How to stay authentic in stressful situations: Amy Cuddy on how self-affirmation can stop us feeling like frauds

Head In Hands
"The first step is to realise that everyone is insecure, and feels like a fraud at some time," says Cuddy (Source: Getty)

What do interviews, pitches, auditions and first dates have in common? “Social judgement and high stakes,” says social psychologist and author Amy Cuddy. “When we face challenging situations, particularly in areas we care about or feel we struggle in, we tend to treat opportunities as threats, and our body goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode.”

Such reactions are the opposite of what Cuddy calls “presence”. She tells City A.M. how common workplace situations can cause anxiety, and what staff and employers can do about it.

What is presence?

AC: It is the ability to focus on yourself in challenging situations, and not how you are being perceived, so you can focus on what is actually happening and not what you’re worried is happening.

If we are nervous, we focus on managing the impression we are making on other people. We don’t have the cognitive bandwidth to be in someone else’s head and our own at the same time, so we present a version of ourselves which is awkward, inauthentic, and even arrogant. We speak faster, take fewer pauses, and cover our face, neck and guts as if we are about to be attacked by a predator. We also feel we don’t deserve space, either physically or space in the world, be that deserving a job or an invitation to the party we’re at.

However, when we feel powerful, we do the exact opposite. We take up space and expose ourselves, showing people that we feel safe and view them as collaborators, not enemies.

How can we achieve it?

AC: The first step is to realise that everyone is insecure, and feels like a fraud at some time. I’m surprised that so many people think they’re the only ones who feel that way.

Second is to understand what authenticity is. This is important for both individual staff and their bosses, and can be achieved through an exercise called “self-affirmation”. Before you go into a stressful situation, write down a list of your core values – attributes like “helping people” – which would stop you feeling like yourself if they were taken away. Take the top one or two of those values and write about why they matter to you, and a time when you expressed them. Even if they are completely unrelated to the stressful situation you’re going into, you’ll be more grounded in who you are.

It is a remarkably effective intervention, buffering us against stress by preventing a spike in our stress hormones. It is used in workplaces, but also medical settings, reducing levels of resistance and anxiety in patients.

How can employers help?

AC: I think companies are afraid to say: “we care about you being able to be yourself.” They may be afraid they’re losing control, but I think they’ll gain loyalty.

When it comes to what a human resources department can do, one field experiment by London Business School’s Dan Cable found that employees at call centres in the US were more likely to stay in their job longer and perform better if they were asked to write down who they were, and how they express themselves during their orientation, and share the details with others in the group.

I’m also not sure about open offices. People who are more introverted end up hunching because they feel threatened.

Training your staff to conduct presentations without relying on a script or slides would also be useful. Nowadays, everyone has to present, even if it’s just presenting a sales report or talking to your team. And if we go off script, we tend to seize up and few of us know what to do.

Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges by Amy Cuddy (Orion) is out now.

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