Few weeks ago, I was standing in front of a mirror. In the women’s bathroom at work. I could feel the cold sweat down my spine and was mostly angry for not being able to gain a better control of myself. I tried everything in the book—took deep breaths, closed my eyes, tried to calm down, counted slowly to fifty. No change.
My anxiety was still running high, I could feel my pulse rushing and I looked as a freighted bird trapped in a cage. The occasion?—An executive meeting that I was supposed to lead and where I had to pitch an idea to the company’s CEO about this year’s budget. No biggie, some would say. In fact, many people would thrive at the opportunity to make themselves visible to the highest levels of leadership. But I was mostly intimidated. Not because of I was going to be in front of an authority, but because I’m one of those people that aren’t fond of public-speaking. I’m more of an introvert, favoring the quiet ways of influence over the “winning arrogant attitude,” as prescribed by the modern standards of corporate politics. So, I’m definitely not a big-bang extrovert, nor can I pretend to be, unfortunatelly. And as I was standing in the washroom, I felt as if I would have a heart attack. And nobody would know what a great presentation I have prepared. Then, I remembered something I watched a while ago. Worth the try…
In 2012, at the TED Global conference in Edinburgh, Prof. Amy Cuddy, a social psychologists from Harvard University, gave a speech that became one of the most watched TED talks of all times. The topic? – “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are.” The main idea is that standing in certain poses, even if we only visualize it, can help instantly boost our confidence, even if we don’t feel truly confident on the inside. In other words—faking it can help us make it in the end.
Research by Ms. Cuddy has shown that by taking a power pose or as she calls it—“making ourselves big,” for only two mere minutes before an important meeting, can change our brains and make us more assertive and less anxious. After only 2 minutes, our testosterone levels increase by 20% while cortisol levels decrease by 25%. (Both hormones are considered highly related to power and leadership. The former is the true power and dominance hormone, while the latter is the stress hormone. Ideally, every great leader has high levels of testosterone and low levels of cortisol). The power poses, according to Ms. Cuddy, are the ones where we spread ourselves. For instance, forming a “V” with our hands, or putting our hands on our hips. Poses, such as crossing our arms in front of us, hunching forward, etc. are, in contrast, making us feel small and insecure. The idea is that if we want to portray instant confidence, we should practice power poses before important events.
This notion may not sound as a revolutionary one at first listen. But, in fact, it is. We all know that first impressions are important and that most of communication is non-verbal. It takes others less than a second to read us and form an opinion. Everything matters—the way we are dressed, choice of colors, the way we style our hair, our posture, gestures, how much of an eye contact we maintain. All these things come together to reveal cues to our characters, which will subsequently determine how we will be treated and if we will receive the respect that we deserve. So the way we present ourselves to the world largely determines the world’s perceptions of us in return. If we feel confident, others will notice. If we feel insecure, the vultures will eat us alive.
The “power poses” research sheds a different light on the above conclusions, though. It shows that by taking certain poses, we can make ourselves not only appear more confident to others but also feel this way. In other words, we can change who we are, as Prof. Cuddy puts it. Our brains’ chemistry would change, literary. And therefore, over time, our personality would as well.
This important research is a leap further from the one done few years ago on smiling. Many studies have repeatedly shown that smiling is not only a way to do facial gymnastics, nor something that we engage in only when we feel happy. Conscious efforts and even training ourselves to smile can make us feel happier. It is not an inside-out relationship but the other way around— it starts with the facial gesture that can change our mood, make us appear more likeable and competent to others. The proof and the examples are countless. Patients injected with Botox who are unable to frown have reported to feel generally happier than those who can express negative emotions. People that smile during medical procedures have also stated to feel less pain. Even more surprising, though, probably is the fact that Charles Darwin was one of the first scientists to propose this idea. All the way back in 1872 in his book “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.” Darwin stated that “The free expression by outward signs of an emotion intensifies it. Even the simulation of an emotion tends to arouse it in our minds.” Simply put, he suggested that faking an emotion can light up our brains and make us feel better. Exactly as Prof. Amy Cuddy has also stated and proved so many years later.
Back to my reflection in the mirror. I spent two minutes in a “V” pose, and another two with hands behind my head and elbows to the side. Up until today, I am still unsure if this really helped me to pull through that day, or it was my self-persuasion that I would somehow make it. Regardless, I did feel better—after the “V” pose and grinning for about five minutes without stopping. I can only imagine what I looked like to a bystander. But hey, if smiling and taking “big poses” can help us live a longer and a happier life, does it really matter if we look quirky in front of a bathroom mirror form time to time?
Finally, if you ask me today what the secret to being a happy, confident and fulfilled individual is, I would tell you that it may as well be something as simple as becoming a smiling Wonder-woman for few minutes a day.