I made a new friend while on vacation last week. Our kids went to the same day camp in central Vermont, and while they made maple butter, canoed and built fairy houses, we bantered about balancing life and kids while we waded in a glorious, frigid stream. After a career in television production, she now raises her three children and struggles to figure out what “Career B” is going to be. She doesn’t think her former career—with intense production pacing and deadlines—will fit in well with the more balanced life she wants with her children. She wants to write more, and she has a screenplay with a story that she believes needs to be told. But she feels utterly paralyzed by her insecurities. “What if it is not really good at all?” The underlying subtext: What if I’ve been an imposter all along?
In my career as an educator and in my work with my coaching clients, it’s clear that an awful lot of folks—regardless of their experience or their line of work—feel as if they will be discovered as imposters, as folks not really qualified for the jobs they have. This insecurity spreads like kudzu, limiting even our aspirations. Our fears and insecurities keep us small, and we erroneously assume that others are successful because they have no fear.
A client once told me she felt awful about her own life after watching a successful author give a presentation. She explained: “She showed pictures of her writer’s garret—a cabin high up in the hills—and talked about her simply idyllic life. She was amazing. I wish I could have a life like that.” I smiled, reminding her, “She showed you what she wants you to see.” As is human nature, the author presented her world in the best possible light. She didn’t tell the stories about how she sometimes wakes up and feels consumed by self-doubt. And she didn’t mention that she wonders why she’s a writer and not something more sensible so she could better provide for her family. We all struggle to keep inner saboteurs at bay. Some folks just learn how to dance with them better than others.
In my quest to teach my clients self-forgiveness and confidence, I’ve recently added the remarkable work of Amy Cuddy, assistant professor of social psychology at Harvard Business School to my tool belt. I first learned of her research last spring and have since watched one of her TED Talks—Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are—numerous times. If you don’t have time to read Cuddy’s articles, watch this talk.
Cuddy calls her clip a “free, low-tech life hack”—a simple thing we can all employ to improve our lives. Cuddy takes the ubiquitous philosophy, “Fake it ‘til you make it!”, applies a researcher’s curiosity and eye for detail, and reinvents it as “Fake it ‘til you become it.”
In her lab, Cuddy discovered that even just two minutes in certain “power poses” were enough to increase testosterone levels and decrease cortisol (the so-called “stress” hormone). People felt more powerful and successful, but those around them also viewed them as more commanding and more accomplished. “Power posers” also did significantly better in job interviews than participants who were asked to strike “weak” poses—sitting small, closed in, with hands protecting one’s neck.
We spend a lot of time worrying about what our body language conveys to others, but Cuddy says we should be even more interested in what our body language conveys to ourselves. Non-verbal expressions of power and dominance and those that convey insecurity and powerlessness send unconscious messages to the world about how we see ourselves. But they also send cues to our own brains as to how we feel about our sense of control.
Whether you’re heading into a stressful job interview, are about to give a speech, or are entering a family situation in which you always feel powerless, Cuddy asserts that taking just two minutes to strike a “power pose” will help you feel more in control. Just put your hands on your hips, tilt your chin slightly upward, and make yourself as tall as you can get. You can also strike a “victory” pose—that universal posture runners make after crossing the finish line: Head cocked back, arms out wide in a “V”.
At the end of her TED talk, Cuddy reveals that she herself recovered from a bad head injury car—one that doctors thought would surely end her academic career. She believes that she was able to “fake it until she became it.” She suggests, “Change your posture for two minutes…It could significantly change the way your life unfolds.” Moreover, she exhorts her audience, “to share the science, because this is simple. I don’t have ego involved in this. Give it away. Share it with people, because the people who can use it the most are the ones with no resources and no technology and no status and no power…and it can significantly change the outcomes of [their lives].”
I am doing my part. In the past week, I’ve had a friend striking power poses in the stream, another in the blueberry patch and a third before a speech she had to give. Next time you spy me standing like Wonder Woman, you’ll know why.