Pointers on the practice of poise
July 29, 2009 12:09 PM   Subscribe

How do I become more calm, or at least appear to be more calm?

In reading some of the recent questions about what makes a person charismatic or refined, I've realized that my major barrier to being a warm, inviting person is that I'm just not calm. I often feel and appear harried, and anyone who knows me would probably say that panic is an emotion that I express quite a bit. It gets in the way of my ability to lead and has led to negative professional consequences in the past.

I'm naturally a high-strung person, and I don't think that's something I'll ever be able to fully change. What I want, though, is find some ways to develop (or even fake) at least a small amount of that equanimity that puts others at ease. Any suggestions?
posted by thisjax to Human Relations (20 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
Okay, this is pretty new-agey, and doubly so for me, but bear with me.

In my youth, I pursued a few different martial arts as well as a little bit of buddhism. With the result that I meditated often and tried lots of different kinds.

I had a Chuan Fa teacher who used to do this thing with us where we'd envision a city. Whatever kind of city you like. The only thing that's necessary is that the city has a river running through it. When I'm stressed out, I do what he advised, which is imagine the city, imagine the river, and imagine myself sitting by it.

It's totally cheesy, it's self-hypnosis, but it works. You calm, your heart rate slows and things become a hell of a lot more manageable.
posted by lumpenprole at 12:18 PM on July 29, 2009 [8 favorites]

The following is obviously dependent on personality and I'm not you and you're not me, but...

Learn to meditate. You might have to take a class. I did along with martial arts classes I took in my youth in order to learn some biofeedback techniques.

If you're anything like me, you'll find that your nature is opposed to being calm and/or focused 100% of the time. You need some external pressure to get things done, and your frantic nature is an internal adaptation of that pressure.

When you get good at it, good enough to put yourself into a trance within a few minutes, you might find that it changes your personality at a subtle level that removes the harried feeling. It's also an excellent way to prepare yourself for a nap or to put yourself to sleep at night, and good exercise for focusing yourself and putting interferences and annoyances out of mind in your day to day life.
posted by SpecialK at 12:22 PM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

I would also suggest meditation of one form or another. If you don't feel like you have time every day to dedicate a specific slot to 20min of mediation... then the next best answer I can give you is: Breath.

Whenever you feel harried, rushed or otherwise fried... stop for a moment and remember to breath. Fully. Deeply. Slowly. Even if its just for 2 minutes in an elevator. Full deep slow unlabored breathes are a great way to encourage your body, muscles and mind to relax.
posted by jmnugent at 12:38 PM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

I advise you to consciously speak slower. Say your words slowly, pause a little bit longer between words and even longer between sentences. This gives the impression of calmness. As an added side effect, it is often calming to the speaker because it gives you more time to think about what you're saying.
posted by samthemander at 12:39 PM on July 29, 2009 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Try doing things that deliberately force you to slow down and wait longer (ie. if you're at the grocery, pick the longest line to check out). Over time you'll realize the world isn't over if you take a little longer to do things.

As for being charismatic, when talking with others, stop moving, try turning your whole body to face them (or at least your whole torso) and look them in the eye for as long as you can stand (don't count the seconds). You will appear harried to others if you are constantly switching your gaze to background noise or your phone or some other distraction.

(this of course all coming from an overworked, overrushed guy living and working in Manhattan, capital of the slowest tandem sidewalk-walking tourists in the world)
posted by chalbe at 12:42 PM on July 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: samthemander gave an excellent suggestion above. I know someone who pauses lengthily while gathering his thoughts and I can attest it has a calming effect. Take a moment, smile, think of something good in the situation (to avoid appearing stressed/harried) and proceed with leisure.
posted by cranberrymonger at 12:49 PM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

There is a lot of research that supports the idea that expressing an emotion also makes you feel it more acutely. (a little summary of some of these results can be found here) Try being a little more stoic about your feelings of panic and alarm. Say to yourself "yes, I'm feeling panicked, but I don't have to tell anyone about it, I can deal with it myself." Presenting a calm exterior will go a long way to feeling calmer yourself.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 12:51 PM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

I love meditation. However, meditation takes a while to learn and there's frustration along the way.

jmnugent has it. The quickest and easiest way to relax is to take slow, deep breaths. Sounds trite, but it works. You could try it right now.

1. Breathe in slowly, first filling your 'stomach' with air (not really, but that's what it feels like) and continuing to breathe in until your lungs expand as much as is comfortable.
2. Breathe out, but slower than you breathed in. Let your shoulders relax.

Repeat as many times as you wish.

You could also stretch a bit now, if you feel like it. And smile.

samthemander also has a great bit of advice there, if you find yourself rushing through your words.
posted by zennie at 12:52 PM on July 29, 2009

Best answer: While all of this advice is great, getting down to what makes you panicked and anxious is a key. Are you afraid you'll miss something? Worried about what will happen? Hypervigilant? In need of controlling your environment?

When you start to address some of the issues that make you anxious, you may find that you're calmer all around.

For me, I think about the worst that could happen in a given situation.
What if I'm late to the meeting? Am I going to get fired? No.
Will I be considered perpetually late and unreliable? No, because this is the first time I've ever been late.
Will I be embarrassed? Yes.
Can I deal with being embarrassed today? Yes. Well then, move on and get to the meeting.
posted by Sophie1 at 12:53 PM on July 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

Accept your negative feelings and let them pass without acting out. Calm comes back.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:59 PM on July 29, 2009 [4 favorites]

I think a lot of people run around without even realizing how stressed they are. Learn to take stock of your body. Is your neck tense? Is your breathing quick and shallow? Is you blood pressure high?

Many examples above on how to relax. Meditation or small exercises will allow you to calm down. The trick is to realize you need to calm down.
posted by Gor-ella at 1:06 PM on July 29, 2009

practice yoga
posted by liverbisque at 1:16 PM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Accept your negative feelings and let them pass without acting out. Calm comes back.


I will not fear....
posted by lumpenprole at 1:19 PM on July 29, 2009

Don't be afraid of silence.

Listen. Think. Breathe. Then talk.

Repeat as necessary.
posted by rokusan at 1:41 PM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've been told a number of times at work that I'm always incredibly calm. Which surprised me because I sure as hell don't always *feel* calm, but apparently I always look like it.

Faking calm: Basically, all I do is keep my freakouts inside my own head. If someone else is freaking out on me, I let them finish talking, pause a second, then respond, making absolutely certain that I'm keeping my voice level and my expression smooth. If I need to go back to my desk to process something before I can get back to them, I just say so. So far no one's ever had a problem with it.

Developing calm: Just in my experience, I've seen too many examples of how getting hysterial accomplished nothing but making everyone else stressed and scared to approach that person, and made them look worse in their coworkers' eyes, and I just never want to be that person. When something at work goes off the rails, well, it's happened before, many times. Life went on. Things worked out. As far as I can tell, there've never been any truly damaging long-term reprecussions. Very little of what happens at work has ever turned out to be truly worthy of losing my shit over. (YMMV, of course, according to your line of business.) Sophie1's rational thought processes are great.

And it sounds trite, but I strongly second the stomach-expanding deep breathing exercises. Also, make a point of relaxing your body until your chair is fully supporting your body weight. Both are immediate and incredibly effective stress releases. Most of us have no idea how tightly wound we are all the time.

Good luck.
posted by anderjen at 2:46 PM on July 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

Take a long deep breath, counting "1...2...3...4...." Hold it to the count of four. Let it out slowly, to the count of four. Hold it (i.e. don't take another breath) for another count of four. Repeat this for ten minutes daily. After a month of doing that, I started acting calmer.
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:58 PM on July 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Last night as a passenger in a car driving fast at dusk along dirt roads I was certain a kangaroo was going to jump out, and we'd swerve, roll and crash. I hated the feeling of fear, the feeling of anxious distress and impending doom. I was also bringing a whole lot of unnecessary tension into the cabin of the car. I realised I was feeling these things and decided I wanted to 'feel peace' instead. So I thought about 'feeling' peace. I didn't think about peace, just the feeling of peace. I knew I was faking it but my breaths became a little deeper and the more I continued to fake feeling peace the more peaceful I became.

...develop (or even fake) at least a small amount of that equanimity that puts others at ease.

Faking it almost always come first before getting it real. Think of a toddler learning to walk. They fake (hanging onto things). Or their first bike with trainer wheels. Or a trainee pilot behind a flight simulator, a student lawyer in a moot court. It's all about faking it first to understand what the real thing is like, what shape it takes for you.

How to fake it.
Although it may seem hard to spot at first there is a space between stimulus and response, between being stimulated to anxiety and responding in an anxious way.

Find that space and decide to 'feel calm'. Consciously choose to put your awareness into feeling calm and responding calmly, instead of responding in the (habitual) non-calm manner. Sure it's 'fake'. You probably don't feel calm at all at first. But keep your awareness on feeling calm, only speak when your voice is calm, only move with calm ease. Practise it in real situations. Practise it at home. Use a visualisation, or a thought, or an imagined audio track, or by keeping your thoughts on your breath or whatever works for you.

In reality, the only 'faking' part is the act of practising feeling calm in anxiety stimulating situations. Practice it and it becomes real. It doesn't mean you won't ever be anxious again, but you will have a tool to help when anxiety strikes.
posted by Kerasia at 6:06 PM on July 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Yoga. I cannot recommend yoga enough. Ever since I started practicing yoga I talk less, complain less, worry less. I don't seem to be bothered by the trivial things that used to plaque me. All is right with the world if you can believe that. It sounds corny but yoga brings balance to all areas of life. After only one month of yoga I am experiencing benefits. It's awesome, I am so glad I found it, and I want to shout the benefits from the rooftops.

Practice breathing in and out through your nose. Do physical labor. Take long walks without technology tethered to your ear. Appreciate your surroundings. Notice smells, sounds, the breeze, your feet one in front of the other. You can meditate anywhere. You can meditate while washing dishes.

Try this: sit or lie down and count backwards from 99 to 0. Concentrate on breathing in and out your nose and visualizing nothing but black. Random thoughts may creep in or creep out. There may be racing thoughts at first but keep practicing daily and the racing thoughts might diminish. I do this often and if I forget what number I am on I restart at 99. It's incredibly calming for me.
posted by Fairchild at 7:02 PM on July 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

I have actually been telling myself to calm down. Literally. Sometimes I will catch myself walking really fast or driving like a maniac, and I will realize that I'm doing it unthinkingly and out of habit. So I will tell myself to calm down and I'll try to breathe a little. sometimes it really helps, because panic and stress seem habitual to me, even though the actual situation might not warrant it. Like I don't HAVE to make the green light necessarily. I don't have to pass some car or pass some slow pedestrian.

Same with interacting with people. I think I'm in the habit of feeling like everything is an emergency, but really, if I can just step back and think about it, there aren't as many emergencies as I'm feeling. I'm still learning the trick to stepping back though.
posted by gt2 at 7:58 PM on July 29, 2009

The Aristotelian approach to this sort of thing is right in line with the med school slogan- fake it 'till you make it. (Which may line up with your strategy.) A's point was that acting as if, in this case, you're calm, will over time retrain your emotions, motives, and reactions until the aspect you strive for becomes a firm and unshakable part of your character; in short, you become calm. The Aristotelian line suggests you focus on someone you know (or group) that is calm, and emulate them. Practice prior to events where being calm might be an issue. I don't mean play act it out or anything like that. Just run through different events and scenarios in your mind and how your paradigm would react at each point. Imagine yourself acting in that way, and then act in that way. The rest is just repitition, until you develop the habit. Not terribly helpful advice, I'm afraid, but I've found it surprisingly effective in overcoming shyness.
posted by kdk at 8:42 PM on July 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

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