“You are going to do this even if you have to fake it. Don’t fake it until you make it—fake it until you become it. “ Amy Cuddy
Preface October 1994
“But Meg, I don’t think I can do it. I want to, but there is something about him that just draws me back. I know he hurts me but I also know how much he loves me and that I love him.” I was sitting at in my cubicle at my desk at Goldman Sachs, on the phone with a dear friend Cindy* from my childhood. Although we hadn’t seen one another since I graduated college and moved to New York for law school, I was planning a business trip near where she lived and hoped she would drive to see me to help her relax and relieve her stress, at least temporarily. Soon after they were married, Cindy’s husband had begun to have explosive episodes where his anger was always directed toward her.
As I listened to Cindy try to make excuses for her husband’s harmful behavior, I felt helpless. What could I possibly say to convince her that she needed to leave a man that was hitting her, even if she was married to him? Back then there was no Skype, Facetime or Oovoo. Come to think of it, I didn’t even own a cell phone. But even without a visual, I could picture her on the floor, curled up in a ball, with eyes red from crying.
“Listen to me. Look in the mirror, with your head held high and say, ‘I am strong. I don’t need anyone but me. I love myself.’ I waited and only heard her breathing over the phone, still crying. She finally responded. “I don’t think I have the strength…..” “Then fake it!” I interrupted. “You need to get out of there. It’s the only way.”
The other night I was at a party talking to a friend’s husband about the horrible, violent video of Ray Rice punching his then fiancée, Janay Palmer Rice, and knocking her unconscious in an elevator in Atlantic City. When I first saw the TMZ video, I couldn’t decide what was worse—watching Janay get beaten or knowing that the altercation had happened months earlier and that she had stayed with him.
Only a few days after Ray Rice was suspended by the National Football League, he and Janay showed up at New Rochelle High School, his alma mater, to watch his former team play. Although most of the media blitz was focused on Ray Rice, I couldn’t help but zero in on Janay’s posture and expression. As her husband held their daughter on the sideline of McKenna Field, Janay’s arms were crossed, and although she periodically smiled and made a clear effort to appear happy, it seemed to me that her body revealed otherwise. Despite reports she was now happy with Rice and wanted to move on from the media frenzy about her personal life, I stared at her, wondering what she was really thinking.
That same afternoon I happened to be scrolling through my personal Facebook feed and came across a ‘TED Talk’ by Amy Cuddy, a successful scientist and professor at Harvard Business School. Although at first glance Cuddy appears to be an attractive and youthful-looking blond, her personal story had much more depth. In her late teens, she suffered a severe head injury from a car accident. Cuddy was told she would struggle to fully regain her mental capacity and even complete her undergraduate degree. But beyond her personal struggle, Cuddy caught my attention because of her study of nonverbal behavior. “We make judgments based on body language. We are impacted by our own nonverbal expressions.” In Cuddy’s view, using a few simple tweaks to body language can help a person (and particularly women) become more powerful. As Cuddy put it, “power posing,” is how your body position can not only influence others, but can even impact your own brain and the way you think of yourself.
For me, the best take-away from the talk was when she described how we all instinctively share the same ‘power pose’ anytime we feel significant accomplishment. Cuddy described how she studied both blind and sighted runners competing in a race around a track, all winners would automatically raise their arms, outstretched and wide. I found this particularly intriguing, because this power pose was nothing other than a ‘flaunt.’ But even more interesting was Cuddy’s view that becoming powerful meant becoming optimistic and even taking risks. In her opinion, coming up with this power pose was critical when reacting to stress, even if you have to fake it. Cuddy believed that nonverbal actions can even change the way we feel about ourselves, saying it is “worthwhile to fake optimism.”
I thought about Cuddy’s views about faking it a lot, especially because I’ve made a point of posting photos of myself “flaunting” on a regular basis, confidently holding my one-fingered hands and shortened forearms high in the air. Yet the reality is that when I first started doing that I had to actually force myself to smile with my hands raised high. Let’s face it…. someone was always gawking from behind. But after a while, something changed. The more I flaunted, the more it felt natural. The more it felt natural, the more powerful I felt. And so, it has occurred to me that somehow, the very act of raising my hands in pride also has helped me to mentally transition from a place of shame to a place of power. It hasn’t always been easy, but the reward has been sweet.
In her TED Talk, Cuddy also recommended the importance of faking strength when in ‘social threat’ situations, and she naturally made me think about my childhood friend Cindy. While I remember Cindy didn’t think she had the strength to leave her abusive husband, she kept telling herself that she did. Thankfully, one day she finally had had enough and her parents came and moved her out.
This week I am most appreciative that even in situations where we feel like we lack control, we have options. I am a firm believer that we always have the power to make changes, even if we ourselves are good at first pretending. As Cuddy put it, “Our bodies change our minds, our minds change our behavior, our behavior changes our outcome.”
Cindy now sits on the Board of an organization that helps people get out of abusive relationships. I recently saw a clip of her being interviewed by a local television station to share tips and advice for women in need of help. These days, Cindy is authentically flaunting, with no hesitation.
* Name changed to protect privacy.