a man is milking two cows in front of a barn

#69: The Psychology of Standing Tall

Bob Ewing
May 20, 2022
a man is milking two cows in front of a barn

Talking Big Ideas.

“I’m standing tall. I’ve seen a million faces and I’ve rocked them all!”
~ Bon Jovi

William was depressed. And covered in smallpox.

He was on break from his studies at Harvard Medical School to explore the Amazon River. But eight months into the adventure he was diseased and severely seasick. He returned home with his tail between his legs.

Two years later, he took another leave. Again feeling ill, he hoped Europe would have the cure. It didn’t. Years later, William graduated with his MD. But he would never practice medicine.

People recover from smallpox and seasickness. He experienced this firsthand. But what about emotional suffering?

Instead of focusing his career on combating physical sickness, he felt compelled to find a cure for what he dubbed his “soul sickness.”

And he found it in philosophy.

He would go on to become one of the most influential philosophers in America. Today, William James is known as the father of modern psychology. His work laid the foundation for our current understanding of our minds.

William explained that we can improve – and even create – desired internal states.

He famously wrote:

I don’t sing because I’m happy. I’m happy because I sing.

One path to creating happiness and well-being, he believed, is through our actions.

A century later psychologist James Laird published a famous experiment showing that our physical behaviors affect our emotional experiences. Frowning can make us feel bad. Smiling can make us feel good.

Decades and hundreds of experiments later, Laird concluded that “feelings are consequences of emotional behavior and bodily response.”

The body can lead the mind and heart.

Anyone who practices yoga understands this. We can change the way we think and feel by how we breathe and how we position and move our body.

Ten years ago, the psychologist Amy Cuddy created an explosion of interest in body language. Her 2012 TED Talk, the second most popular TED talk of all time, made the case that “our bodies change our minds.”

She explained that there is a distinct difference in body language between people feeling powerful and those feeling powerless. When we feel powerful and confident, we expand our bodies. We stand tall. We sit up straight. We stretch out and open up.

And when we feel powerless and anxious? As Cuddy puts it, “we do exactly the opposite. We close up. We wrap ourselves up. We make ourselves small.”

Here are several positions she highlights:

Our body language doesn’t just impact how others see us. It impacts how we see ourselves. And how we think and feel inside.

Cuddy’s research implied that two minutes of high power posing will increase your testosterone and reduce your cortisol. That is, a little power posing changes your hormone levels.

Later studies failed to replicate these hormone results, and her research remains controversial. Yet millions of people have testified to feeling more confident and less anxious after opening up their posture.

So is it just a placebo?

I watch people give presentations all the time. And I can often see before a client begins speaking how well they’re going to do. Simply by their body language.

Even on Zoom, I can tell.

Are they sitting up straight or are their shoulders hunched forward? Are their arms open or crossed? Are they smiling or scowling?

I also see firsthand how small adjustments to body language change the way people feel. And how quickly the change can happen.

This is probably why James Clear, the bestselling author of Atomic Habits, has joined countless others in adding Cuddy’s power poses to his daily routine. Clear says that after he wakes up each morning he holds a power pose for about two minutes.

Others use power poses as a confidence boost before high stress situations – like being alone on stage.

My friend and client, Donna, emailed me the other day. She’s an attorney who had to do an important legal presentation. She was nervous beforehand. How did she help prepare herself in the days leading up to her big talk? As she put it:

I stood up and held the V for Victory pose for two minutes and the Wonder Woman for one minute. My cat watched in confusion. I did this for a couple of days, several times a day. By the time I arrived, I felt confident, present, and calm.

When I was a kid, my mom told me that laying in bed for too long would make me feel bad. Just getting up and getting going would improve my mood.

She was right. Perhaps she was channeling her inner Maya Angelou, who said, “Stand up straight and realize who you are, that you tower over your circumstances.”

Maybe the power pose is a placebo. But if it works, why wouldn’t you do it?

I encourage you to pay attention to how you hold your body. Consider adjusting your posture as another tool to help you build your confidence. Make it a habit to open up and stand tall.

Do this and you may, as William James wrote, “begin to be now what you will be hereafter.”



Stand confident to feel confident.

Try standing tall right now. Set a timer for two minutes. Pick any of the power poses from the graphic above. Breathe however you want during the exercise. Consider resonant breathing as a default.


For more on building confidence and reducing anxiety:

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