Harvard researcher and author Amy Cuddy lives in a world where people spontaneously pose like Wonder Woman when they encounter her. Her email inbox is stuffed with stories from strangers detailing how she helped them get the part, job, promotion, date and much more.
Her celebrity is largely due to the 2012 TED Talk she gave on body language. It’s become the second most-viewed talk in TED history with 31 million views and counting. In it, she discusses how body language not only shapes the way others view us, but that research shows that our body language also alters how we see ourselves.
Cuddy further explores the body-mind connection in her new book, “Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges.” Consider for a moment the pose that people spontaneously assume in victory — lifted chin, open chest, arms outstretched in a “V.” It conveys power, pride and confidence. Researchers have discovered that even the congenitally blind adopt this pose though they’ve never seen it; these displays are hard-wired.
Cuddy’s research was driven by the question: “If we naturally expand our bodies when we feel powerful, do we naturally feel powerful when we expand our bodies?” She has found that, in fact, we can change our self-perception and confidence through our posture and by striking what she calls “power poses.”
“Taking control of your body language is not just about posing in a powerful way. It’s also about the fact that we pose in a powerless way much more often than we think — and we need to change that,” says Cuddy. When we feel powerless, we contract ourselves to avoid notice through slumping, keeping our feet together and our hands in our lap or our arms wrapped around us. Conversely, when we expand, we experience a resulting rise in testosterone and drop in cortisol levels leading to greater confidence and reduced anxiety. She offers some specific and easy changes we can make to great effect.
When You Wake
If you’re one of the 40 percent of people who sleep in a fetal position, reclaiming power in the morning is especially important. Cuddy suggests that you stretch your body as wide as possible before you even get out of bed. Fling your arms and legs out and really fill the space. It might annoy your partner but could be just the thing that starts your day off right.
Before a Stressful Situation
Try holding a power pose for two minutes in advance of a situation about which you feel stressed (like a presentation or a job interview). Adopt the victory pose mentioned above or make like Wonder Woman by standing up straight and strong with your feet planted apart and your hands on your hips with your elbows pointing outward. These poses are best done in private or you risk communicating a different message altogether!
“Even our hands and fingers can signal power,” says Cuddy. Finger tenting or “steepling” is a sign of confidence. Cuddy instructs: “Hold your hands in front of your face with your palms facing each other and your fingers pointing upward. Then curl the fingers of each hand toward those of the other until the tips meet in the middle, and spread your fingers out as far apart as you possibly can.” It’s a broad gesture when compared to how we normally use our hands.
All Day Long
Cuddy notes, “It’s not only bold power poses that have an effect: even very subtle types of expansion — such as simple, good, ‘sit-up-straight’ posture — can also do the same sorts of things.” Studies beginning in 1980 confirm that upright posture enhances our feelings of confidence and self-control while reducing stress.
Additionally, the way we walk can impact our self-confidence. Powerful walking features more arm movement and a longer stride as well as more pronounced vertical head movement. “Movement, like posture, tells the brain how it feels,” says Cuddy.
Also of note, is the finding that speaking rate has an inverse relationship with power. The more slowly we speak, the more effective we feel. Cuddy says, “Expanding your body language — through posture, movement, and speech — makes you feel more confident and powerful, less anxious and self-absorbed, and generally more positive.
Teaching Our Children
In one study cited by Cuddy, a group of 4-year-old children were shown photos of wooden dolls lacking gender identifiers and asked which were boys and which were girls. Seventy-five percent of the participants identified dolls in expansive poses to be male while contracted poses signaled females. Poses that indicate power have become associated with masculinity. It’s important to expose children, especially girls, to female role models in expansive poses. Cuddy suggests examples like American ballet dancer Misty Copeland who exhibits strength, poise, determination and femininity.
Another influencer of our children is of course almighty technology. At any given after-school moment, children can often be found slumped over screens, faces illuminated by pixelated light. The smaller the device, the more contracted the posture. Establishing screen limits and encouraging more interaction can lead to better posture and less anxiety.
All of these positive messages and interactions help when kids get into tough situations at school or with friends. For example, Cuddy advises children faced with all-too-common conflicts with bullies, “Don’t let the situation shrink you. Practice posing before school to ground in who you are. It’s not about aggression in body language but about being proud, strong and confident.” Encourage your child to own his or her space.
“The way you carry yourself is a source of personal power — the kind of power that is the key to presence,” says Cuddy. “It doesn’t change who you are; it allows you to be who you are.”
- Have 20 minutes? Watch Cuddy’s famed TED Talk.
- Have a few hours? Read Cuddy’s book, “Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges.”
- Want to learn more? This article grew out of Cuddy’s Family Action Network (FAN) presentation at New Trier in January 2016. View upcoming events and register for notice of their future lineup of amazing speakers.
- Follow Cuddy on Twitter at @amyjccuddy.
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