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Tara Mohr is a woman with a calling. She uses her experience in both coaching and business to the benefit of women, whose talents and voices, she feels, are still going unnoticed far too often. We had an inspiring conversation from across the Atlantic.
Mohr: “As early as childhood, I was attuned to where women’s voices were missing. I was sparked by situations where was I being told that I was hearing the whole story, but in truth I was only hearing men’s voices. I noticed that women often had very important insights and ideas to share that somehow weren’t being heard.”
Remarkably, unlike many feminist voices, Mohr takes an inclusive and constructive view towards gender equality, calling all women of this generation the Transition Team.
“I notice a lot of women expressing the frustration that we don’t seem to make any real progress, even though we’ve been working on gender equality for so long. I see this very differently. We don’t often look at our lives in the long historical view and so it’s easy to forget that we’re coming out of a very long past in which patriarchy was deeply entrenched. The world was defined, designed and led by men. We’ve made incredible strides in a very short period of time towards a world more equally defined and led by both women and men, but we truly are still in a transitional moment. Historical and cultural change takes a long time. When we see ourselves as the Transition Team helping us move from one world to another we can have a lot more patience, equanimity and wisdom about all the work that is still to be done.”
Good Student or bitch?
Last year Tara Mohr published a book based on all the social, psychological and spiritual insights she gathered over the years, and her practical experience in coaching. It is a fun read, that confronts readers willing to dive into their inner lives with a number of very recognizable yet mostly unconscious strategies we use to shrink out of things we actually deeply desire. Some are immediately familiar, like the Inner Critic (the ever critical voice in our heads talking us out of doing something), others are somewhat surprising, like the ways in which we sometimes forget to check our heartfelt project with the reality of what our audience or customer wants, or the different vocabulary used by women and men. In Playing Big Mohr doesn’t only offers insights, she also shares a richly filled basket of tips and tricks on how to get out of the patterns of fear and stuckness, or unproductive ways of dealing with criticism and praise.
The book is written specifically with women in mind, although the insights it offers are in fact universal.
“We haven’t learned that maybe
excellence is really about
effectively influencing and challenging authority,
not adapting to it”
“The ways in which we are socialized are two sides of the coin that limit us in different ways and I think that women and men both struggle with letting their gifts and voices really come out. But women have an extra layer: ‘I might be called a bitch.’ ‘I never saw my (grand)mother do this.’ ‘I’m afraid of my power’, basically. The reason that I wrote the book for women is because I want to see more women leading—but the ideas are certainly relevant to men too. And I do actually hear from a lot of men who are reading the book.”
Some of Tara Mohr’s insights about how women behave are remarkable and fresh and immediately strike a chord. The Good Student Attitude, for one. This is a set of values or attitudes that usually come easier for girls and help them outperform boys in school. But once out in the professional field, it actually becomes a hindrance when women have to start fending for themselves.
“When I started coaching women I noticed that, interestingly, a lot of women who were really hitting walls in their careers had been stars in school. I was a Good Student type in school myself: getting the good grades, working hard, and when I was reflecting on my own experience and looking at the women I coached who had also been great at school, it was just so clear that the behaviors that help us to be excellent students are not the same behaviors that are required to make an impact in our careers.
One thing we learn, for instance, is that doing well in school requires finding out what that teacher wants and then providing it. We’re not really learning to define our own sense of good work, we’re learning how to adapt to what the authority figure wants. But when we get to a certain level in our careers, we’re seen as not having a point of view. We haven’t learned that maybe excellence is really about effectively influencing and challenging authority, not adapting to it.
As students in school we also learn that preparing diligently will make us do well. The teacher is going to tell us what book to read and what we should study before the test… But a lot of the times in our careers we need to be able to answer without having been told what to prepare. We rather need to trust in ourselves and be comfortable with improvisation.”
Why not start today?
Motherhood also presents a whole new set of challenges for women, Mohr agrees.
“We encounter physical and logistical obstacles: how do I Play Big when my child is teething, I only get four hours of sleep and I can’t really think during the day?” (laughs) “But there’s more. A lot of us have fears around following our callings and sharing our ideas. And motherhood is a very socially acceptable reason to not self-actualize. So it sometimes becomes a cover for the fear. When you say: ‘I really want to start this business but I have three young kids, right now is not the time…’ what we need to pull apart is whether this is truly a logistical and practical challenge, or whether it is just very scary to live the calling that that particular business is about for you, and right now you have an excuse that everyone will understand?
I try to help women work around this by helping them locate the essence of their calling. That’s never anything as general as ‘start a business’, or ‘get a new PhD’, there’s a tangible core underneath. To stick with the example: if the business this one mom wants to start is about creating healthy gourmet food for other families, I will ask her, what’s the kernel of that calling for you? What part about it really excites you? Let’s say she says, “I just love making healthy food, and I love sharing with others.” Then we’d talk about, why didn’t that happen today? Can you make one meal for your next-door neighbor’s family today? The point is to brainstorm ways she can live her calling today – in some simple, doable, immediate form. When we get this specific about taking action, usually all the fears come up, and that is the moment we can actually see whether the block is motherhood, or something else entirely. And a lot of the times it’s not motherhood. Women will then start to say the real blocks: ‘I’m worried I don’t really know what I’m talking about. People won’t like it. I’ll fail in some way. I’ll be criticized or rejected. My family won’t like it that I’m doing that…’ These fears can be dealt with.”
And of course, there’s also the maternal version of the Inner Critic, the voice that goes: “I’m such a bad mother!”
“The stereotype of being a ‘good mother’ is usually: being really good at housework and cooking, wanting to spend all your time – every single moment – with your kids and have no other needs. But how many people does that really work for? Yet a lot of parents are plagued by that idea. Just recognize that “good mother” police as a voice in your head, not necessarily the voice of truth or your core self. It’s one form of the inner critic voice. Start to make a practice of noticing it.
A lot of times when our inner critic comes out there’s a deep uncertainty that we haven’t really named. When we’re parenting, we can never fully be sure that we will be able to protect our child. You can never fully know if what you’re doing is right or what your choices – especially the tough calls – are going to lead to. That is actually very hard for us human beings to live with. And if we’re not conscious of how we feel about this, it comes out in the voice of the inner critic: ‘You’re bad mother, you should be doing this or that…’ When we look closer, this voice is actually an attempt to create order and distract us from the inevitable feelings of deep, deep uncertainty that come with parenting.”
“In our culture motherhood is a very
socially acceptable reason to not self-actualize”
“Parents often ask me how they can help when kids say things like ‘I’m so fat’ or ‘I’m not good at that’. A lot of the times we think our job as parents is to argue with their inner critic. But you are never going to win the argument, and for the child it can become confusing, especially if the world outside seems to agree with the voice in his head. So instead we might actually want to call it out: ‘It sounds like we’re hearing your inner critic. You know, everybody has this voice that says really mean things to them, even the people who you think are really confident. And I used to have a silly voice when I was your age that used to say this to me, and it so wasn’t true! Sometimes my inner critic voice still talks to me! And here’s why that voice is saying those things: it’s afraid, and it’s trying to protect you from taking the kind of risks that might bring failure or change, but those risks are important to growing and being your best self…’ ”
Making the unconscious conscious
Slowing down, getting in touch with what it is you’re really feeling, understanding it and lifting it out of the unconscious is one of the recurring themes in Mohr’s work. She credits her mother for this.
“I learned about this at a really young age. I can remember being maybe eight years old, sitting with my mom in the living room and her saying: ‘The thing is, Tara, ninety-eight percent of what motivates human beings is unconscious. And only two percent is conscious. So if you don’t go into therapy and make the unconscious conscious, it’s very hard to get a grip on life.’ But I found it very confusing that nobody was talking about this in school. How could we study the Civil War without discussing what was in anyone’s unconscious?” (laughs) “Of course we don’t have the time in life to process everything we’re feeling, but we can try to find the highlights, things that need attention. And we need to. To be healthy.”
Mohr’s point is actually a lot closer to home than it might sound for some. Take the often raw and debasing comments on social media following any major upheaval. “The level of productivity of any conversation corresponds with how well we have understood the core of our own personal truth. Of course there are many layers and levels of truth, but so much of what we read and hear is pure attack and defence. From a psychological point of view we know that underneath that is someone’s fear, pain, sadness, confusion, hopes, vulnerability. And yet it’s very clear that sometimes people are not in touch with that at all. So how productive can the dialogues they engage in then be?”
Tara Mohr grew up in a house full of books of every religious and mystical tradition. “My mom read them all, but she never confused spirituality with organized religion. I do think that inner work is spiritual work.” Mohr’s description of our inner voice of wisdom, which she calls the Inner Mentor, is one of the most surprising and inspiring chapters in her book. “Having coached so many women over the years I find it’s undeniable that we can tap into something that has stunning wisdom and a powerful, palpable love. It’s inside each of us and, given the right process, it’s immediately accessible. There’s no secular concept, really, that can explain what that is.”