LeaderMind

How to Use Embodied Cognition to Boost Confidence as a Leader

I used to slouch. A lot.

For whatever reason, my posture was terrible. But despite popular wisdom, it didn’t seem to
hold me back in a professional sense. Even with it, I’d somehow been fortunate enough to be able to lead my own company and miraculously managed to bluff confidence enough to convince people that I knew what I was doing.

Fake it ‘til you make it, right? 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.

However, 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. My mood and outlook were different. I felt more positive and self-assured.

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 consciously realized that I was second-guessing myself, always worried I’d be exposed as a “fraud” despite never having misrepresented myself. It was so eye-opening and such a stark shift that I immediately dug in to find out, “Why did this happen?”

A bidirectional mind-body connection

Chicken or egg. Does your mindset shape your body language, or your body language shape your mindset?

Conventional knowledge says the first. It’s why we think we can “read” body language. Mad, you scowl. Sad, you frown. Happy, jump up and down and squeal in delight. (…Right?)

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. 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.

We 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 since 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.”

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 expounds 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 . . .

 

“. . . Expanding your body causes you to think about yourself in a positive light and to trust in that self-concept. It also clears your head, making space for creativity, cognitive persistence, and abstract thinking . . .

“. . . Expanding your body physiologically prepares you to be present; it overrides your instinct to fight or flee, allowing you to be grounded, open, and engaged.”

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. And 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 tucking in like a turtle in your shell to take up less space. You may cross your arms over your chest, bow your head, and hunch over. 

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

 

Her practical suggestion is for you to spend 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.

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

Now let’s look into what’s going on beneath the surface.

How does biology explain embodied cognition?

The idea that the body and mind are connected is not new. Even if we weren’t able to scientifically explain it, humans have instinctively known about this connection for a long time.

According to Merriam Webster, the term “heartbreak” has been used to describe crushing grief or anguish since the fourteen century. Anyone who has felt heartbreak can tell you, it’s more than just a metaphor—it’s a physical sensation. But how?

Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk—one of the leading researchers on post-traumatic stress—identifies the body-mind connection as a cornerstone of psychology. In his book, The Body Keeps the Score, he highlights an excerpt written by Charles Darwin in The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals.

 

  “Heart, guts, and brains communicate intimately via the ‘pneumogastric’ nerve*, the nerve involved in the expression and management of emotions in both humans and animals. When the mind is strongly excited, it instantly affects the state of the viscera; so that under excitement there will be much action and reaction between these, the two most important organs of the body.”

*Today, we call the pneumogastric nerve the vagal nerve.

The vagus nerve (from Anatomy of the Human Body by Henry Vandyke Carter and Henry Gray)

 

That text, published in 1897, might be the earliest recorded scientific recognition of a body-mind connection. And yet, as Dr. Van der Kolk points out, the bidirectionality of it has been largely ignored by Western science until very recently.

Said differently, while we’ve recognized that the mind influences the body for centuries, we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface in regards to the way the body influences the mind.

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.

(Despite initially weathering some unprecedentedly aggressive criticism from peers and a seeing some researchers struggle to replicate her results, in 2018, Dr. Cuddy released an academic response that put the criticism to bed: while hormone changes remain uncertain, her synthesis of 55 different studies assuredly supports “postural feedback” (and power posing specifically) as a real and meaningful psychological phenomenon in changing one’s mental state.)

What Cuddy and Van der Kolk all are trying to say is that real, physical changes happen in your brain as a result of the sensations in your body.

Okay, but why?

What do psychology and neurology say about embodied cognition?

Many researchers have joined Dr. Cuddy as recognized names in the study of mind-body connections, bridging the gap between academia and practical psychology.

Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett is a leading psychologist and neurologist specializing in affective psychology, or the psychology of emotions.

In her 2017 award-winning book, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, she challenges the idea that our emotions are “automatic, universal, and hardwired in different brain regions.” Instead, she asserts that each instance of emotion is constructed through “a unique interplay of brain, body, and culture.”

Dr. Feldman Barrett explains that we operate with a subconscious “body budget”—that is, we have a finite amount of energy that our brain is constantly figuring out how to expend most efficiently and effectively.

To accomplish this, our brain makes a number of predictions; it evaluates stimulus and predicts the best response. Here, she explains:

“Simulations are your brain’s guesses of what’s happening in the world. In every waking moment, you’re faced with ambiguous, noisy information from your eyes, ears, nose, and other sensory organs. Your brain uses your past experiences to construct a hypothesis—the simulation—and compares it to the cacophony arriving from your senses. In this manner, simulation lets your brain impose meaning on the noise, selecting what’s relevant and ignoring the rest.”

That stimulus can be internal or external—that is, the way the world feels or the way it feels to exist inside of your body. When your body feels a particular way, your brain recalls a previous circumstance when you felt that way, and responds with emotions that match.

Dr. Feldman Barrett sums it up succinctly:

“An emotion is your brain’s creation of what your bodily sensations mean, in relation to what is going on around you in the world.”

It follows that, by taking on a posture that you had when you felt confident, you can “trick” your body into feeling confident once again.

This gels completely a central technique Dr. Van der Kolk and Dr. Cuddy both suggest for treating post-traumatic stress and creating a long lasting, positive shift in the brain: yoga and meditation. Both researchers cite different reasoning for yoga and meditation’s effectiveness but come to the same conclusion.

Dr. Van der Kolk cites polyvagal theory—the connection between the mind and the autonomic nervous system. To oversimplify it, by helping your body to practice relaxing through yoga, patients with trauma train their brain to exit fight or flight mode. Lower the heart rate, slow the breathing, pay attention to the sensations in your body, and a relaxed feeling will follow.

Dr. Cuddy cites postural feedback. Yoga and meditation exemplify open, expansive poses. When you practice yoga, in particular, you practice occupying more space, effectively power posing for an extended period of time. The fearless poses cause your body to increase testosterone and decrease cortisol, lowering anxiety and increasing confidence.

Likely, the reason is a combination of polyvagal theory, postural feedback, and other mechanisms to be discovered—but regardless, the results are difficult to deny.

The Journal of Military Medicine has conducted several studies that show that 83% of veterans with PTSD who practice meditation regularly stabilize their symptoms. That’s compared with the typical >40% of veterans with PTSD who need significant increases in medication and other interventions.

It’s impressive, to say the least. But what does this mean for you? How can you put it into effect in your daily life?

How can you use embodied cognition to boost confidence?

My unique brand of self-doubt was called Imposter Syndrome, and it’s much more prevalent than you might think.

Impostor Syndrome is the fear or feeling that your accomplishments are because of luck and not due to 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 broad sense, self-doubt is debilitating and interferes with our overall happiness and mental healthfulness. I know that from my own experience—at the beginning of this article, I told you about how I frequently doubted myself and thought I was only in my positions 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.

Because I was second-guessing my decisions, I found myself taking longer to complete tasks than necessary. I was more nervous in meetings with important prospects, which is something that comes across in conversation and makes it harder to build connections.

And, in retrospect, I realize that I probably missed out on some opportunities like conferences and meet-ups because I thought, “I’m not at everybody else’s level—I’d be out of place.”

My lack of confidence undeniably had a negative effect on my business’ bottom line and it was adding anxiety to my life.

So, how do you overcome it? Often we fall into the trap of believing that if we just reach that one goal, accomplish one more thing, that 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. Worldly success introduces us to others who will hold us to a standard we can’t possibly meet, thus revealing our true weak, incompetent selves.”

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

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.

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 and see if you don’t feel an immediate difference in your emotional state, confidence, and 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 EMAIL to chat about it.

Harry Schechter

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