Transforming Distress into Success-- Your Body As a Resource for Positive Change

When you’re preparing for a presentation or a job interview, do you feel connected to the energy and presence of your body?  Are you aware of how much your body is communicating to your audience-- and how that contributes to a successful outcome?

I recently listened again to social psychologist Amy Cuddy’s dynamic TED Global 2012 talk, “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are” (http://bit.ly/1itkgWM).  This is one of the top fifty most popular TED talks ever!  Wonder why?  Could it be that learning to feel attuned to our body and what it communicates non-verbally to others is one of the most important elements of feeling genuinely successful in all aspects of our lives?                                                        

An innovative professor at Harvard Business School, Cuddy is particularly interested in the role body language plays as a resource for people needing to access their inner power for professional purposes. We ignore the ways in which our body language affects how we think of ourselves at our peril, she says, in terms of successfully relating to others.

I remember once giving a presentation to a group of about eighty people who’d been laid off from high-level management positions.  These were people who’d been accustomed to having power on the job-- and now felt personally, as well as professionally, diminished by the loss of it.  The energy level in that room was so low.  I could see shoulders sagging, heads drooping, and chests pulled in tightly.  I felt as if I were in a room of defeated warriors, still trying to engage, but from a place of feeling like victims.

There was one woman, in particular, who caught my eye because the different parts of her body seemed disconnected from one another.  She walked as if her head was going in one direction, her torso in another, while her legs couldn’t keep up with either.  This was not a physical dysfunction per se, but a bodily expression of an emotional impasse.  To me it said that this woman was trying to do the right thing, sending out resumes for similar job positions and going to networking meetings, but not believing in the direction she was going or whether she was capable of being successful again.

After I led the group through some energy-building exercises, I asked if anyone wished to have a ten-minute coaching session with me at the front of the room.  This same woman, Kara, raised her hand and came forward.  I admit, at this point, I had a moment of slight panic, because I wasn’t sure that I could help anyone so unaligned and unaware in her body make a positive change in ten minutes.

When I asked what change she wanted to make, she mumbled a rote phrase about finding a human resources position again.  As she said this, her body began to droop significantly.  At this point, I stopped her and asked, “What is one thing that nobody here in this room knows about you?”  Suddenly, effortlessly, Kara’s body straightened and aligned itself, and she spoke in a passionate voice about her volunteer work as a fundraising auctioneer for a nonprofit agency that she cared about.  She beamed at the group in the room who cheered and applauded her!

Kara’s story illustrates exactly what Cuddy says in her TED talk (and to which all somatic/body-mind awareness therapies I know of concur)-- that closing up your body expresses fear and powerlessness to others, and most importantly, yourself.  On the other hand, expanding your body and extending its reach expresses power and elation to others-- and again, most importantly, to yourself.  

Cuddy’s research-validated suggestion is that we take two minutes before any important encounter to practice opening our bodies by stretching, taking up space, and feeling large in ourselves.  This lifts our testosterone level for confident action and reduces the cortisol hormone that causes stress, all of which prepares us for a successful interview, presentation, or other forms of public engagement.  As Kara’s experience shows, this works-- at least, as a beginning step.

As Cuddy says, it takes a lot of practice before “faking it till you make it” can become the ultimate transformation of no longer faking it, but becoming it.  I would also add, in my experience as a coach and somatic facilitator, that people often need support to do this for: 1) envisioning what they really want in their careers and whole lives; and 2) developing awareness of what opens and what constricts our bodies’ energy and expressiveness.  With this kind of support, your brain can make the changes, and your body reveal the presence of your spirit in your successful engagement with others-- and with yourself.