Love Better, Present Better, and Perform Better Through Presence

***ANNOUNCEMENT: The next This Is How You Heal Yourself: Rewire Your Brain to Overcome Pain workshop is in San Francisco on Tuesday, 19 Jan 2016. I’ll be teaching you tools to get over heartbreak, phobias and trauma. Sign up here.***

Here’s a story for you: just last month, my professional singer friend Valerie was terrified of her upcoming auditions because of crippling stage fright. Right about that time, I was fortunate to attend a talk by Amy Cuddy on her new book. Valerie couldn’t attend, so I gave her an advance copy of Presence (hardcover and ebook) that Amy had kindly given us. Valerie watched Amy’s TED talk, read half of the book, executed the “power pose” (i.e. expansive body postures like the “Wonder Woman” and the “Usain Bolt” held for 2min) and “self-affirmation of core values” techniques right before her auditions, and nailed ’em: three auditions, three gigs booked. And it all worked that fast.

What would you say if I told you that there was an essential life skill that could make you a better speaker, help you nail job interviews, get you better dates, improve your performance, and make you a better partner and parent? What if I told you that no one has ever bothered to teach you this skill, mostly because we didn’t even know what it was? That secret skill is presence, “the state of feeling connected with our own thoughts, values, abilities, and emotions, so that we can better connect with the thoughts, values, abilities, and emotions of others.” And Amy Cuddy’s book can teach this state of “self-assured enthusiasm” to you and a whole lot more.

People — this is life-changing stuff. We can all think of a time when we wish we had said that one thing we had forgotten to say, remembered that one fact, had just an ounce more courage to do what needed to be done instead of looking back in regret, thinking, “What the heck was I thinking?” We just wish we had more access to our vast innate resources.

As a therapist and speaking coach, I’ve been teaching Amy’s material to to students and clients for a few years, so I was thrilled to hear that she’s putting her knowledge into book form. If there were a central premise to the book, it would be this: “The lesson is clear: focus less on the impression you’re making on others and more on the impression you’re making on yourself. The latter serves the former, a phenomenon that should become clearer and clearer throughout this book.”

Amy’s book is particularly inspiring because of her story of recovering from serious brain injury. One fateful night on a college roadtrip, her whole life changed. I’ll let her tell the story:

We had what we thought was a good plan: we would each drive a third of the trip; one passenger would stay up to help the driver stay awake and alert while the other passenger would sleep in the back of the Jeep Cherokee, seats down, in a sleeping bag. I drove my shift; I think I went first. Then I was the active passenger, keeping an eye on the driver. And it’s a really tender memory. So peaceful. I loved these people I was with. I loved the openness of the West. I loved the wilderness. No headlights to count on the highway. Just us. Then came my turn to sleep in the backseat.

As I learned later, here’s what happened next. My friend was driving the worst shift. It was the time of night when you feel as though you might be the only person in the entire world who is awake. Not only was it the middle of the night, it was the middle of the night in the middle of Wyoming. Very dark, very open, very lonesome. Very little to keep you awake. At around four in the morning, my friend veered off the road. When she hit the rumble strip on the shoulder, she overcorrected in the opposite direction. The car rolled several times, eventually landing on its roof. My friends in the front seat were wearing their seatbelts. I, who had been sleeping in back with the seats down, was ejected from the car and thrown into the night. The right-front side of my head slammed into the highway. The rest of me remained in the sleeping bag.

As a result of the accident, Amy sustained traumatic brain injury. Testing showed that she had dropped 30 IQ points. She could barely understand people and was in a perpetual fog. It took her four extra years to graduate from college.

But with hard work and rehabilitation, Amy got her mind back. And she dedicated herself to the study of psychology, and specifically presence — that quality which she herself had lost after her accident:

My injury led me to study the science of presence, but it was my TED talk that made me realize just how universal the yearning for it is. Because here’s the thing: most people are dealing with stressful challenges every day. People in every corner of the world and in all walks of life are trying to work up the nerve to speak in class, to interview for a job, to audition for a role, to confront a daily hardship, to stand up for what they believe in, or to just find peace being who they are.

But the story doesn’t end there. Even after had gotten back her mental faculties and was enrolled in a psychology doctorate program, she always experienced an intense case of impostor syndrome. Somehow she thought that she didn’t deserve any of her success, and that any day, someone would find her out for the fraud she was and call her out for it.

Perhaps you know of a, uh, friend who has felt that way.

It turns out that impostor syndrome is rampant — especially amongst highly gifted, accomplished folks. So if impostor syndrome sounds familiar, you’re in good company.

At the same time, what does it take to make you feel comfortable in your own skin? How long do you have to wait? How many degrees and accolades from how many institutions do you need to finally feel legitimate?

That answer is that you don’t have to wait anymore. You can start to experience and practice presence —  “to be totally in tune with our truest feelings, beliefs, abilities, and values” — today.

How? Well, there’s a lot of great practices in the book. And if you’re one of the 15 people who hasn’t seen Amy Cuddy’s TEDGlobal video yet (30.5 million views!), you should watch that. Right now, let’s start by sitting up a little straighter and taking deeper breaths. See? That wasn’t so hard.

Now stand up and hold the “Wonder Woman” pose — hand on your waist, elbow out, wide stance, chest out. If you hold that pose for 2min, your whole physiology shifts. You will feel more present.

You can also do a mind hack of affirming your most deeply held values and focusing on those. Why are you going into this job interview? Because the job is deeply meaningful to you and gives you an opportunity to give your gift to the world. Why are you giving this talk or workshop? Because it allows you to serve your audience’s needs deeply.

The key is to do exercises like these before you go into high-pressure situations, not during them. That way you’re already in the zone of presence, instead of trying to fight your own adrenaline.

The reason I’ve been telling everyone and anyone about this book is that I believe presence is the core skill of empowerment. And empowerment is the key to getting results in all areas of your life — social, romantic and professional.

Even though this book is smack-dab in my own field of work, I still learned a ton (took 19 pages of notes!). Here are some tidbits I particularly appreciated:

  • We usually think that confidence leads to decisions and thoughts drive behavior. But a surprising amount of the time, it’s the other way around: decisions create confidence and behavior creates thoughts.
    80% of all fibers from the vagus nerve go from the body to the brain, not the other way around. Body changes mind!
  • The more people use the word “I”, the less powerful and sure of themselves they are likely to be.
    “Ultimately, participants’ speaking rate had an inverse relationship with how powerful they felt. That is, the more slowly they read the sentences, the more powerful, confident, and effective they felt afterward.”
  • Speak slowly to feel powerful!
  • Hunched-over posture of staring at smartphones (“iPosture”) kills both your mood and your productivity.
  • New year’s resolutions don’t work. Chuck ’em. Set small achievable goals instead (ideal quantity: one), or just put stuff you want to do on the calendar for a specific time.
  • Self-nudges: little, incremental ways to change our behavior for the better.
  • “The three most important things to understand about the self, particularly as it relates to presence. The self is: 1. Multifaceted, not singular. 2. Expressed and reflected through our thoughts, feelings, values, and behaviors. 3. Dynamic and flexible, not static and rigid.”

It’s been over a month since Valerie’s story, so I thought I would give you an update. When she went back home for Christmas, Valerie’s newfound adoption of more empowering posture had transformed her relationship with her sometimes difficult mother (which I’m sure none of you have, but just in case). As a result, her Christmastime family stay was much more pleasant and harmonious. How’s that for a side benefit?

Applying the teachings of this book can directly affect your relationships, performances, credibility, work, interviews, impostor syndrome, lie detection abilities, and overall mood. That’s some important stuff, and Presence (hardcover and ebook) offers simple, practical, effective solutions to challenges in those areas of life. That’s why I’m buying a stack of ’em to press into the hands of my friends. I believe it would be a great way to kick-start your year into high gear.


In December, I did a workshop in which I taught folks how to use simple techniques to overcome heartbreak, trauma and phobias. The ladies in attendance seemed to get a lot out of it. Here’s some of what they said:

“After Dr Ali’s workshop on self-healing, I was able to understand and implement simple techniques for healing trauma. Dr Ali is a wealth of knowledge who clearly has a passion for understanding the human condition. In only two hours, I felt empowered to heal not only my own trauma, but that of my friends and family as well. He demonstrated the techniques in ways that were easy to replicate, even as a novice. For those who appreciate being able to make drastic improvements in their mental and emotional health, I highly recommend working with Ali.” — Megan M., personal coach

“Thanks so much for your workshop. I found it to be a very helpful workshop on how to heal from breakups, trauma, compulsion.  It was a great use of my 2 hours. Some key takeaways that definitely helped me on my journey in getting over the breakup:

1) the EMDR (eye movement reprocessing and desensitization) was a quick and very effective way to diminish pain associated with memories from the past.  I can only imagine that if done on a more consistent basis that it would be a great  help overall for more longer term healing. It is something that I  can continue to definitely do on my own in this healing journey.

2) I enjoyed the experience of the guided meditation/hypnosis that allowed me to visualize the three scenarios and was effective in helping me to let go.

All the exercises are easy to recreate and good to keep doing.  I agree meditation is the best way to retrain the brain. — Kelly M.”

“When I signed up for Ali’s Heal Yourself workshop, it was mostly out of curiosity. I didn’t have a specific trauma in mind, although of course, we ALL suffer traumas in our lives. At the workshop, I thought of one traumatic episode that I wanted to move past. My apartment had been robbed the previous year, and ever since then, every time I returned home and walked through my door, I found myself gripped by anxiety as I relived the moment of discovering the burglary over and over again. I just wanted to be able to arrive home in peace without thinking about it all the time. During the workshop, Ali led us through several simple exercises, which only took a few minutes and were easy to practice. I was shocked to discover how quickly they worked! Later that night after the workshop, I was home when I suddenly realized: for the first time, I didn’t even think about the burglary when I walked in! The results were immediate and permanent. I now walk into my apartment in blissful peace, no longer a victim of bad memories. I look forward to trying these techniques in other areas of my life, and also on my friends and loved ones to help them overcome trauma and heartbreak in their own lives. — Kim T”
Would love to see you next week if you’re in the Bay Area. And if you’re not, leave a comment letting me know where you are if you want us to get the show on the road in your town!
All the best,
Dr Ali