Fear is very physical. If you’ve ever felt truly afraid you know that it wasn’t just a feeling in your head; it was in your body, in the tightness of your throat, the sick feeling in your stomach, or the sweat on your brow and the palms of your hands.
What I’ve learned as a successful coach and public speaker, besides the value of long deep breaths, is that the most powerful way to overcome the physical manifestations of fear is to focus attention on the thoughts you want to feel in that moment, and then to move your posture, expression and body into alignment with those thoughts of confidence, courage, self-assurance and capability. Then direct your attention to the impact you want to have on the people around you — what do you want them to know, learn or feel?
Research at Harvard University by associate professor Amy Cuddy has now proven what many have long known intuitively: that your physical state has a direct and immediate impact on your emotional and mental state. Cuddy’s research has demonstrated that moving into what she coined a “power pose” releases hormones in your body that generate feelings of greater strength, confidence and power. She found that brief non-verbal displays of power stimulate the release of testosterone (the hormone that links to power and dominance in animals and human beings alike), which lowers the levels of cortisol (the “stress” hormone that can undermine your ability to think, speak and act in a calm, clear-headed, confident way).
Cuddy’s research found that you express power through open, expansive postures, and express powerlessness through closed, contractive postures. In short, putting yourself into a “power pose” not only makes you think and feel more powerful (and courageous) but changes your actual physiology and, subsequently, your behavioural choices.
Even just changing the expression on your face can alter your mental and emotional state. Indeed, studies have found that by simulating facial expressions we take on the emotions those facial expressions portray. That is, even if you don’t feel like smiling, when you smile, you ultimately feel happier and friendlier. It’s not just psychological, it’s physiological. Likewise, if you furrow your eyebrows and frown, you will eventually feel more angry, forlorn and depressed. In another study researchers asked participants to make different facial expressions while being asked a question. Those who were asked to smile were more likely to agree
to the request being made than those who were asked to keep a serious facial expression. Such is the power of a smile.
Courage and Confidence
If you want to feel more courageous and self-assured, hold yourself in the way that a courageous and self-assured person would. Often the easiest way to do this is to bring to mind someone you know (or know of) who comes across as very confident, brave and sure of themselves. Visualise how they would hold themselves if they were facing the same challenge, situation or decision that you are. Imitate their posture, stance and even their expression.
Shifting your body and expression into a power pose can shift the level of power (as measured by courage and confidence) you feel in any situation. It can also help you to communicate more confidently and influence people more powerfully. So whether you’re feeling very angry or anxious, take a minute to pay attention to your body and how you’re holding yourself physically.
If you’re feeling nervous or anxious about a situation, and are a long way from feeling as brave, confident or assertive as you’d like to, hold yourself as though you are confident. Back straight. Chin up. Firm handshake. Solid eye contact. Warm and friendly, but firm and assertive with a confident expression. Strike your power pose before you enter into a situation that will trigger fear, self-doubt or anxiety.
If you need to, mimic someone you look up to for their confidence and courage. It’s not unauthentic to start acting like the person you want to be. Start where you are, however timid or nervous you may feel, but stay focused on where you want to go, knowing that the more confidently and powerfully you hold yourself, the more confident and powerful you’ll feel. Sometimes you have to “fake it ’til you make it”.
The actual decision you’re facing is never as significant to your future as the mindset with
which you face it. Sometimes decisions are small, and you know that in the scheme of life they’re
not the be-all and end-all. But whether the decision you need to make is about something huge or something fairly mundane, it doesn’t make your fear any less consuming.
Facing your fears
It’s the reasons behind why we do what we do that matter more than what we do. Too often though we make choices in life — sometimes really big ones — for reasons we’re not even conscious of — to keep our parents happy, to prove ourselves, to avoid confrontation.
Research has found that the worries and fears that occupy most of your thinking are about relatively insignificant things; such as how to ask your boss for a day off during the busy season; how to tell your co-worker they need to pull more weight; in which school to enrol your child; or how to tell your girlfriend you don’t want to join her on the annual family camping trip. Mundane stuff like this tends to consume a lot of our waking (and sleeping) energy.
Committing to a “courage mindset” requires having faith in yourself that whatever happens, you can handle it. After all, isn’t that the ultimate security in life: knowing that within you reside all the resources you need to handle whatever challenges, hardships or hurdles might come along as you live the richly rewarding life you aspire to? The reality is that there’s no security in life except what lies inside us. No job, career, business, investment or material balance is ever 100 per cent secure. It can all be lost or taken away. The only things that can’t be taken away are your ability to choose how you’ll approach life, your sense of pride in how you’ve lived it and the deep peace that comes from knowing you did so with character and courage.
So trust yourself. You are capable of far more than you think — courageous action being at the top of the list.
Dress for success
It’s also important to dress like the successful and self-assured person you aspire to be.
While it may sound superficial to some, the clothes you wear and how you wear them (which includes personal grooming), impacts not just how others perceive you, but on your actual performance.
In a study at Northwestern University, researchers had subjects wear white coats while performing a test that measured attention. One group was told they had on doctors’ coats; the other, painters’ coats. Subjects in the first group outperformed those in the second by nearly 30 per cent, suggesting that the effect our clothes have on us may be even more powerful than we thought.
That is, people who dress for success not only leave a positive impression, but have greater confidence to take the actions needed to create more success.