When I was in high school, I was painfully shy. I was the girl who spent her lunch hour in the library doing homework — not so much out of studiousness, but more out of complete and utter avoidance of any kind of social interaction.
For my 15-year-old self, Dante’s nine circles had nothing on the spirals of students in the cafeteria. I was so horribly insecure that I couldn’t even bear to have a conversation with anyone. I didn’t want to be looked at or asked out on a date or invited to parties.
I just wanted to be invisible. The moment I was spoken to, I would feel my cheeks instantly flame, and I would descend into myself. Literally. I turtled down into the jacket that I never unbuttoned, wrapped my arms around myself in private solace, and tried to respond as quickly as possible in order to get that fiery glare of the spotlight off myself.
I’ve come a long way since then! That was a different life. I actually enjoy socializing now; I have a circle of close friends whose company is a source of light in my life, and a boyfriend of four years whose embrace warms me to the core. I have grown into my leonine self and actually seek out attention at times. Though, all that being said, on bad days I feel my shoulders rising despite myself, and I start to retreat inwards.
A friend recently lent me her copy of The Definitive Book of Body Language by Allan and Barbara Pease, and it was an enlightening read. One particular gem that struck me was the line, “When the body closes, so does the mind.” According to the Peases, when you cross your arms, you are showing that you feel insecure and threatened as you are placing your arms in front of yourself as a barrier and protecting yourself from frontal attack.
When you cross your legs, you likewise are showing a “closed, submissive, or defensive attitude as they symbolically deny access to the genitals.” Now, to me, the message you are telegraphing to others is of secondary interest — what blew me away was that your posture and gestures communicate a message back to yourself, an internal order to shut down mentally. And in response, the mind walls off the world.
Right now, you might be thinking to yourself, “Hey, I cross my arms sometimes. It doesn’t mean I’m threatened or nervous; I’m just comfortable!” The book anticipates this argument with the point that you probably ARE comfortable because your bodily comportment naturally aligns with your mood. “When someone feels defensive or insecure, crossed arms and legs feel comfortable because it matches their emotional state.”
This brings me to the bottom line: if there is such a natural parallel between the mind’s thought and the body’s (re)action, can you change your body language? Can you fake it? The answer is no, you can’t fake it, at least not convincingly over time because of the likelihood that there will be incongruity between your gestures, expressions, and spoken words, which people will pick up on, if only subconsciously.
However, I think what this book highlights is that communication is always reciprocal and dialogic in nature. The mind talks to the body, and the body talks the mind…and then the mind talks to the body again and so on, back and forth. It’s a conversation. For example, when your mind gets nervous (such as before a job interview), your hands can get cold and clammy. Interestingly, this happens because the body senses the mind’s stress and is preparing for literal “fight or flight.”
The blood is rushing away from your hands to be diverted to the arms and legs, in preparation for you to run (or battle). BUT…you can send another message, in effect, to override the first and trick the brain. If you take your cold, clammy interview hands, and imagine warming them in front of a campfire, “this visualization technique is proven to raise the temperature of the average person’s hands by 3-4 degrees.”
We can apply this to closed body language too and answer the “can you change it?” question: of course. Uncross those arms and legs! The Peases advise you to “practice using positive and open gestures; this will improve your self-confidence and others will perceive you in a more positive way.”
In other words, ultimately, you can’t fake it, but you can create it. When you open your body, you open your mind. There’s a beautiful quote from Anais Nïn, both literally and metaphorically apt, that reads, “And the time came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
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