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.