The self-image is the key to human personality and human behavior. Change the self-image, and you change the personality and the behavior.— Dr. Maxwell Maltz
When cosmetic surgeon Maxwell Maltz wrote Psycho-Cybernetics in the 1960s, did he know he’d found the success mechanism that countless motivational gurus and personal development authors follow until this day?
Any serious personal growth aficionado has heard of Psycho-Cybernetics, being as it is one of the modern self-help book classics and arguably the first to express the ‘thought creates reality’ premise in a scientifically palatable way.
But if you’re unfamiliar, this article will give you the basics and a brief psycho-cybernetics summary, so you’ll be able to nod sagely along the next time you’re discussing Maltz’s teaching over drinks with your positive thinking pals.
What Is Psycho-Cybernetics?
‘Psycho’, besides being an Alfred Hitchcock classic (and the pet name for my ex), is, as I’m sure you know, a prefix from the Greek ‘psyko’ meaning ‘mental’ or ‘of the mind’.
Cybernetics also has Greek roots, and while I don’t have the letters on my keyboard to write the original — it essentially meant ‘steersman’.
So Psycho-Cybernetics could be considered a way to navigate the mind.
If you want to get fancy about it then Cybernetics (also known as Control Theory) is the study of principles governing goal-directed systems that self-regulate via feedback – but let’s be honest, that sounds a bit dry.
And although you can apply Cybernetic Theory to many disciplines, when it comes to Maltz’s landmark bestseller, we’re essentially defining Psychocybernetics as a kind of ‘self-image psychology.’
Maxwell Maltz: Cosmetic Surgery and Self Image
Our self-image, strongly held, essentially determines what we become.— Maxwell Maltz
Dr. Maxwell Maltz may not have had a typical personal development background, but in his work as a cosmetic surgeon, he began to notice that often, despite successful ‘correction’ of a perceived imperfection, a patients’ false belief would prevent them from healing the emotional scars that existed pre-surgery.
In short, they wouldn’t end up any happier after their operation. Their outward appearance changed, but the true source — their negative self-image, beliefs, feelings, and attitudes would remain the same.
This fascinated Maltz as it became more apparent to him that a patient’s mental blueprint was actually far more important in determining self-worth than any physical ‘imperfection.’
As he pondered the reason behind it, his research led him to cybernetics — which had yet to be applied to people, and he postulated that human experience might be similar to a machine’s programming.
What if, somewhere between experience and reality, the mental interpretation of the former could be altered to affect the latter?
Could you, through mental rehearsal and working with the subconscious mind, interrupt the patterns of negative habits and negative beliefs to create a positive self-image? Without the need for surgery?
Heat Seeking Missiles and the Subconscious Creative Mechanism
Think of your psycho-cybernetics system like a heat-seeking missile. The missile consists of a propulsion mechanism and a sensor that makes a feedback loop to check if the current course is correct. If the course is not correct, the propulsion mechanism will adjust the course and continue.
We also have a built-in mechanism — our body. And we have a lot of sensors that interpret data used to operate the body. This data comes not only from our senses, but also our self-image, different beliefs, and mental pictures. If any of these don’t represent reality correctly, both our internal and external circumstances suffer from dissonance.
What Dr. Maltz quickly realized was that the subconscious is a creative mechanism for course correction. Our subconscious exists to achieve its goal of proving itself right.
Your self-image creates a kind of ceiling for what you can accomplish and the level of success you can achieve. The trouble is that our self-image is hidden from our conscious minds.
What’s worse, because your natural psycho-cybernetics system is based on your previous experiences, past successes, failures, emotional hurts, psychological trauma, etc., it is difficult to change.
After all, how do you change the thing you want to change with the thing you want to change?!
The answer, Maltz found, lies in your imagination and interrupting your internal feedback loop.
You Are Not a Machine — But Can You Be Reprogrammed?
Humans have always compared the way the body works to the leading technology of the time. Today we often compare the brain to a computer, but back in the ’60s, it was all about machines.
Although Dr. Maltz is clear that you are not a machine, he did observe similarities between people’s experiences and machine programming. Both relied on some form of input and a reaction to that input creating some kind of output.
And, in a nutshell, that’s what Maxwell Maltz’s Psycho-Cybernetics is all about, understanding how the brain works in these machine/mind terms.
The exciting part comes in the uniquely human ability to reprogram ourselves by experiencing imaginary events as if they were real.
Anyone who has ever seen a good stage hypnotist has seen that the mind cannot physiologically distinguish imagination from reality.
Whether it’s making a mammoth of a man unable to lift a tiny little weight; causing anesthesia and allowing the skin to be pierced by needles without bleeding; or even causing the skin to blister through the power of suggestion, it’s clear that a vehemently held belief can have real-world physical effects.
The mind makes it real.— Morpheus, The Matrix
And as we’ve seen in numerous creative visualization studies, even in controlled laboratory conditions, people can use experiences “imagined vividly and in detail” to change outcomes.
And because of our ability to imagine and the brain’s inability to tell the difference, humans, unlike heat-seeking missiles, can not only course correct but also change their intended destination.
In short, it’s possible to upgrade your self-image and unleash the creative mechanism of your subconscious mind in the direction that you consciously want it to go.
And the personal development industry has been refining ways to do that ever since.
How to Change Your Self Identity
Low self-esteem is like driving through life with your hand-break on.– Maxwell Maltz
Now, if you really want to understand this, I would recommend reading Maltz’s Psycho-Cybernetics for yourself, but here’s a very crude overview:
To upgrade to a more empowering self-identity, your beliefs need to seem consistent. This is why positive affirmations rarely work in isolation. You are telling yourself things that are inconsistent with your existing self-identity.
So what you need to do is identify your beliefs, assess which ones are resourceful, eliminate those which are not, then install new ones which are. Simple right? But how the hell do you do it?
Identify existing beliefs
Sometimes, merely bringing your core beliefs to your conscious awareness is enough to jolt you out of them. Look at your unwanted behaviors and negative feelings and ask yourself the following questions:
- What belief supports this action?
- Why do I believe this is this belief?
- Is my belief based on fact? Or assumption or false conclusion?
- Is there any rational reason for such a belief?
- Could it be that I’m mistaken in this belief?
- Would I come to the same conclusion about some other person in a similar situation?
- Why should I continue to act and feel as if this were true if there is no good reason to believe it?
Going deep into this question will help you bring your subconscious self-image into your conscious mind.
Installing new beliefs
The most reliable ways to create new beliefs are repetition, a positive feedback loop, and adding emotion.
Neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to ‘rewire’ itself) shows that as adults, repetition remains the best way to carve out new grooves in your neural pathways. Still, by taking advantage of certain brainwave states and mixing in emotion, you can speed up the process:
Step 1: Relax the body
For your mind to accept Steps Two and Three, you first need to eliminate tension from your body.
If you’ve ever seen a hypnotist perform on stage, you’ll notice that the hypnotist starts their show by turning down the lights and getting people on stage to relax their bodies. Their goal is to put their participants’ minds in a suggestible state and make them more open to accepting their instructions.
Tension in the body is a signal to the nervous system to reject incoming information. But when you release tension, you become more open and willing to believe information from people around you, or in this case, your own mind.
There are many ways to enter this state, but here’s the one Maltz describes:
- Close your eyes
- In your mind’s eye, see yourself lying stretched out on a bed
- Form a picture of your legs as if they were made of concrete.
- See these very heavy concrete legs sinking far down into the mattress from their sheer weight.
- Now picture your arms and hands as made of concrete. They also are very heavy and are sinking into the bed.
- Repeat this with arms, neck, and every other part of your body.
Step 2: Imagine solving your problem
Pick one thing you’ve been struggling with.
Imagine tomorrow you wake up and discover that the struggle is over, and you’ve achieved a result, a positive outcome that was beyond your expectations. You’re not sure how it happened, but it happened.
Now, make this mental experience as vivid as possible by noticing small details. The more detailed you can make the experience, the more your mind will believe it’s real.
Step 3: Integrate the feeling of success
Think of a string of small successes you’ve actually experienced recently. Dr. Maltz says, how big the successes are doesn’t matter.
It could be any intention that you’ve set and met. Like this morning, you set the intention to get out of bed at 7 am, and you did. All that matters is that the memory triggers a positive, happy, feel-good experience in you right now.
Once you build up a feeling of success, inject it into the self you imagined in Step Two.
When you associate the feeling of success with an experience you’re imagining, you’re conditioning your nervous system to believe that you’re capable of that experience.
You are, in effect, raising the standard for yourself and seeing yourself as the type of person who is comfortable in this new high achievement environment.
Congratulations. You just upgraded your self-image.