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Harvard Social Psychologist Amy Cuddy on Mastering the Antidote to Anxiety, Self-Consciousness, and Impostor Syndrome

Harvard Social Psychologist Amy Cuddy on Mastering the Antidote to Anxiety, Self-Consciousness, and Impostor Syndrome

“We know that we live in contradiction,” Albert Camus wrote in his magnificent meditation on strength of character, “but we also know that we must refuse this contradiction and do what is needed to reduce it.” One of the most pervasive and perennial contradictions pulling the human spirit asunder is our yearning for greatness, which coexists with our chronic propensity for self-doubt.

How to reduce that abiding contradiction is what social psychologist, researcher, and Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy explores in Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges (public library) — a potent antidote to one of the most common yet secretive and stigmatic maladies of modern life: impostor syndrome.

At the heart of Cuddy’s research is the idea that the opposite of powerlessness, that ultimate fuel of impostor syndrome, isn’t power but what she terms presence — the ability to inhabit and trust the integrity of one’s own values, feelings, and capabilities. This capacity for presence is the seedbed of the confidence, courage, and resilience required to rise to even the most daunting of life’s challenges.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger from a rare edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
Art by Lisbeth Zwerger from a special edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Let’s make one thing clear: Although Cuddy’s work deals in terms that have been hijacked by New-Agism and worn thin of meaning by the self help movement, it’s a far cry from both. Instead, she fuses the rigor of a researcher befitting one of the world’s finest universities with the raw empathic insight that springs from uncommonly trying personal experience.

When she was a college sophomore, Cuddy was in a brutal car accident in which she sustained a fractured skull and a diffuse axonal injury, or DAI — a traumatic brain injury that damages the brain’s neural tissues and connective wiring, significantly slowing down the speed at which information travels. Unlike area-specific injuries that might affect concrete functions like language or motor ability, DAI rattles the entire brain and disfigures the most elemental ways in which you think, feel, behave, and interact, leaving you, as Cuddy puts it, a different person. Doctors declared her cognitively unfit to finish college and her IQ dropped thirty points, or two standard deviations. She was told that, in every measurable way, she was no longer smart.

Art from Neurocomic, a graphic novel about how the brain works

Despite rounds of cognitive therapy, speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and psychological counseling, Cuddy slipped further and further from herself. She reflects:

Our way of thinking, our intellect, our affect, our personality — these aren’t things we expect will ever change. We take them for granted. We fear having an accident that will make us paralyzed, change our ability to move around, or cause us to lose our hearing or sight. But we don’t think about having an accident that will cause us to lose ourselves.

For many years after the head injury, I was trying to pass as my former self… although I didn’t really know who that former self was. I felt like an impostor, an impostor in my own body.

But, propelled by the parallel redemptive forces of tenacity and the passage of time, Cuddy was able to slowly regain her cognitive ability, began studying psychology, and eventually became a social psychologist researching the interrelated phenomena she had collided with and tussled with and danced with on her own journey — confidence and self-doubt, the relationship between identity and the intellect, the central role of presence in our sense of power.

In 2012, she delivered a TED talk that spread across the globe like wildfire — an unexpected testament to just how deeply these questions affect people of every walk of life.

The astonishing response to her talk — which was viewed more than 30 million times and became the second most watched TED talk of all time — catalyzed Cuddy’s further research into the psychological machinery of presence, a quality strangely elusive of a definition yet unmistakable when we feel it and unmistakably aggrieving when we feel its absence. She illustrates the latter with an instructive historical anecdote:

Eighteenth-century French philosopher and writer Denis Diderot was at a dinner party, engaged in debate over a topic that he knew well. But perhaps he wasn’t himself on that evening — a bit self-conscious, distracted, worried about looking foolish. When challenged on some point, Diderot found himself at a loss for words, incapable of cobbling together a clever response. Soon after, he left the party.

Once outside, on his way down the staircase, Diderot continued to replay that humiliating moment in his mind, searching in vain for the perfect retort. Just as he reached the bottom of the stairs, he found it. Should he turn around, walk back up the stairs, and return to the party to deliver his witty comeback? Of course not. It was too late. The moment — and, with it, the opportunity — had passed. Regret washed over him. If only he’d had the presence of mind to find those words when he needed them.

Reflecting on this experience in 1773, Diderot wrote, “A sensitive man, such as myself, overwhelmed by the argument leveled against him, becomes confused and can only think clearly again [when he reaches] the bottom of the stairs.”

And so he coined the phrase l’esprit d’escalier — the spirit of the stairs, or staircase wit. In Yiddish it’s trepverter. Germans call it treppenwitz. It’s been called elevator wit [or] afterwit. But the idea is the same — it’s the incisive remark you come up with too late. It’s the hindered comeback. The orphaned retort. And it carries with it a sense of regret, disappointment, humiliation. We all want a do-over. But we’ll never get one.


Most of us have our own personal version of this experience. After interviewing for a job, auditioning for a role, going on a date, pitching an idea, speaking up in a meeting or in class, arguing with someone at a dinner party.

But how did we get there? We probably were worrying what others would think of us, but believing we already knew what they thought; feeling powerless, and also consenting to that feeling; clinging to the outcome and attributing far too much importance to it instead of focusing on the process. These worries coalesce into a toxic cocktail of self-defeat. That’s how we got there. Before we even show up at the doorstep of an opportunity, we are teeming with dread and anxiety, borrowing trouble from a future that hasn’t yet unfolded.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger from a special edition of Alice in Wonderland

This, Cuddy notes, invariably leaves us with a sunken spirit, which in turn prevents us from showing up for any interaction with our whole, unselfconscious selves. (It’s worth pointing out that such self-defeating tendencies bedevil even the most outwardly successful, even those we deem geniuses — take, for instance, the excruciating self-doubt and self-flagellation permeating John Steinbeck’s diaries.)

The counterpoint to this paralyzing self-consciousness, Cuddy argues, is the quality of presence — an ability to project poised confidence, passion, and enthusiasm in high-pressure situations, which can’t be easily faked but can be deliberately cultivated.

She writes:

The ideal effect of presence [is that] you execute with comfortable confidence and synchrony, and you leave with a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, regardless of the measurable outcome.

To be clear, Cuddy’s work on presence isn’t about making you a more confident public speaker or a more persuasive negotiator or a more compelling interviewee — although its application does very much effect these surface outcomes; it’s about a much larger and more expansive dimension of our personhood, exploring the deepest layers of what we experience as our identity and equipping us with the ability to attune to and articulate those dimensions.

How to do that is what Cuddy examines in the remainder of Presence, using a social psychologist’s lens to synthesize and integrate insights from fields ranging from behavioral economics to Eastern philosophy to neuroscience. Complement it with Brené Brown on cultivating the qualities resilient people have in common and Parker Palmer on how to stop hiding your soul.

Published January 28, 2016




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