On a recent flight, I was deep into social psychologist and Harvard professor Amy Cuddy’s fascinating new book, Presence, when the woman next to me leaned over and said, “Is that the TED talk lady?”
By now, Cuddy is used to that description. Her 2012 TED talk, “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are,” touched a collective nerve, racking up more than 29 million online views. In her presentation, she urged the audience to make small changes like striking a superwoman-style “power pose” before tackling a difficult situation.
Cuddy also revealed in the talk that she suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident when she was 19. Her IQ dropped by two standard deviations, forcing her to struggle through years of therapy before she regained her mental clarity and graduated from college.
Cuddy’s experience motivated her to study psychology, and in Presence she takes mountains of research about body language and translates it into simple, useful insights for taking control of your life by being more “present.”
I spoke to Cuddy from Rome, where she had just delivered a presentation to a group of human resources professionals. Despite her jet lag, she sounded buoyant and, well, present when talking about her new book.
You recently tweeted, “When we stop looking after our own posture, we are abandoning ourselves.” What do you mean by that?
Posture is one of the ways to be one’s authentic best self. If we start slouching or hunching over our phones, or wrapping ourselves in our shawls, we’re doing things that are leading away from our best selves. We’re putting ourselves in these powerless poses without thinking about it.
After reading your chapter, “I don’t deserve to be here,” I have to wonder: Why do so many people feel like an imposter?
One [reason] is that we feel we need to present a confident version of ourselves, so we’re not allowed to communicate any self-doubt. Self-doubt is like blood in the water and the sharks will come get you. We assume everyone else is fine, and we’re the only ones who feel self-doubt. But of course we all do. We’re human!
We often have this sense that the community we’re in is more homogenous than it is, and we’re the ones who are different in a bad way. Oh, I’m from a farm town, so I don’t fit in at a place like Harvard. It’s not even status-based. You could be a [Harvard] legacy, you could be a first-generation immigrant. We all sometimes attribute success to luck.
I was surprised to read that this happens as much to men as women. Is it just a stereotype that women are more apologetic and less sure of themselves?
After the TED talk, I got thousands of emails, and half were from men saying they felt like a phony or fraud. I couldn’t believe it. I started to dig in, because I didn’t know the imposter literature very well. Then it started to line up for me that men have this burden where they’re not allowed to share this feeling, so they’re really in the dark.
You have interesting and wide-ranging conversations in the book. I was particularly taken by the one with actress Julianne Moore. Why did you want to talk with her?
It was never the plan to include performers in the book. But I met her, and she was so fascinated with this whole idea. The way she articulated her understanding of presence was just as I would as a scientist. She is great at leaving everything behind and being in the moment. Everyone she works with says she’s totally reliable at being present. And she’s phenomenally good about explaining what it’s all about. It’s about power; it’s about openness and not fearing social judgment. It’s about the moment and not about this huge, transcendent permanent state that you get to.
You write quite a bit about the power of yoga, yet you confess to not being a yoga person. Have you given it another try?
I promise I’m going to when my life slows down! And I know that completely goes against all my own advice, but I just can’t seem to get it started. I am definitely going to become a yoga person.
Yoga was always kind of marginalized, so scientists didn’t want to study it. Now there’s a heap of research. I use the example in the book of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s this proud group of mostly men, who you don’t associate with yoga, and still it works for them. It works because you’re focusing on the movement and the posture instead of what’s happening. Most of the postures are pretty expansive, even if you’re on the ground or in downward dog. And expansive poses are hardwired to make you feel powerful.
You have a teenage son. How do you think the concept of presence can be applied to parenting?
I hear from so many parents who practice presence with their kids. One of the things is to start early when the kids are not so self-conscious about doing funny things like striking a power pose.
You know how you can wrap a piece of paper around a pen, [and the paper stays curled]? That’s what I imagine when I see my son’s female friends and how much their body language has collapsed since they’ve started middle school. We need to start practicing presence much earlier. Kids have in some ways the boldest body language because they are not constrained by cultural norms or stereotypes.
Writing, teaching, parenting: How do you achieve balance in life?
I think I’m doing way too much. That’s the totally honest truth. And I’m trying to do it all full time and perfectly. I’m still kind of struggling with my fears of being insignificant if I stop doing all these work things.
I’m divorced and remarried, and I have my son half of the week. For that half of the week, I get home as early as I can. My son is super savvy, though. He’ll say, ‘You’re not really being present with me, Mom.’ So that helps!