Each year, as we enter into December, I find myself excited about Christmas and the holiday period. I love spending time with family and friends, going for long walks, and having free time to read and watch movies.
It’s also the time of year where I begin to consider not just goals for the next year ahead, but for how I want to be through the next year.
Outside of a few specific things I aim for, my goals tend to relate to the quality of person I want to be and to how I meet the world; that is, the way I interact with people and deal with situations and events.
The biggest and most successful change I ever made in my life was when I worked on self esteem. It’s something I was always challenged with, although I hadn’t admitted as such to myself until I was in my mid-forties.
Feelings are not things my friends and I ever spoke about growing up, to be honest, even though my feelings were often acute.
My big breakthrough came in 2014, while I was working on writing my book, ‘I Heart Me: The Science of Self Love’.
Before I go on, I’d just like to say that I use self love and self esteem interchangeably here. Self love has a little more to it, because it includes self compassion and the willingness to practice self care, but for the purpose of what I’m about to say, you can treat self love and self esteem more or less the same.
There was one specific practice that I did daily that was nothing short of transformational. It’s based on the fact that there is a correlation, or synchronisation, between how you feel on the inside and how that feeling appears on your body.
For example, when you feel happy, you tend to smile and relax your body, and when you feel stressed, you frown and tense your body.
How you feel on the inside is appearing on your body!
The amazing thing about this synchronisation, though, is that it goes the other way too. What you do with your body – how you hold and move it – appears on the inside. It feeds back into your brain and creates the state. In other words, acting happy (physically – in how you move your body) can make you feel better while acting stressed will actually make you stressed.
This is a fact that’s been known for a while. But the transformational power, I found, was in applying it to self esteem.
When you have low self esteem, or even struggle with confidence or feeling self-conscious, your feelings appear on your body when you meet people and in certain situations. You tend to ‘wear’ how you feel on your body, no matter how well you try to disguise it with a smile or two.
For example, without realising, when you meet some people (not everyone, as there’s many people we feel comfortable around) or some situations when you have low self esteem or confidence, your body contracts. Eyes drop or avert, head bows a little or a lot, shoulders turn in, spine bends, breathing turns shallower. You get the picture. It’s quite obvious in some people. Other times it’s more subtle.
It’s purely unconscious, sort of like a reflex reaction. Your body is simply in synchronisation with your how you feel.
But you can make it work the other way for yourself. You can train yourself to wear self esteem on your body. I don’t mean with the clothes that you wear, although that can help too, but with how you hold and move your body.
The amazing thing, I found, is that this actually improves your self esteem. It’s nothing fancy or complex. It’s actually the simplest self help exercise I’ve ever done or written about.
Just hold and move your body as if you had a good level of self esteem. Through the synchronisation of body and mind, it affects how you feel on the inside. It helps in the moment to give you a little boost or some energy, but the real power of the technique comes through repetitive practice.
It’s like anything you want to get good at. You have to practice. I play tennis and I never question the fact that I’ve had to practice to reach the level that I play at. I say this because when it comes to self help techniques, most of us have this assumption that we only need to do it once or twice and – wham! – done. Healed!
I wish it was that easy. Granted, sometimes things do work that way and there are some great techniques and therapies around, but I’ve found that, most of the time, we need to put in the consistent work.
It’s why, when many of us try to grow or change something in our lives, the change rarely seems to last. We don’t put in the consistent inner work required. Most people hold onto the idea that a single, simple insight is all it takes.
But what if you do the work required?
When it comes to self esteem, which underlies our effectiveness in nearly every aspect of our lives, if you put in a little bit of committed practice, the payoff can be massive. That’s what I found.
So what’s the practice?
It’s just being relentless in correcting how you hold and move your body. I mean relentless. Determined. Set a timer on your watch or phone if you have to that buzzes you every hour to check how you’re currently holding or moving your body. But keep doing it. Keep making the adjustments.
The adjustments are easy. Just relax your face, hold your head up and look straight ahead, relax your shoulders, and straighten your spine. And breathe. That’s it. Takes about two seconds.
In time, if you do this several times a day – not just once or twice and then you forget about it – your brain quickly learns the new way and your body follows suit.
Do it when you’re out and about, while waiting in line in a shop, while walking along the corridor. Do it when you’re at meetings. Do it when you’re in challenging situations. Even do it when you’re sitting down, while you eat, while you’re watching TV. Just do it!
It’s not long (a few weeks to a month or two) before it can have quite a significant impact on how you feel.
For me, it was a breakthrough that led to a series of positive changes in many areas of my life.
I started early each day with the practice. Shortly after I got up, I would stand in the classic Superman or Wonder Woman pose (Power Pose, popularised by Amy Cuddy) – hands on hips, legs apart, spine straight, shoulders relaxed, head up and eyes looking straight ahead.
My daily practice for months was two minutes of this first thing in the morning, followed by a minute of walking around the room while retaining a straight back, relaxed shoulders, head up and eyes forward as I moved.
Then throughout the rest of the day, I just made a point of correcting my posture relentlessly. I started by setting a timer on my phone for every hour, but after about a week I found that I didn’t need the reminders because making the adjustment had become a habit.
The physical change that comes is a little like starting out running for the first time. Initially it feels awkward, and you feel exhausted just running around the block, but after a few weeks it feels quite easy to run a few kilometres. Muscles involved in how you hold and move your body change and adapt to new practices in the same way.
Now, I’m not guaranteeing that this technique will solve all your problems in life. Sometimes, depending on our life experience, things can be complex and issues can run deep. But it’s worth a try and you might be surprised how far it gets you.
I say this because some people who hear about this sort of practice don’t try it because they assume that their particular self esteem issues run too deep and were caused by such and such a thing in the past. They believe that they will first need identify the emotional root cause of their problems before they can start this sort of practice.
Actually, you can start the practice right now. Before you dig deep if you feel you need to. It might get you further than you think. If there’s more work to be done, then you’ll know about it because the gains will either reach a plateau or some situations will show you what work you still need to do.
But the positive gains you get from this technique might ease you into a positive enough state that you perceive some important insights into what other work you need to do. You don’t have to do the deep stuff first!
Start right now. Stop slouching. Sit up straight. Straighten your back. Lift your head up. Drop and relax your shoulders. Breathe.
You might be surprised and how much you get from doing this. For such a simple exercise, it might get you far enough that the gains are worth the little bit of committed effort required.