Power Poses to Challenge Self-Doubt


I’ve heard it called Impostor Phenomenon or sometimes Impostor Syndrome, but it tends to announce itself more like…”OH MY GAH, YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU’RE DOING DO YOU?! SOMEONE ELSE WOULD HAVE KNOWN EXACTLY WHAT TO DO AND WOULD HAVE DONE THIS WAAAAAY BETTER. THEY’RE GONNA KNOW! THEY’RE ALL GONNA KNOW!” …At least that’s how it shows up in my head.

But whatever you call it, false feelings of not-good-enoughness are pretty common. Google it. Some researchers estimate that as many as 70% of people feel this way at some point in their lives. And while it can happen to anyone, researchers find this phenomenon especially common in women, people of ethnic and racial minorities, and anyone who’s trying something new or who feels different from the people around them.

Common or not, these automatic thoughts of impostordom can stall or stunt a person’s progress in life in major ways. And fears of having one’s “shortcomings” “found out” can keep folks from reaching out and connecting with others who could help.

There are a lot of theories out there about where this comes from and lots of advice for what to do about it, but I happened upon a TED talk the other day that gives scientific evidence to something I’ve learned doing theater.

ITC ensemble members using Image Theater techniques.
ITC ensemble members using Image Theater techniques.

With Interactive Theatre Carolina, we use a range of theatrical tools to help folks better understand themselves and discuss the world we live in. One technique we use is Forum Theatre—sometimes called a “rehearsal for real life,” which seeks to empower regular folks to make courageous and healthy choices by practicing changing the outcomes of problematic scenarios. Another technique we use is called Image Theatre, in which participants strike poses and audience members discuss and analyze the stories and associations the body postures convey. A “picture’s worth a thousand words,” right?

This TED talk references a study in which Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist and researcher at Harvard Business School, reports findings that support that rehearsing for real life…is also real life. She finds that changing our body language not only influences the messages we send to others but also the messages we send to ourselves at the chemical level.

In short, striking powerful poses (poses that open the body and take up space) alters hormone levels—increasing testosterone and decreasing cortisol (a stress hormone)—which results in a person actually feeling more powerful. The opposite happens, as you might imagine, when a person strikes a low-power pose (body closed off and made small). These changes are measurable and almost instant; Cuddy’s subjects only held the poses for 2 minutes.

Will striking a power pose and altering my brain chemistry suddenly make me capable of being the next president? Highly unlikely. But could striking a power pose for a few minutes before leading a presentation help me interrupt some negative self-talk that might otherwise hold me back? Probably.

Check out some of the articles embedded and below for other strategies to get past fears of being an impostor in your own life. If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to stand like a starfish for the next 2 minutes and have a brave afternoon.

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