This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Psycho-Cybernetics" by Maxwell Maltz. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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What exactly is self-image? What can you do to improve your self-image and get closer to the type of person you want to be—your ideal self?
Your self-image defines who you are, how you express yourself, and how you act in any given situation. To improve your self-image, you first need to think about the type of person you want to be. Next, you need to replace your negative thoughts and feelings about yourself with positive ones.
In this article, you’ll learn how to improve your self-image and program your mind for success.
Your Self-Image Is Shaped by Your Experiences
Like a machine, your brain has recorded every experience you’ve had up until this moment—every failure, success, and interaction. Your self-image is a reflection of how you’ve identified with and felt about these experiences.
For example, consider an experience such as falling over. You could either say to yourself, “I fell over” (a fact that won’t impact your self-image), or you could say to yourself, “I’m a klutz!” (the way you identified with the experience, which will impact your self-image, and the way that you express yourself—for example, you may act overly cautious as a result of this identification).
Use Your Imagination to Create Success
In his book Psycho-Cybernetics, Maxwell Maltz explains how to improve your self-image using your imagination. Maltz argues that since your self-image is a result of hypnotization and imagination, you can use your imagination to “dehypnotize” yourself and improve your self-image. The more you improve your self-image, the more you improve the way you’re programmed to act. The first step to reprogramming your self-image is becoming conscious of whether you’re using your imagination constructively (to create positive thoughts and feelings) or deconstructively (to create negative thoughts and feelings).
If you’re using your imagination deconstructively, Maltz argues that you need to make a conscious effort to instead use it to form a clear mental picture of yourself as successful—this will allow you to practice feeling successful, and will ultimately improve your approach to life. To replace existing negative beliefs with new successful beliefs, you need to create equally strong impressions in your mind—when you create positive feelings of excitement and desire regularly enough, they’ll outweigh your negative feelings, and your self-image will improve.
Maltz describes five methods you can use to direct your imagination towards thoughts and feelings of success related to specific goals and the improvement of your self-image.
Method 1: Prove That Change is Possible. Maltz suggests that you choose a habit that you perform daily—one that’s not tied to your self-image, such as brushing your teeth or putting your shoes on—and commit to doing it differently. Every time you make the effort to change this particular habit, affirm to yourself that if you can break this habit, you can also break any negative thought patterns by replacing them with successful thought patterns. For example, if you normally put your right shoe on first, start making the conscious effort to put your left shoe on first. Use the act of putting your shoes on differently to remind yourself that you can choose to think differently.
Method 2: Relax Your Way to Success. Maltz argues that practicing physical relaxation will enable you to consciously control your imagination and, subsequently, your self-image. When your mind is relaxed, it’s more receptive to positive suggestions. This is because negative thoughts create tension in the body—this tension makes it difficult for your mind to accept new ideas or possibilities. On the other hand, when you’re in a state of relaxation, negative thoughts tend to disappear. Relaxing your mind and body will create space for your positive suggestions to thrive.
Method 3: Imagine Your Successful Personality. Maltz suggests that you use your imagination to think about the person you want to be and to recall your successful memories. He argues that each time you create or recall successful feelings, your subconscious will record them and imprint them into your self-image. These successful feelings will accumulate in your self-image and you’ll gradually find yourself naturally feeling and acting more successfully.
Method 4: Focus on a Goal. Maltz argues that you need to find a reason to change your self-image before you can develop the skills to change it. In other words, you should know what results you hope to achieve with an improved self-image. Without a clear reason, you’re unlikely to find the motivation you need to make the required changes. So, if you want to change your self-image so that you can feel more inner peace, think about why you want this—what you’ll get, or what improvements you hope to see in your life once you make this change. For example, will you get along better with your family, or feel more productive at work?
Once you’ve thought of something that your successful self would want to achieve, break it down and think of the first step that you can realistically achieve—Maltz argues that it’s important to develop the habit of success early on so that you can gradually build up your self-confidence to achieve more demanding goals.
Method 5: Choose Happiness Now. Maltz argues that genuine success and wellbeing come from cultivating and developing the habit of happiness in your life. Further, he claims that your mental attitude influences the way that your body heals: Happy people are generally healthier and more resilient to physical setbacks because they expect to get well and have a reason to get well.
On the other hand, unhappy people suffer from poor health and wellbeing because they don’t have a reason to get better—they don’t have anything to look forward to. Studies have shown results that support his idea that negative attitudes are bad for your health. For example, stressed out and unhappy people often suffer from ulcers and high blood pressure, they’re more likely to develop addictive behaviors and less likely to engage in healthy routines.
How to Overcome Resistance to Change
If you want to create new habits to support a more positive self-image, you need to take small achievable steps to develop the habit of success. This is because the bigger the change you want to make, the more your mind is going to resist it—your mind’s job is to protect you. If it believes that you’re attempting to do things that will cause it harm, it will resist every attempt that you make with feelings of fear or inhibition.
For example, imagine that you’re afraid of heights and your goal is to jump out of a plane (because this is your version of a successful and fearless self-image). Your mind is so accustomed to being afraid of heights that even the suggestion of jumping out of a plane causes it to stimulate your nervous system into producing a panic attack.
So how can you get past this resistance so that you can achieve what you want? In The Kaizen Way, Psychologist Rober Maurer claims that you’re more likely to make successful changes if you take very small but regular steps toward the large goal you intend to achieve. This is because small changes are more likely to bypass your brain’s instinctive reaction to resist new behavioral changes.
So, if you’re afraid of heights but want to achieve the goal of jumping out of a plane, begin by taking the tiniest step toward combating your fear of heights you can imagine, such as standing on a chair. The next day, stand on a low table, and so on. Each time you take another step, you’ll demonstrate to your brain that you’re safe regardless of how high up you are, and you’ll eventually succeed without fear or resistance.
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Here's what you'll find in our full Psycho-Cybernetics summary :
- How to program your mind in the same way you’d program a machine
- How your self-image and patterns of thinking impact everything you do
- Five methods you can use to improve self-image and create success