Mind Matters — “Presence,” Part II

You may recall that the last Mind Matters column was a review of Amy Cuddy’s book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges. As promised, here is part 2 of the discussion.

Presence abides when an individual is not paralyzed by fear and has a sense of trust in oneself. Its counter, according to Cuddy, is “impostorism.” At first, researchers Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes studied high achieving women who felt they were impostors, despite their accomplishments. It took an anonymous survey to discover that men also suffer impostorism. Apparently, men felt less able to speak openly about their fears.

Unfortunately, “fears that we will be unmasked as frauds can defeat us even before we begin.” Jessie Collett and Jade Avalis study the effects of “impostorism on career and educational ambitions.” After surveying hundreds of doctoral students, many in science, they found that impostorism did indeed cause “down shifting.” That is, there was a lowering of professional ambitions for these students.

Fear of failure appears to be a prevalent factor for the “impostor phenomenon.” Ironically, those who fear failure most are people “who have achieved something—people who are demonstrably anything but frauds.” Something to consider if you’ve ever felt like an impostor!

Feeling powerless also defeats us and stymies our ability to be present. The research of Dacher Keltner and his colleagues found that when we feel powerful, we feel free, in control and safe. And so we operate out of an approach system. We seek opportunities and are able to meet the world openly. Not about dominating others, personal power is about trusting our own inner authority.

However, when we feel powerless, our behavioral system is one of avoidance. We tune into threats, rather than opportunities and we withdraw. “We feel generally anxious and pessimistic, and we’re susceptible to social pressures that inhibit us and make our behavior unrepresentative of our sincere selves.” And our anxiety even impairs our ability to think or to remember, for that matter!

In addition to anxiety, powerlessness can be self-defeating, notes Cuddy. She states, “People who feel socially powerless are … dependent on powerful others to lead the way. This causes the powerless to endorse the unfair systems that reinforce their state.” Studies by Van der Toorn and cohorts found that “the powerless justify rather than strive to change the hierarchical structures that disadvantage them.” Interesting to ponder in these election times.

So how not to collapse into powerlessness? Don’t collapse the body, for starters, exhorts Cuddy. Poet David Whyte, who can mesmerize an audience for hours with his lyrical stories, says “Be Large!” Cuddy would concur.

When we feel powerless, we may collapse in our postures, gestures, walking, even our speech, says Cuddy. And, yes, Cuddy asserts, men use much more expansive body language than do women. “Men display generally more non-verbal dominance and expansiveness, talk more, and interrupt more than women do. Women show generally more submissive, contractive, non-verbal behavior, talk less (yes, the stereotype that women are more talkative than men is just plain wrong), interrupt less often, and are interrupted more often.”

Unfortunately, women globally are still subjected to less social power than men and it shows behaviorally.

Note that the subordination of women is not evident among children in their early years. At first, little boys and little girls are equally likely to elicit expansive postures—throwing their arms in the air, standing with shoulders back, feet planted apart. However, eventually, “as boys continue to expand … girls begin to collapse.” Cuddy issues a call to all of us to intervene when we see our daughters, sisters, female friends start to collapse in on themselves.

But both men and women can benefit from power poses that have been extensively researched. It was found that simple expansive body postures held for a couple minutes had better results than being assigned a powerful role.

Or, in the words of Maya Angelou, “Stand up straight and realize who you are, that you tower over your circumstances.”

Cuddy’s book can help us do just that: to integrate presence with our personal power that frees us to connect to and care for others and thus live a more expansive life.