Most people don’t think about their posture when communicating with others, yet the way you balance yourself through life speaks volumes about who you are. The amount of tension you hold in your body translates into how well you manage your thoughts, actions and reactions. Your posture is the first snapshot people see when they meet you for the first time.
Take a moment to think about someone that you know who moves with exceptional ease and agility. Do they exude confidence and skill? Now think of someone you’ve encountered who seems clumsy and sluggish. Do they command respect and attention?
I remember a time in grade school, when I was sitting quietly at my desk anticipating the substitute teacher we’d get for the day. I was wondering what kind of sub they would be — a nice one? Namely a pushover who would permit mayhem to ensue. Or the strict kind, the one staring us down as we sat in silence too afraid to breathe. There was always a distinguishing trait between the two: the way they held themselves.
The “nice one” usually had to raise their voice to be heard, wave their hands or threaten. But no one was listening. They would eventually succumb to the chaos and slump into their chair. In contrast, the strict sub did very little. Their presence said it all. The words were minimal and precise. There was no room for disruption, they were very clear about where and how they stood.
There is no doubt that body language is a powerful thing. In situations where you want to maximize your authority, minimize your movements. This has always been a trait of people of authority, they don’t need to run around proving who they are because they already know. But there’s something else there too — they are present. They are centered. They have poise.
Perhaps you’ve glanced over at a co-worker and noticed that they are sitting slumped over in their chair. When you see them seated that way, what kind of impression do they give? Does their posture illuminate their presence or shrink them into oblivion? What is more, do you notice the way people who smile are sitting? Are they facing out towards others or leaning over towards their screens?
A study published in Health Psychology, found that sitting posture has a direct influence on stress responses. Namely, adopting upright posture in the face of stress helps maintain self-esteem and increase positive mood compared to a slumped posture. This is probably why the substitute teachers who stood upright before my class had the confidence to set boundaries and signaled a no-nonsense persona. This is also probably why you never notice that co-worker sitting slumped in their chair.
The way to know how you come across to others is to first recognize your own body habits. How do you sit at your desk? If you’re collapsed in your chair while staring at a screen you’re not doing your body — or your peers — any favors.
Not only is sedentary lifestyle a leading cause of lower back pain, but it can also lead to obesity and depression. And while over-correcting the slumped posture to one that appears ‘straight’ might be tempting, it also isn’t the solution. For starters, the spine has a natural curvature, so it can never be straight. But also, over correcting a rounded back with an arched back is not different as far as the spine is concerned. Both add undue tension to the body.
So what can you do?
When I was in grad school studying anthropology we were required to periodically do field work, where we observed people. Most of the field work pertained to our own research, but some of it was basic human observation. I would sit a coffee shop, bar, or park and just observe people. There is nothing more reflective for the self than observing others.
Since I’ve spent the past 18 years studying, researching, writing and teaching about posture, it would be suffice to say that I find it to be a very telling. Mostly because it helps me reflect on my self and where my habits are taking me. Sometimes it‘s hard to identify what we are doing with our bodies. However, when we see something that stands out in someone else, it’s some sort of signal to pay attention. This leads to reflection and introspection.
The next time you go outside, pay attention to how other people walk. What does their gait say about them? What about those who initially appear confident? Is it contrived? Namely, are they tightening their body to appear bigger and stronger or are they walking with ease and agility? Good posture is present when the body lacks tension and there is freedom in movement.
There are plenty of modalities that offer help with posture. And there are different ways to approach improving one’s posture. But the first and most important step is recognizing how you carry yourself. It would be amiss to take yoga or go to a chiropractor or even invest in a posture device or ergonomics without first knowing what you are doing with your own body.
Whether it’s looking at yourself in the mirror or taking notice of how you’re sitting in your chair, paying attention to body habits is the first step towards change. And rather than think of what to do, think of what not to do. You want to sit upright? Start by not slouching. Then, think of your head like a helium balloon lifting you up into the sky and your spine is the string that follows.
Moving with ease requires balance and posture is an expression of the way we balance our bodies through every day activities. Our poise and posture can either lift us up, or pull us down; they can help eliminate tension or create it. That is why your posture is so telling about who we are. But the good news is that just like we learned those undesired habits that interfere with our posture, we can also unlearn those habits and improve our posture to tell a better story about who we are.
Goman, Carol K. “10 Simple and Powerful Body Language Tips for 2013.” Forbes.com (2013)
Nair, S., Sagar, M., Sollers III, J., Consedine, N., & Broadbent, E. (2015). Do slumped and upright postures affect stress responses? A randomized trial. Health Psychology, 34(6), 632.
Originally published at https://psychcentral.com on December 27, 2019.