What does it mean when someone has a “presence” or “aura” about themselves – when someone walks into a room and they just ooze confidence, enthusiasm, and self-assurance?
This type of person often doesn’t even have to say anything or do anything special, yet they automatically draw attention from whomever they are near. We find ourselves thinking, “There is just something about that person, but I can’t explain it!”
In Presence: Bring Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, psychologist Amy Cuddy does a wonderful job explaining this phenomenon and how we can bring it out in ourselves.
“Presence” – like aura – is a form of personal power. Ultimately, it comes down to how you carry yourself and the atmosphere you bring with you wherever you go. It stems from truly knowing yourself, believing in yourself, and trusting yourself in the moment.
Many people try to fake confidence or enthusiasm by self-consciously changing themselves. We learn about confident and dominant body language, so we try to mimic it during a date, job interview, or public presentation.
However, “faking confidence” in this way can often backfire on us. People are good , so when they see someone puffing up their chest and standing up as straight as a board, we easily discover this person is trying to portray something that they aren’t.
Presence is effortless. It doesn’t require acting or forcing ourselves to be something we’re not. In fact, it’s precisely that type of endless self-monitoring that takes us out of the moment and makes us appear phony, manipulative, or foolish.
Presence allows you to tap into inner resources you already have – it brings out your best and most sincere self. It creates a powerful aura around you that anyone can pick up on.
Affirm your core values
In a lot of Amy Cuddy’s research, she focuses on exercises we can do to build this inner presence and feel more powerful and comfortable in ourselves.
In one study, participants were instructed to write a short paragraph about a “core value” they hold dear or about a neutral topic. Participants were then asked to do something known as a Trier Social Stress Test that was designed to maximize their stress and anxiety levels.
During a Trier Social Stress Test, individuals are told to prepare a 5 minute presentation for a group of judges. The key feature of the test is that the judges are instructed to keep a neutral face and offer back absolutely zero feedback (verbal or nonverbal) during the presentation.
This often creates a very stressful situation for the presenter. Imagine performing for a group of people and they do nothing but stare at you with a blank face. No positive feedback. No negative feedback. They just stare at you as if you stumbled into the room accidentally and they have no idea why you are there.
To increase stress levels further, the presenters are able to create prep materials (like notes on index cards), but these materials are then “accidentally” lost before the presentation, so the presenter is left without them.
Stress levels are measured before and after the test, usually by measuring cortisol levels in their blood or saliva, as well as monitoring their heart rates.
The interesting finding of these studies was that individuals who were instructed to write about their “core values” beforehand were much better at adapting to these stress levels – sometimes experiencing no increase in cortisol levels at all.
As it turns out, being able to affirm your “core values” gives individuals a comfortable backbone that allows them to better navigate through these highly stressful situations.
These “self-affirmations” have shown to have positive effects in a wide range of circumstances.
- “Scores of other experiments have looked at self-affirmation inside and outside the lab, showing that it helps with raising grades and reducing bullying in schools, with quitting smoking and increasing healthful eating, with decreasing stress and improving the effectiveness of couples therapy outcomes, with sharpening negotiating skill and performance, among many other things. In fact, self-affirmation seems to work best when the pressure is on and the stakes are high.”
When you affirm your “core values,” you remind yourself who you are and what you stand for – and no one can take that away from you. This helps to provide you with an undeniable presence or aura that is independent of social judgments.
Anyone can practice this exercise on their own. Just take 15 minutes to write about a “core value” that really matters to you and helps define you as a person. It could be anything: intelligence, kindness, hard work, creativity, or even existence itself.
- “Together these studies make an important point: before heading into a situation where we may be challenged, we can reduce our anxiety by reaffirming the parts of our authentic best selves we value most. When we feel safe with ourselves, we become significantly less defensive and more open to feedback, making us better problem solvers, too.”
Your values are always yours and yours alone. Not even a ruthless dictator can take them away from you. That is why affirming these values to yourself can be so powerful – they focus your attention on what really matters to you and remind you what type of person you really are.
The psychological benefits of feeling powerful
Before we go into more ways you can build a presence and a powerful aura, I want to point out that there are two types of power in this world: “social power” and “personal power.”
“Social power” is defined externally. It usually includes things like our social status, our job, our wealth, our good looks, our relationships, and our material possessions. Having these things can certainly make life easier and they can make you feel more powerful, but we often have limited control over them.
However, “personal power” is defined internally. It’s about how you feel about yourself and how you see yourself. Do you consider yourself a person who deserves happiness or success? Do you consider yourself a person that adds value to the world? These are all based on your internal evaluations of yourself.
All feelings of power can have huge psychological benefits. For example, in one study researchers primed people to feel more powerful or less powerful by assigning them to a “superior” or “subordinate” position. Individuals who were primed to feel more powerful did a lot better on a range of cognitive tasks, including a popular test known as the “2 Back Test,” where participants need to rely on their short-term memory to remember where a square is positioned on a grid.
When researchers prime people to feel powerful, those who feel more powerful tend to perform better on tests that measure their cognitive ability, problem-solving skills, spatial tasks, and creativity. It’s also been shown to reduce stress and anxiety which often take up our mental resources and block our ability to bring out our best self.
Feeling powerful is important for a number of reasons. And while “social power” can be difficult to change in the real world, “personal power” is something that we have much more flexibility to change in our lives. It’s important to remember that we can learn to feel like kings even if we don’t have a crown or throne.
Presence: Bring Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges is a life-changing book by Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy. It shares unique and practical advice on how to build a stronger presence in yourself with exercises backed by the latest research in psychology, plus fascinating stories of how these techniques have helped people in the real world. One of the best psychology books in recent memory!
How your body shapes your mind
Amy Cuddy is most famous for her research on how our bodies can shape our minds. She’s developed a technique that psychologists now call “power posing.” You might’ve already seen her hit TED Talk called “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are,” which is a great introduction to these ideas.
One of the most interesting findings in psychology is that we don’t just think with our minds, we actually think with our entire bodies.
A popular study done in the 80s first showed that when people unknowingly mimic a “sad” or “happy” face (by holding a pen in their mouth a certain way), those who mimicked the “happy” face were more likely to enjoy a cartoon and rate it as more funny. This is known as the “facial feedback hypothesis,” which states that our facial expressions can play an active role in changing our emotional state.
Our brain is constantly paying attention to the signals our body is sending to it and responding to it in kind, not just through our facial expressions but also through our body posture and gestures.
Using this knowledge, Amy Cuddy invented “power posing.” The basic idea is to find a “high power posture” and mimic it for 2 minutes. Studies show that this can not only increase feelings of power, but also affect us on a hormonal level by decreasing cortisol and increasing testosterone.
Here are examples of different “high” and “low” power postures:
The postures in the top row are the ones you want to practice to increase feelings of power and build a more powerful aura. The middle one, also known as the “Wonder Woman,” is one of the most common ones.
Remember that the goal is to practice these before you enter a stressful situation – but not to actually do them in the situation, which can come off as phony or manipulative.
For example, if you are preparing for an important job interview or date, you can do a quick “power pose” for a couple minutes before going out. Or if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed during an anxious situation, you can always excuse yourself to the bathroom and do a quick “power pose” before you return to the situation.
You can also create your own power poses. You can often find athletes doing their own version of a power pose after a victory or during a celebration – you can find pictures of these on Google Images (a search for “athlete victory”) and adopt them to your own “power posing” routine.
What if you’re disabled and can’t physically mimic these postures? Interestingly, Cuddy mentions in the book how just visualizing yourself doing a “power pose” can have similar effects! This can be convenient for individuals who may not have the time or space to do a “power pose” in every situation.
Change your breathing
Our breathing is very much the anchor of our existence which makes it a very powerful thing to pay attention to.
While most of our breathing is done involuntarily, we have voluntary control over it – and we can often use this control to change our state of mind in various ways.
Emma Seppälä from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence has a great bit of wisdom on breathing from this passage in the book:
- “‘Breath is such a wonderful way to reduce your physiological activation,’ said Seppälä. ‘Understanding that you can control your breathing is a first step in understanding how you can control your anxiety – that you have the tools to do it yourself. When your mind is racing, when something unexpected happens in a social situation, when you don’t know what to do, you know you can calm yourself by controlling your breathing.’”
This makes perfect sense. Think about how your breathing changes when you feel stressed or anxious – often it becomes faster and shallower. Now think about how your breathing changes when you feel relaxed – it becomes slower and deeper.
What if you could consciously change your breathing to change your mental state?
In one fascinating study mentioned in the book, neuroscientist Pierre Philippot asked a group of subjects to alter their breathing to make themselves feel emotions such as joy, anger, and fear then report exactly how they did it. For example:
- Panic – Short, fast, shallow breaths
- Anger – Long forced breaths
- Calmness – Slow steady breaths
- Happiness – Long inhalations, long exhalations
In the next step of the study, they had a second group of people follow the instructions given by the first group and then asked them what emotion they were experiencing. There was an interesting correlation between the instructions given by the first group and the results of the second group, which suggests these breathing patterns are universal for most people.
Try it out for yourself. Try breathing really fast and short breaths and notice how you become more stressed and anxious, or try breathing really slow and deep and notice how you become more relaxed and comfortable.
Our breath is always with us, so it’s often one of the easiest and most convenient ways to calm ourselves down (or psyche ourselves up) in any given moment. If you can master your breathing, you will have much more control over your mind and the aura you send out to others.
The advice in this article is a great starting point for creating a stronger presence and a more powerful aura around yourself.
Throughout Presence: Bring Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, psychologist Amy Cuddy offers a lot of very practical tips on how to bring out your best self, including amazing anecdotes on how her teachings have helped a wide-range of people, from individuals struggling to advance their career to survivors of abuse and trauma.
This is definitely one of the better psychology and self improvement books to come out in recent years. I highly recommend you check it out!
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