On Being Present

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com

I briefly mentioned the book “Presence” by Amy Cuddy in my last blog post. I know that in that one I focused on the fact that I felt bad for “needing” to read a book like this to feel better about myself, but that wasn’t fair because it overlooked all of the great insights in the book. I learned a lot, and actually enjoyed it so much that I finished it off in less than a week.

In the notes that I wrote after I was finished, I summarized presence as “bringing your authentic self to a a situation”. In the first chapter Cuddy describes the struggles she endured after suffering a traumatic brain injury in a car accident, and how afterwards her difficulty with learning undermined her self-confidence. She talks about the times when she was so afraid about presenting her research that she clammed up and wasn’t able to express herself effectively. That is because, she said, that negative emotions like fear and anxiety cause us to become inward focused- we are not longer able to “be present” and really be focused on the ideas or message that we are trying to convey. Instead, we become hyper-focused on our own nervousness and sense of discomfort.

She also shares about how important authenticity is to people who are hiring other people or negotiating various business deals. People who are making decisions on whether to invest in a particular project stated that it was important for them to feel as though the person presenting the project really believed in what they were putting forth. In other words, they needed to show genuine enthusiasm for the idea. They also didn’t like to see people who seemed to be “trying too hard” or were pushy or aggressive. Interestingly enough, they said they didn’t mind if the person was a little nervous because “they’re doing something big, something that matters to them” so it makes sense if they feel a little nervous.

Throughout the rest of the book, Amy Cuddy expresses how we can reclaim our personal power and “bring your boldest self to your biggest challenges”. We can do things like practicing yoga and “power posing”, which is scientifically proven to increase testosterone (the hormone associated with greater risk taking and initiative) and decrease cortisol (the “stress hormone”). Even doing simple things like sitting up straighter and using more open, relaxed posture can increase our sense of confidence and feelings of being grounded. We can also use imagery techniques like picturing ourselves flying or just imagining ourselves performing difficult tasks with pride and enthusiasm before we go out and actually do them.

With this year coming to a close, it is common for people to be considering what kinds of “New Years’ Resolutions” that they will be making. Miss Cuddy explains why this doesn’t actually work too well for us. The goals we set are too lofty and ambitious. For example if we plan to “exercise three days a week” and we aren’t able to fully meet this goal (we only go once or twice) it tends to lead to us abandoning the goal altogether. She says that instead- and she uses herself with running as an example- that we should give ourselves small “nudges”. We should say, “Today, I’ll eat healthy” or “I’ll stretch for 15 minutes”. Those incremental changes can in the end lead to big results, without us feeling like we have resolutions hanging over our heads like a threat.

I’ve noticed that as I’ve been reading the book and trying to implement some of the principles, I’ve been experiencing less depression and more confidence. There’s a chapter in there that’s titled “I Don’t Deserve to Be Here” that goes over “imposter syndrome”. It explains how people in all sorts of careers and fields often have a pervasive feeling that they are “fake”, or that their positions in life have more to do with “luck” than with their own talents. These feelings of “being an imposter” tend to increase- rather than decrease- with every new achievement. I can definitely relate to having these feelings. Even though objectively I’m doing well in school and I’m handling my life well, the sense of “wrongness” persists. I find myself asking myself “what now?” every time that I achieve something good. The better the grade, the more I think that the teacher may have given it to me in error. Knowing that other people are struggling with these emotions- and that they have nothing to do with objective reality- I can reject these feelings and instead begin to celebrate my accomplishments. I can tell myself, “Actually, you do deserve to be here.

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