I’m an imposter. At least, I feel that way some days. I feel I force confidence. I force self-esteem. I am acting out a character, my smartest, wittiest, and most confident side. The side of me that is not worried about what people think. The side that is confident in her own skin. Her own skin. What a morbid sentiment. As though, if we are not comfortable in our own skin, we must put on the skin of others? Like the tortured and demented Buffalo Bill, working on transforming himself, bringing about his own twisted metamorphosis. Do I really know myself? Am I familiar with my own skin or have I been putting on the skin of others for so long that I no longer recognize my own? Do I know who I am?
Most of my life, aside from the usual rebellious teenager tendencies, I sought out to please people. I strived to fit in with the cool kids in church, learning to style my hair according to their fashion and wear a different, more enviable outfit every service. But there were no kids my age in church, which is where I spent most of my time as an adolescent. I was striving to be like the older girls. Instead, I made a spectacle of myself. Clumsily donning my older sisters’s hand-me-downs, safety-pinning their skirts to fit my tiny stick of a waist. I spent hours curling my straight mousy brown hair and torturing my feet by stuffing my shoe tips with toilet paper. Anxious and insecure, I followed my sister around, unable to represent myself, hanging by her elbow as though my anxiety created an invisible leash. I was the awkward, nerdy little sister trying too hard to fit in with the older crowd. But I wanted them to like me and I was ready to do or say anything just to fit in.
Why did I want these girls to like me? I did not share their enthusiasm for boys or gossip. I read books so avidly that sometimes I would forget to eat. I played the piano for hours. I sat on my bed with my giant word processor, writing my next two-hundred page project, escaping into a world of fantasy in which I was a beautiful heroine with a rapier wit and voluptuous curves, galavanting across an 18th century countryside, stumbling into danger and meeting a handsome man along the way. I sketched for hours, spending weeks on intricately detailed drawings of princesses and queens in their royal robes. My mind was stuck in history and art and music. I did not know how to socialize with anyone in my own time period. I did not know how to live in the present. I wanted to constantly escape into my own world, a world where I was a confident and beautiful woman who knew her own mind.
I recently came across a book called Presence. The author, Amy Cuddy, goes into detail of how we can learn to empower ourselves through the use of “power poses.” To put it simply, her research has found that our body language affects our body chemistry. For instance, when you think of a nervous and shy person, an image of someone trying to shrink away from view may come to mind. They make themselves smaller by slouching inward and hunching their shoulders and tilting their head down. Now imagine what a confident or authoritative figure may look like. They enter a room with shoulders back, head high. More dramatically, imagine them with hands on hips and feet spread wide apart. Positions of power, even in the animal kingdom, involve making yourself as large as possible in order to dominate or control. Cuddy’s research has shown that even in high-stress situations, in which the subject may have feelings of anxiety or nervousness, spending time doing “power poses” causes an automatic response in the body of raising testosterone and cortisol levels in the brain, essentially giving us the ability to focus on the task at hand instead of worrying about the outcome. Therefore, allowing us to be present in the moment. One example of a power pose is the “Wonder Woman” pose, hands on hips with legs in a wide stance. It reminds me of the Stanislavski method of acting, play out the body motions of anger or sadness or elation and the emotion will soon follow. Practice these power poses and the feeling of power and confidence will follow.
I never quite fit in with the girls in my church and I never quite fit in with my peers at school. All my life I have struggled with interacting with others. I shied away from parties, further isolating myself from people and all because of my fear of misrepresenting myself, of saying something stupid or making an idiot of myself. When I performed the piano at recitals, my hands and my feet would shake to the point of distracting me from really getting into my performance and technique. In college, when singing opera, I did not own the stage or the floor. I focused too much on the position of my legs and the awkward tilt of my frame or the tremor in my voice. I could never truly do justice to the music because I was too preoccupied with the thoughts of those listening and watching. What were they thinking? Do they like the song? Am I boring them? Do I look funny? Do I sound okay? I never had presence, my thoughts were always too muddied up with anxieties and possible horrible outcomes. Part of me wishes Cuddy had written this book over a decade ago.
Aside from just standing like Wonder Woman, Cuddy also mentions the benefit of performing self-affirmation exercises. And her example of self-affirmation involves identifying your core values. She expounds on the exercise of writing down a list of common core values, such as family and friends, helping others, etc. The importance of these self-affirmation exercises is due to the fact that it helps the individual remember what matters most to her. It reminds us of who we are. When we are sure of ourselves and know our own values, what does the opinion or approval of others really matter? Obviously, acceptance into society is important for our survival. But with this, we are not merely talking about acceptance, we are talking about identity. Once we know who we are then we know who we can identify with. And a huge part of finding a compatible partner is finding someone who shares your values, who can support your goals, your dreams. I did not have this in my previous relationships. Rather, I was persuaded to adopt my boyfriends’ values. I lost my identity because I never had one in the first place.
Regaining my confidence and self-esteem after leaving my verbally abusive relationship was tough. My self-esteem had always struggled and then dissipated even more under the pressure of constant belittling and condescension. I had developed the habit of cowering, of allowing myself to be dominated by another. I became accustomed to shrinking away. No more. I am going to train my brain and my body to be in a position of power. I’m taking back control of my mind. I’m taking back control of my body. I challenge anyone who may be reading this to write down a list of your core values, then write a short paragraph about why these values are so important to you. Finally, and not necessarily in front of a mirror, but I would recommend not in public, pose like Wonder Woman. You might be surprised at how liberated you feel . . . and empowered.