Levels of Competence: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RaikZ4VEDEM

Reframing Success and Failure as one in the same: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1KwDssNLy3E

Tara Bradford - Photo By Phillip Van Nostrand 3

Tara Rae Bradford

Tara Rae Bradford is a former ICU nurse turned Founder & CEO of Rae Media Group, a boutique agency helping emerging thought leaders increase their visibility so they can start movements that change the world for the greater good. Tara is a sought after international speaker on the topics of networking, self-leadership, executive presence, personal branding, and media movements. She is also a Guest Lecturer and Leadership Coach at Fordham’s Gabelli School of Business. She is passionate about advocating for emotional wellness through the mind, body, and soul connection, a message she spreads on her podcast titled Handle Everything (launching April 2020). She currently resides in New York City where she strives to connect with at least one person a day even as an introvert, which has become much easier since she became a dog mom to her very friendly Goldendoodle puppy, Westyn.

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