Self-Image: The Psychology of Self-Perception

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? Do you think your self-image accurately reflects who you are and what you are capable of?

Your self-image is the mental image you hold about yourself. According to Maxwell Maltz, the author of Psycho-Cybernetics, your self-image is not an accurate reflection of who you are. It’s simply a construct of thoughts you chose to think about past experiences.

In this article, we’ll look at the psychology of self-image: what influences it, and how it affects your ability to succeed and experience happiness.

What Is Self-Image?

In his book Psycho-Cybernetics, Maxwell Maltz explains the psychology of self-image. Maltz argues that your self-image is not a real thing; it’s simply a thought. Thoughts are subjective (for example, you may think you’re fat but it doesn’t mean that you are fat) and may or may not be true. But if you accept them as truth, they become part of your self-image.

Why does your self-image accept all of your thoughts, regardless of how inaccurate they are, as truth? Because your nervous system can’t tell the difference between imagination and reality: Your brain doesn’t judge your thoughts—instead, it reacts automatically to what you think or imagine to be true.

Maltz draws on the practice of hypnotism to make his point. He says that if you’re hypnotized into believing that you’re in a snowstorm, your body will react to the cold: you’ll shiver, goose pimples will rise on your skin, and your teeth will chatter. In the same way that a hypnotist’s words have power over the hypnotized subject, what you accept as truth about yourself has power over you, even if it’s not actually true.

Maltz argues that you’ve been “hypnotized” by others’ words throughout your life. As a young child, you were impressionable and prone to believing what those around you said about your character. You accepted their opinions and beliefs about you as truth and this shaped your self-image in the early part of your life. Your self-image has likely evolved over time, but if you haven’t addressed these original thoughts, they will continue to inform your opinion of yourself. 

You’ve also used your imagination to hypnotize yourself: Thoughts plus feelings form mental images and create a strong impression in your mind—these strong impressions turn into beliefs that define your self-image. For example, worries are a form of mental imagery. You think about things that could go wrong and create feelings of anxiety and fear—these thoughts and feelings create the impression of the worst-case scenario in your mind. Your mind then operates according to the belief that the worst-case scenario will take place, and your nervous system responds by creating the appropriate emotional and physical reactions.

How Your Self-Image Impacts Your Ability to Succeed

Maltz argues that your self-image determines how you perceive your environment and how you read signals to interpret feedback. In other words, your self-image determines how you engage in and perceive every social interaction and experience throughout your life.  

Maltz argues that the self-image is continually reinforced by what he calls “feedback loops”—how feedback reinforces learned behavior and programming. Machines process feedback so that they can achieve their goal. Once they achieve the goal, they store their successful feedback (memory of successful attempts) and discard their negative feedback (memory of mistakes). Their memory of successful attempts creates a feedback loop that allows them to “learn” quickly and operate efficiently and successfully.

However, unlike a machine, humans rely on their self-images to interpret feedback to their behavior. Your self-image decides whether to release negative feedback so that you operate successfully (behave in a way that results in success), or to remember and reinforce negative feedback so that you operate inefficiently (behave in a way that creates failure). If your self-image decides to focus on negative feedback, this can lead to programming that causes you to reinforce negative patterns of behavior that work against what you want to achieve. 

  • For example, imagine someone who was bullied as a child and failed to receive support. This person identified with feeling victimized and isolated, and this impacted her self-image. She now finds it difficult to trust others and form close relationships—she expresses this difficulty in various ways, from aloofness to hostility. As a result, her behavior keeps people at a distance. She interprets their distance as proof that others don’t want to connect with her, and she remains acutely aware of how they make her feel (victimized and isolated). She uses this interpretation as proof that she should continue to protect herself from social interactions.

Even though she wants to connect with others (her goal) her self-image causes her to interpret all feedback as negative, stops her from moving towards what she wants, and perpetuates her self-isolation. 

Your interpretation of your environment justifies your self-image and how you continue to act—how you continue to act further reinforces your interpretation of your environment, and so on. So, if you want to achieve success and happiness—according to the goals you’ve consciously set for yourself—you need to ensure that your self-image aligns with what you want. This way, you’ll be able to interpret and act on feedback in a way that moves you toward your goals.

Self-Image: The Psychology of Self-Perception

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  • 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

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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