How to Use Embodied Cognition to Boost Confidence as a Leader

I used to slouch. A lot.

My posture was terrible, but despite popular wisdom, it didn’t seem to hold me back. Not that I noticed, anyway.

I’d somehow been fortunate enough to lead my own company and miraculously managed to convince people that I knew what I was doing. Fake it ‘til you make it, right? I felt like I was hanging onto my luck for dear life.

Then, Boston’s Snowmageddon of 2015 hit, and I hurt my back raking snow off my roof. Then, I hurt my back again in super rough water on a 37 Intrepid off the coast of Sardinia.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my back was actually broken.

What I did know is that it felt really good to stand up and sit up straight. And so, that’s what I did. I went from a sloucher to the best posture of my life out of necessity almost overnight.

It wasn’t until someone else pointed it out to me that I realized… I felt better in an emotional sense, too. Almost immediately, I naturally felt more positive and self-assured. My mood and outlook were completely different.

Most surprisingly of all, it dawned on me that the self-doubt I’d been living with my entire professional life—the voice in the back of my head saying “They’re going to find out you don’t know what you’re doing” or “You don’t deserve to be here”—wasn’t quite so loud.

I hadn’t even realized that I was second-guessing myself so much. I always worried I’d be exposed as a “fraud”. I thought that was a fact of life I couldn’t change.

Now my eyes were opened… I wasn’t a fraud. I just felt like one.

It was such a stark shift that I immediately dug in to find out, “Why did this happen?”

Am I good enough to have Imposter Syndrome?

Impostor Syndrome is the fear or feeling that your accomplishments are because of dumb luck and not your own merits or efforts. It’s characterized by feeling like a fraud or an imposter—like you’re faking it, and soon everyone will find out.

According to an article review by The International Journal of Behavioral Science, up to 70% of people have experienced it at some point in their lives.


Most people will experience Imposter Syndrome at some point in their lives (comic by Bradford Veley)

We will explore Imposter Syndrome more specifically in a future article, but even in a broader sense of general self-doubt, the feeling is debilitating and interferes with our overall happiness and mental healthfulness.

I know that from my own experience. Before, I frequently doubted myself and thought I was only successful due to luck or some kind of mistake.

And while obviously we want to feel as good as possible, this had detrimental effects beyond my mood. I also saw a big effect on my business and employees.

The impact on your business

Imposter Syndrome has many side effects that impact your business. If you’re suffering from self-doubt, you’ll find these problems draining your work life…

  • You waste time second-guessing your own decisions
  • You often feel driven to perfectionism, taking longer to complete even routine tasks
  • Meetings will be more strained, because you’re uncomfortable, making attendees uncomfortable, making everything very, very awkward
  • You pass on opportunities… because you’re not sure you’re good enough to handle them

Imposter Syndrome makes it harder to build connections, accomplish projects, and make good decisions. In my case, my lack of confidence undeniably had a negative effect on my business’ bottom line and added anxiety to my personal life.

How do you fix Imposter Syndrome?

So, how do you overcome it? There’s several ways, but there’s one way that doesn’t work: more success.

Often we fall into the trap of believing that if we just reach that one goal, accomplish one more thing, we will finally feel as though we “made it.”

But as Dr. Cuddy explains, tackling the feeling isn’t so simple:

“Here’s the cruel irony: achievements don’t stamp out imposter syndrome. In fact, success can actually make them worse. We can’t reconcile a lofty vision of ourselves with our secret knowledge that we don’t deserve it.”

As you accomplish more, and receive more praise, money, or any other manifestation of success, your Imposter Syndrome will actually feel more pronounced. Because you’ll look around and feel like it’s all been by accident, and you’re closer to being “discovered” as a fraud every day.

Since you can’t fix it through external approval, we have to look internally: by boosting your confidence.

Which comes first, feeling good or looking like it?

It’s the classic chicken or the egg dilemma. Does your mindset shape your body language, or does your body language shape your mindset?

Conventional knowledge says it’s the first. It’s why we think we can “read” body language. If we’re mad, we scowl. Sad, we frown. Happy, we jump up and down and squeal in delight. Well, maybe if your boss isn’t looking.

Similarly, we tend to believe that you can project certain impressions with body language—that you can wear body language as a mask to trick people into thinking you feel a particular way. Stand tall so people think you’re confident. Stroke your chin so people think you’re engaged. Lean forward if you want people to know you care.

But something often overlooked is that the cause-and-effect connection between body and mind is a two-way street. Not only can we trick other people… we can actually trick ourselves into feeling differently.

It’s more than just an illusion—there is an actual, noticeable, measurable impact on our mental state and performance when we hold our bodies in specific ways.

Science has a word for everything these days

Researchers call the effect the body has on our mind “embodied cognition.”

“Smile until you feel happy” and “power posing” aren’t just positive thinking mumbo-jumbo—it’s supported by science, and the implications are astounding.

As we move through the world, we can use embodied cognition to our advantage by creating a positive feedback loop that leaves us feeling better and empowers us to be better decision-makers and leaders. And the good news is, once you know what to do, it’s incredibly easy.

To get there, let’s briefly explore what embodied cognition is, how science explains the phenomenon, and how you can use it to your advantage to boost your confidence, overcome Imposter Syndrome, and ultimately, become a stronger leader.

What is “embodied cognition”?

One of the most prominent and recognized researchers in the body-mind connection today is social psychologist Dr. Amy Cuddy.

You might recognize her from her groundbreaking 2012 TED talk, “Your body language may shape who you are.” It’s racked up a whopping 52 million views.

At the conference, Dr. Cuddy shared her research on how “power posing” can boost feelings of confidence. She found that when test subjects held expansive, open postures, they were significantly more likely to engage in risk-taking behavior and report feeling “powerful.”

The opposite held true as well—when test subjects held constricted, clenched postures, they described themselves as feeling “powerless” and behaved more reservedly.

We’ve known for a while that good posture makes you appear more confident, but it goes beyond appearance.

In her book, Presence, Dr. Cuddy expands upon this idea. Her chapter titled “The Body Shapes the Mind” highlights several of her research-supported conclusions about expansive body language. The promises are pretty impressive, to say the least.

“Expanding your body language—through posture, movement, and speech—makes you feel more confident and powerful, less anxious and self-absorbed, and generally more positive.”

She goes on to claim that it clears your head, helps you feel more creative, and aids your brain when you need to solve difficult problems that require persistent, abstract thinking. It can also override your fight-or-flight reflex, helping you remain calm and engage in the present.

I know, those are some big claims. I wouldn’t be talking to you about it if I hadn’t seen it work for real in my own life, in a huge way.

But I’ve always been a skeptic myself, and before I bought into it, I needed to research the biological side of things. Let’s look into what’s going on beneath the surface.

How does biology explain embodied cognition?

We spoke in another article about the mind-body nerve, called the vagus nerve. This is why your stomach hurts when you’re anxious, or you shake when you’re scared.

This nerve brings your body’s sensations to your brain, and takes your brain’s feedback out to your body. Scientists have known about this nerve since the days of Darwin, but only recently have they realized this superhighway of information is a two-way street.

This means your mind pays attention to how your body feels. If your body is feeling good, your brain figures everything is going well. What does this look like for our brain’s chemistry?

Let’s return to Dr. Amy Cuddy and her research on the effect of “postural feedback.”

In her studies, Dr. Cuddy found that in addition to simply “feeling more powerful,” her test subjects who held an expansive pose for two minutes also experienced a 19% increase in testosterone and a 25% decrease in cortisol.

Inversely, test subjects who held a constricted pose for the same amount of time experienced a 10% decrease in testosterone and a 17% increase in cortisol.

If you’ve heard about power posing before, you may have heard about the backlash the idea has received in recent years. Despite initially weathering some unprecedentedly aggressive criticism from peers and seeing some researchers struggle to replicate her results, in 2018, Dr. Cuddy released an academic response that put the criticism to bed.

The exact level of hormonal change is still under debate, but her synthesis of 55 different studies supports postural feedback, and power posing specifically, as a real and meaningful psychological phenomenon. The mechanism of exactly how it helps isn’t conclusive, but we do know it does help real people feel better every day.

Whatever the exact mechanism, real, physical changes happen in your brain as a result of the sensations in your body. So how do you change your body language to upgrade your confidence?

How to expand your body to brighten your mind

When you use expansive postures, you are “expanding” to take up more space. You might stand like Superman, feet planted about shoulder-width apart, hands on your hips, back straight, chin tilted up. You might lounge like the Godfather, arms and chest open, legs sprawling, and arms waving with expressive body language.

It’s not restricted to your physical body, either. If you’re expanding your presence, you might talk more slowly and firmly, your words taking up more space in the conversation and room.

Inversely, when you use constricted postures, you’re hiding like a turtle in your shell to take up less space. You may cross your arms over your chest, bow your head, and hunch your shoulders.

All of these are protective positions. They signal to your brain that you are in danger, increasing feelings of fear and discomfort.

Examples of high power and low power poses (from CamsKids.com)


How to use the High Power Pose

Dr. Cuddy suggests spending two minutes in a power pose before any important event where you want to feel confident—an interview, a date, a business meeting, etc. You can lock yourself in a bathroom stall, hide around the corner, it doesn’t matter, so long as you give yourself the time and privacy.

Pose expansively for two minutes right before the event, and you’ll go into your meeting feeling powerful and ready to go.

Trust me, it works

I unintentionally stumbled upon this solution when I changed my posture after breaking my back. I wasn’t even considering the science behind it—I was just trying to minimize the pressure on my spine.

I won’t say better posture cured my self-doubt, per say. But once I started incorporating more expansive body postures into my daily life, I saw continued improvement.

How to Start

Here are some techniques you can try to put embodied cognition to work boosting your confidence:

  • Hold an expansive posture (or power pose) for two minutes before important events.
  • Experiment with adding 20 minutes of yoga or meditation to your daily routine (try mindful meditation apps or free yoga video channels online)
  • Practice good posture throughout your day, reminding yourself to occupy the space around you.

If it seems simple, it’s because it is. But simple doesn’t mean ineffective. As we’ve seen, psychology, neurology, biology, and good ol’ human intuition all support the bidirectionality of the body-mind connection.

Usually, you’d see a disclaimer—”It might take weeks to see results!”—but I would implore you to go ahead and give this a shot. See if you don’t feel an immediate difference in your emotional state.

You’ll feel more confident and secure in the knowledge that you are worthy of all the success headed your way.

Try it for a bit, and let me know how it goes for you. Do you notice a difference in your mood? Your productivity? Your confidence? I’d love to hear your story! Email me at blog@leadermind.com and we’ll feature your success in our next newsletter!

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Harry Schechter


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