Here is an amazing talk, given by social psychologist Amy Cuddy, on how the way we feel about ourselves can affect our physical experience of our bodies. I first stumbled upon it a few years ago, and every time I watch it, I find it’s still relevant to my own life.
Dr. Cuddy’s main argument is that our sense of self directly influences both our body language and our internal biochemistry. When we feel powerful, we tend to carry our bodies in a way that signals to others that we are in-control and confident. We stand up tall; we make eye contact.
Conversely, when we don’t feel powerful– when instead, we are experiencing self-doubt– we try to shrink. We hunch forward, cross our arms, and look down at the floor.
Dr. Cuddy explains that these non-verbal cues send powerful messages to others about how we are feeling, and can directly influence the judgements they make about us.
While that probably won’t come as much of a surprise to most of my readers, what’s really surprising is that, as Dr. Cuddy explains, our own body language can also have a direct affect on how we see ourselves.
Basically, when we hunch over, trying to make ourselves small, our brains recognizes that we are feeling powerless, and our internal chemical state then matches that feeling. (To get into the nitty-gritty, this means that our brains release more of the stress hormone cortisol).
Conversely, when we take on what Dr. Cuddy refers to as a “power pose,” our brains (male and female) release more testosterone– the “power” hormone.
So, Dr. Cuddy explains, we can actually directly affect our brain chemistry with our own body language. If we are feeling scared and powerless, we can give ourselves a confidence boost by taking on a power pose. By assuming the body language of someone who is confident and strong, we send the signal to our brain that it should create an internal chemical state to match that body language.
Of course, it isn’t a magic bullet– nothing ever is– but I’ve tried this out myself, many times, and I do find that “power posing” can have an effect.
While Dr. Cuddy’s talk is aimed at a general audience, I find an additional layer of relevance within it to my own experience with chronic pain.
Many of the same physical cues we exhibit when we are feeling fearful are also a response to pain and illness. When I am in pain, or feeling nauseous due to my digestive issues, what do I do? I hunch over; I round my shoulders forward. Every classic marker of bad posture becomes exaggerated when I don’t feel well.
Although for me the cycle of “powerless” body language starts as a response to not feeling well. I have to wonder if it becomes part of a self-perpetuating cycle. I don’t feel well, so I hunch over, which in turn sends the signal to my brain that I’m not feeling great about myself or my abilities. In general, I tend to feel pretty good about myself, and confident in my ability to accomplish things, but when I am in a lot of pain, that all (temporarily) goes out the window.
Since first discovering Dr. Cuddy’s talk, I pay way more attention to my posture. Am I standing up straight, or am I hunching over? And, if my posture isn’t great– am I in pain? Or is something in this situation making me uncomfortable?
It’s kind of like the chicken and the egg– there are a lot of factors that can influence our experience of pain, and our posture; how we carry our bodies, what our alignment is like.
But paying attention to our own feelings of power vs. powerlessness can be one piece of the puzzle. Even if our hunched-over, low-power poses are caused by physical factors such as muscle weakness/spending too much time slumped over our desks/being out of shape/being in pain, there’s no reason why paying attention to our own sense of power can’t contribute to our healing.
Now, when I’m in the locker room at the gym, I stop and check out my posture in the mirror before heading out to exercise. Am I standing up tall, or and am I slumped?
And I just take a minute to check in with myself, and my goals. Why am I here right now? What are my goals; what is motivating me?
I find that just remembering to pause and re-center myself can make a big difference. I might have a lot of issues going on with my back that I haven’t quite sorted out yet, but not having a sense of confidence doesn’t have to be one of them.
P.S. For my other absolute favorite TED talk– Kelly McGonigal on Stress and Chasing Meaning, click here!