No one would ever accuse me of succeeding at New Year’s Resolutions. I finally came up with a better strategy: New Year’s Course Corrections. I tend to do better with that gentler, more navigational approach. Today, Dallas Wilt reflects on a book that surprised her and steered her in the right direction…
From Dallas: I generally avoid the self-help section at the bookstore, but when I was traveling with my younger daughter and was out of reading material, a book cover caught my eye. It simply read “Presence,” which happened to be my single resolution for 2016.
With little time to spare, I thought it would just have to do for the plane ride home. After reading a couple of chapters, I realized this book was about “power posing” and the impression that you make on those around you. I was a little disappointed with my choice and was wondering what on earth this had to do with “presence.”
The bright yellow book cover also caught my daughter’s eye and she asked me what the book was about. I told her that it talked about striking powerful poses, and we even giggled as we tried to emulate some of the illustrations provided in the book. I also told her that, at this point in my life, I’m less interested in striking powerful poses and more interested in being approachable – even vulnerable – in the hopes of connecting with others. With several travel hours left to go, I continued reading, and I didn’t stop for the next two days. What I found in the book was pretty amazing. It was written by Amy Cuddy, a Harvard Business School professor and social psychologist, whose research focuses on body language and how it affects our minds and influences our connections with those around us.
Maybe I should start by explaining why “presence” was my single resolution for 2016. I know that I am not alone when I say that I struggle with being present, but, I mean, I REALLY struggle with being present. I am never driven to distraction. I am permanently distracted – by noises, by thoughts, and by inner anxiety-driven voices that clamor for my attention. I’d like to write it off to 2 kids, a dog, 6 volunteer gigs, 200 daily texts and e-mails, and the ever-persistent nagging voice that says I should be doing something more with my life. But, honestly, I’ve always been like this. I. Cannot. Focus.
As my children get older, the difficulty with focus is becoming more and more obvious to me, and it is something I’m working on. I have told my girls that they need to make sure I’m actually listening when they are speaking. Isn’t that terrible? After we watched a movie together, my older daughter asked, “Mom, did you just watch the movie, or did you actually SEE it?” In fairness, I’ve given them this language and the ability to call me out on it. It’s important to me that they know that I’m working on it and that I really do care.
Through extensive research, Amy Cuddy has found that feeling powerful can actually lead to presence. According to Cuddy, the path to that power starts by silencing those internal voices. “We can’t be fully engaged in an interaction when we are busy second-guessing ourselves and attending to the hamster wheel in our heads.” When we can quiet those voices, we can really listen to what others are saying. Cuddy reminds us, “When you listen to someone, it’s the most profound act of human respect. Listening is crucial to presence. It also means we need to overcome our fear of silence – of space.”
I’ve always known it was important to listen; I’ve just never been very good at it. I remember some 15 years ago, a good friend and I attempted to have dinner while practicing our listening skills. We made a rule that the first person had to completely finish her sentence before the other could speak. It was hilariously awkward, because we realized that we never did that in our everyday interactions, always attempting to finish each other’s sentences or to quickly think of something else we could add to the conversation before actually hearing what the other person was saying. It was a good exercise, and we still laugh about it to this day.
What I never gave much thought to was WHY I’m not a very good listener. Cuddy’s theory is that “when we feel powerless, we cannot be present… Feeling powerless impairs thought and often causes us to ‘go blank’. While we’re agonizing over what we imagine other people are thinking, we’re not listening to what they really do think.” Cuddy believes that you can pose your way to power and, thus, presence, using your body to calm the mind. “We can use our whole bodies – through posture, gesture, and movement – to enhance our personal power in an adaptive way when we need it most. The more we are aware of our anxieties, the easier they’ll be to shrug off the next time they pop up. It’s a game of Whack-a-mole we can win.” Cuddy emphasizes that power is a buffer against the negative emotions that keep us from truly connecting with those around us. “When we feel powerful, rather than adopting a vigilant stance towards others, we allow ourselves to be open – maybe even vulnerable.”
This theory makes a lot of sense to me, and while I have not put “starfish posing,” with my chest expanded and all of my limbs extended, into my daily routine, I have begun to learn how to ignore the noises, both external and internal, that keep me from focusing on what is being said.
Cuddy notes that, “Although our body language governs the way other people perceive us, our body language also governs how we perceive ourselves.” I understand that, too, and I decided that 2016 should also involve putting on something more than yoga clothes at least a couple of times a week – not because I care about what other people think of me, but because, according to Cuddy’s theory, it matters what I think about myself. To that end, I bought a few new clothes that would actually fit this ever-shifting frame, including a red skirt that I thought would be festive for the holidays.
I was excited to get dressed up one morning to test this theory, and I threw on my new red skirt. As my younger daughter dragged herself down the stairs for breakfast, she looked at me with one eye open and grunted, “’Sup, Little Red Riding Hood?” Following her down the stairs was my older daughter, who then pointed at my new look and said, “Yeah…what IS that?” I can tell that my tween-age daughters are not going to be in the business of improving my self-esteem or encouraging my feeling of personal power. This path to presence may be bumpier than I thought. Perhaps I should actually try DOING yoga in my yoga clothes, and I wouldn’t worry so much about being in them all day! Nah-maste.
In Presence, Cuddy also examines the question of whether we have a single static authentic self, another topic I’ve been interested in for a while. My 2015 resolution was to be more authentic in my daily interactions. Years ago, my company brought in a facilitator to help us all learn how to communicate better by understanding each team member’s innate personalities. After asking us to answer hundreds of questions, the facilitator gathered us to discuss the analysis. She asked me if I was exhausted all of the time, because, apparently, what I was projecting to others and how I was perceived by others (I am strong, I am in charge, I have the answers) was 180 degrees from what I was feeling inside (I am weak, I am afraid, I have no idea what I am talking about). Cuddy notes that “most modern-day psychologists and philosophers agree that we do not possess a fully integrated, permanent authentic self.” Thank goodness I’m off the hook on that resolution, because I feel like I present at least 50 different versions of myself in any given year, and it sounds like all 50 of me are not alone.
Cuddy explains that a common barrier to presence is known as “imposterism” or the feeling that we don’t belong – that we’ve fooled people into thinking we’re more competent and talented than we actually are. “Imposterism steals our power and suffocates our presence. It causes us to overthink and second-guess. We’re scattered – worrying that we are underprepared, obsessing about what we should be doing, mentally reviewing what we said five seconds earlier, fretting about what people think of us and what that will mean for tomorrow.” There is no doubt that my personal power has been compromised by a feeling of imposterism through the years, especially when I was cast in the role of “consultant” at the ripe old age of 21. Looking back on that now, I wonder how I even survived, always trying to stay 5 minutes ahead of my clients and the next question they were going to ask. One of the most quoted lines from Cuddy’s now famous TED talk is “Don’t fake it till you make it, fake it till you become it.” And I guess that’s what I’m still trying to do, because there are parts of me that I DO believe in that deserve a chance to shine.
At times, Presence reads like a psychology textbook, but I didn’t mind that, since I was a closet psych major dressed up as an accounting major. There are several chapters that examine the obvious physical barriers to personal power and presence, such as the daily dose of hormones we are dealt, as well as countless other variables like “our relationship with our parents, how much sleep we got last night, the weather, what we ate for breakfast, how much coffee we consumed, the stability of our closest friendships, and so on.” Anyone who has known me for more than five minutes knows that I agree with the weather part for sure. They don’t call me “Weather Girl” for nothing… it really affects my being!
Cuddy’s research methods have recently come under fire, but that doesn’t surprise me, since no one seems to be happy anymore unless they’re criticizing someone or something. All I know is that I got a lot out of this book. I learned that Botox freezes more than your just your face… it inhibits your ability to feel emotions you can no longer express. Also, holding a pen in your teeth apparently makes the world seem funnier because it forces a smile. I think I’ll try that for the rest of the day.
Although there are hundreds of examples in the book, I’ll try to sum up the theory behind Presence with Cuddy’s simple words: “Your body shapes your mind, your mind shapes your behavior, and your behavior shapes your future.” So “Starfish Up” and start connecting! Speaking of the future, I’ve decided that 2017’s resolution-ary word is going to be “Grace.” Grace for others, because I realize that everyone is navigating their own challenges in this life, and Grace for myself, because I’m doing my best and that’s all I can ask.
Happy New Year! I’m all ears.
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A version of this essay first appeared in this month’s Nfocus, on stands now: