Sit up—and look up
Amy Cuddy, a social psychology professor at Harvard Business School in Massachusetts who has given one of the most popular TED talks ever (it’s already been viewed more than 33 million times), knows self-confidence. In her research, she’s discovered that positioning our bodies to occupy more space can elevate our testosterone levels and lower cortisol levels, a combination that raises self-confidence. Sit up straight in your chair: This alone will make you feel like you’re in command. While this may seem like a teeny-tiny change, it can have big rewards since most of us spend much of our day seated. If possible at work, she suggests hanging pictures on the wall at a height that will cause you to look up. In general, doing anything that makes you expand your posture will signal your body—and brain—that you are a powerful and capable individual. Check out these other meaningful ways to use body language.
Do the 'Wonder Woman' or the 'Wall Street'
Cuddy’s best known power pose is to stand with hands on hips, also called the Wonder Woman. Another power move: Sit, put your feet up on a desk or table, interlace your hands, and place them behind your head with elbows pointing out (you’ve probably seen this move in antiperspirant commercials—I think of it as the Wall Street). Note: In order to get any benefit and gain more self-confidence, you must hold a pose for two minutes. (To read more about Cuddy’s research, check out her book Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges.) These are things confident people would never do so you shouldn't either.
Ease up on yourself
While some motivational speakers may swear that complimenting yourself every morning in the bathroom mirror will boost your self-confidence, it won’t. Instead, try the counterintuitive advice of blogger and student of human behavior Eric Barker. “Stop lying to yourself that you’re so awesome," he writes. "Instead, focus on forgiving yourself when you’re not.” He came up with this after exploring the work of Kristin Neff, PhD, a professor in educational psychology at UT Austin and a compassion expert. As she writes in her book Self-Compassion, “When our sense of self-worth stems from being a human being intrinsically worthy of respect—rather than being contingent on obtaining certain ideals—our sense of self-worth is much less easily shaken.” She brings up one study in which subjects were instructed to imagine either being on a sports team and blowing a big game or acting in a play and blanking on lines, and asked how they'd feel if these incidents happened to them. People with more self-compassion “were less likely to feel humiliated or incompetent, or to take it too personally,” she writes. The next time you catch yourself making a mistake—because that’s what all humans do—follow Barker’s recommendation: Practice the Golden Rule in reverse, or, as he puts it, “Treat yourself the kind way you often treat others.” This is how you can build self-esteem in your kids.
Erase these two phrases from your vocab: 'That’s the story of my life' and 'This always happens to me'
When do you say these things? Isn’t it typically when something bad happens? This negative self-talk is bad on two levels: It’s not true, and it will erode your self-confidence. Jonathan Fader, PhD, psychologist to the New York Mets, has counseled pro athletes in every sport. His patients must maintain high levels of confidence, or else they’re out of a job. Since they have to keep performing in the wake of defeat, they’ve learned to refrain from making the sweeping, gloomy generalizations many of us do. In his book Life as Sport: What Top Athletes Can Teach You About How to Win in Life, Dr. Fader brings up the example of Dave Winfield, a baseball Hall of Famer, who likes to remind Fader that batting slumps are not slumps but “periods of adjustment” or “statistically acceptable variations.” So, instead of saying “This always happens to me” the next time your flight gets cancelled or your IRS refund gets lost in the mail, tell yourself “These kinds of things happen to everyone every once in a while.” This 30-minute workout can help to boost your body image.
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In case of panic, focus on your excitement, not your anxiety
I once met with life coach and O magazine columnist Martha Beck, and I shared my fears about presenting my ideas at meetings at work. She said that whenever her kids were scared or nervous, she’d tell them to imagine their belly buttons were a switch. If they pushed it up, they’d be excited; if they pushed it down, they’d be afraid. Since then, I’ve done this many times when I’ve had the jitters, and first it makes me smile and then it makes me remember there’s a more positive flip side to my fears. You can also try these natural remedies to relieve anxiety.
Break a sweat regularly
Need reason number 10,001 to exercise? Numerous studies have found that regular physical activity makes people feel more confident and capable. Try these 10 ways to be nicer to yourself.
Cue yourself to confidence
In her book How to Have a Good Day: Harness the Power of Behavioral Science to Transform Your Working Life, management consultant and executive coach Caroline Webb explains how even small prompts can have sizable effects on our brains. As an example, she writes, “Some things are guaranteed to make your heart [instantly] sink, like hearing the phrase 'two-hour conference call.'" She mentions an intriguing study on concentration in which “volunteers who wore a lab coat made half the number of errors of people who wore their street clothes, presumably thanks to an association between lab coats and high academic performance. Sure enough, when the coat wearers were told that the white coat belonged to a painter … their scores dropped.” The point is not that we should all wear lab coats to work, but that we can use our susceptibility to suggestion to help us. Here's how you can use your clothing to boost your confidence. For example, I use the soundtrack to the Broadway musical Hamilton as my cue when I’m stuck at work. Not only does the music keep me from thinking negative thoughts like “I’m never going to get this done,” but hearing it reminds me that composer Lin-Manuel Miranda put in years of labor to write his dream project and get it staged. While writing this post probably won’t win me the Pulitzer Prize or a MacArthur Genius grant, I can definitely learn from Miranda’s perseverance and curiosity.
Sit down weekly and note your triumphs
While Webb and her book concentrate on success in the workplace, she has another good piece of advice that we could all use in any aspect of our lives. Webb writes about a tech executive named Cristine who needed to develop her confidence and, in particular, wanted to be more vocal about her successes. How did she achieve this? Cristine set aside time every Friday afternoon to write down the best thing she’d achieved this past week. This trick primed Cristine to think about her accomplishments. It worked so well for her that her boss started doing it, too. You can apply this strategy to your workouts: “this week I did 25 pushups, my all-time high;” relationships: “I finally told my best friend how much she helped me deal with my parent’s illlness, and she was so moved;” or chores: “I washed the dishes before I went to bed every night! Woo hoo!" (Woo-hooing is optional but highly recommended.)
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Smell good (whatever that means to you)
A small study from the U.K.’s University of Liverpool took male subjects and had half of them apply a scented deodorant with antimicrobial ingredients while the other half used an unscented product with no antimicrobial ingredients. The men who used the scented product reported feeling more self-confident and attractive than the other group. Then, all the men were photographed and videotaped. Women were asked to look at their photos and silent videos and choose which men were more confident and attractive. Interestingly, the women all chose the men wearing scented deodorant, even though the women had no way of knowing this. Researchers speculate that since the scented deodorant made the men feel more self-confident and attractive, it led them to carry themselves in a way that conveyed these positive attributes. You can spritz on a little of your favorite fragrance before you leave the house. If you don’t have one, find a laundry detergent or fabric softener that smells good to you and wash your clothes with it, or find a shampoo you like.