Maxwell Maltz: Why Do We Self-Sabotage?

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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Is there any goal that you want to achieve yet you keep sabotaging yourself by engaging in behavior that takes you further and further from the desired end result? Why do we self-sabotage?

According to Maxwell Maltz, the author of Psycho-Cybernetics, people self-sabotage when their conscious goals are in contradiction with their internal programming. He argues that the reason this incongruence occurs is one’s self-image.

In this article, you’ll learn how your self-image impacts your programming and, consequently, your progress toward achieving your conscious goals.

Your Self-Image Defines Your Experience

Why do we self-sabotage? Maltz argues that the reason we engage in self-defeating behaviors that thwart the goals we’ve set for ourselves is that our conscious goals differ from our internal programming. Obvious forms of self-sabotage include procrastination (when you avoid taking action to achieve your goals) and unhealthy habits such as overeating when your goal is to lose weight, or overspending when your goal is to save.)

Why does this incongruence between your conscious goals and your internal programming occur? Maltz argues that it’s down to your self-image.

What Is Your Self-Image?

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. Your self-image defines who you are, how you express yourself, and how you act in any given situation.

For example, consider an experience such as falling over. You could either say to yourself, “I fell over” (a fact that won’t have an impact on your self-image), or you could say to yourself, “I’m a klutz!” (the way you identified with the experience, which will have an impact on your self-image, and the way that you express yourself—for example, you may act overly cautious as a result of this identification). 

Your Self-Image Impacts Your Self-Esteem

Research developments in the area of self-identity indicate that our self-image is just one of four interrelated components that inform our opinions of ourselves:

Self-image: How you see yourself.
Ideal self: How you would like to be seen by others.
Real self: The feedback you receive from others shows you who you really are.
Looking glass self: How you perceive the way others perceive you and compare it to the way you see yourself.

Further, the research shows that you’re more likely to have a healthy sense of self-esteem (how much you like and accept yourself) if your beliefs in each of the four components align with and complement each other.

In other words, the greater the difference of ideas within each component, the more likely you are to suffer from low self-esteem. For example, you see yourself as boring (your self-image) but you want others to see you as interesting (your ideal self). This gap between your self-image and your ideal self creates conflict and undermines your self-esteem.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the beliefs that inform your opinion of yourself in each of these areas. However, there are a number of tests you can take to discover what you really think about yourself such as The Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale or The Flourishing Scale.

What Influences Your Self-Image?

Maltz argues that your self-image is not a real thing. It’s simply a construct of thoughts you chose to think about past experiences. 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 Clinical Hypnotherapy Treats Psychological Problems

Maltz focuses on the negative aspects of being “hypnotized” by others’ beliefs about you, but clinical hypnotherapy can be an effective form of medical treatment and impact your self-image positively. This is because, as Maltz notes, your nervous system can’t tell the difference between imagination and reality.

Hypnotherapy is commonly used to treat a variety of psychological problems such as phobias, anxiety issues, weight management, and addictions. Psychological problems tend to have a clear trigger and response relationship. For example:

  • Arachnophobia: You see a spider (trigger), and you panic (response).
  • Anxiety: You think about how much work you have to do (trigger), and you immediately feel worried and overwhelmed (response).
  • Addictions: You experience a particular feeling (trigger), and you feel overwhelmed by a craving for a particular substance (response).  

Clinical hypnotherapy treats these problems by helping you to:

  • Identify the root cause of your problem: Why you respond to triggers in the way you do.
  • Reprogram the way your mind responds to triggers: Replaces your negative response with a positive response.

Clinical hypnotists put you in a relaxed, trance-like state so that they can bypass your conscious mind and offer suggestions directly to your subconscious mind—while you’re in this state, your conscious mind doesn’t actively “resist” these new suggestions. However, hypnotists can’t force you to do something against your will—you’re always aware of what’s going on around you, and you remain in control. 

Successful hypnotherapy sessions create new trigger and response relationships in your mind. For example:

  • Arachnophobia: You see a spider (trigger), and you feel calm (new response).
  • Anxiety: You think about how much work you have to do (trigger), and you’re able to think clearly and prioritize your work (new response).
  • Addictions: You experience a particular feeling (trigger), and you’re able to seek a positive outlet for your emotions (response).  

The theme, as the book suggests, is that your brain behaves according to trigger-response pairs that it believes to be true but aren’t actually valid. With training, you can rewire them

Maxwell Maltz: Why Do We Self-Sabotage?

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Maxwell Maltz's "Psycho-Cybernetics" at Shortform.

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

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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