We all wear our emotions on our body.
You smile when you’re happy, frown when you’re sad, and tense your shoulders when you’re stressed. You walk tall when you feel good and look down when you feel self conscious.
These things are not intentional. They happen automatically.
It’s because language is relatively recent in the whole span of human evolution. Our ancient ancestors communicated their intentions and feelings using body language and gesture. Over time, a link simply formed between how we feel and its physical expression.
Now, today, our feelings show up on our face and throughout our body almost instantly.
But this connection also runs the other way. It’s a two-way street. Scientists call it ‘bi-directional’.
Your feelings show up on your body but the way you hold and move your body also affects your feelings.
In a simple study led by Amy Cuddy at Harvard, volunteers either held a high-power or low-power posture for just two minutes.
A high-power posture is a classic Wonder Woman or Superman stance, with shoulders open, legs apart, and hands on hips. A low-power posture, on the other hand, is a closed posture, like having your arms folded, shoulders turned in, or legs crossed.
After just two minutes, those holding the high-power posture had significantly increased levels of hormones associated with confidence and self esteem and much reduced stress hormones. For those who did the low-power postures, it went the other way; stress hormones went up and confidence hormones came down.
In another study, people in a large office had their backs taped to their chairs to keep their posture straight and upright, while others were allowed to slouch. After twenty minutes, those who had sat straight were found to be more positive, have higher energy, and they also gave better, more effective presentations in a stress test.
This is where people are suddenly told that they have to give a short presentation in front of their peers and that they only have a short time to prepare. It causes stress in most people, but it caused less stress and was more easily handled in those who had sat up straight at their desks rather than slouched.
Sitting up straight had made these individuals feel more alert, more confident, and more effective. Sitting slouched made them feel tired.
People often say they slouch because they feel tired. That may be true. But slouching will also make you feel tired. It’s a downward cycle.
You do the thing because of how you feel but doing the thing actually creates or reinforces how you feel.
If you want to break the cycle, force yourself to sit up straight and take some deeper breaths, or even get up, straighten your spine, pull your shoulders back, and walk around for a minute or two.
It’s a really simple practice for giving you more energy and mental clarity in the moment.
But it can be taken a stage even further and these short-term effects turned into longer term changes. It just takes a bit of practice. Here’s how.
Any repetitive muscle movement shapes the circuits of the brain, essentially wiring in the movement until it becomes easy and habit. We think of the result as muscle memory.
While we usually think of muscle memory as associated with particular tasks or skills, any consistent muscle movement becomes muscle memory, even the muscle movements involved in posture.
Suppose you make consistent adjustments to the muscles of your face, neck, shoulders, and back, so that you teach yourself to hold and move your body in a way that reflects greater self-confidence or self-esteem.
So you might straighten your back, stand or sit up straight, walk upright and at a relaxed pace, relax your shoulders, even pulling them back a little bit, hold your head upright, relax your neck and facial muscles, and gently smile.
The consistent practice creates new muscle memory and with it also a much longer lasting sense of energy, confidence, and self esteem. The long lasting effects come because muscle memory is essentially ‘wired in’ to the brain. And since these muscle positions and movements are associated with positive feelings, the feelings are wired in too.
I admit that it sounds a bit too good to be true, such an overly simple way to feel more confident and raise your self esteem without having to do any specific mental practices or write stuff down.
But as well as the science of the bi-directional connection between the mind and the body, I learned the benefits from personal experience.
I began writing my seventh book, ‘I Heart Me: The Science of Self Love’, back in 2014. Unknown to my friends, fellow authors, colleagues, and readers of my books, I was struggling with my own self esteem (self love) at the time.
I wrote the book because I figured that by embarking on such a project I would have to learn to love myself more, otherwise I would not be able to complete the book.
One of the biggest breakthroughs I made during the two years it took me to write the book was from simply consistently adjusting my posture so that my body reflected how I wanted to feel.
I was relentless in my determination. On some days, I even set my phone to ping me every hour or two just to remind me to check how I was holding and moving my body at that time.
If I was slouching or holding my face or shoulders in a way that betrayed a lack of self confidence or self esteem, I quicky and affirmatively made necessary adjustments, dropping and pulling back my shoulders, lengthening my spine, relaxing my face, and breathing a little more deeply.
Within just a month or two, I felt better inside than I’d ever felt. I felt better about myself. I had more confidence. I found myself acting more confidently in situations I’d struggled in previously, yet I wasn’t even trying. The muscle memory had ensured that my positive internal feeling was stronger and more stable. It was so effective that, even today, it’s still my number one Go-to when I need more energy or a little boost to my mood or confidence in any particular situation.
So if you want to boost your confidence or self esteem, give this technique a go.
It just requires a little bit of commitment to make consistent tweaks to your posture, but it’s more than worth the effort.
Copyright 2022 David R. Hamilton PhD.