There are many concepts in psychology that try to explain our behavior. One of the most powerful ones is the concept of the "self-image".
What is the self-image? And how does it influence me and my life?
Enter the United States of the 1930s and 1940s
There was a plastic surgeon, well-known for his expertise in correcting deformed faces.
He would fix facial deformations and scars, giving his patients a new, aesthetic look.
But the clients he treated weren’t all the same. They had different stories.
Some of them had suffered an accident and the resulting facial scars made them feel self-conscious.
When he removed their scars, they regained their self-confidence and continued their lives as before.
Then there were clients who were born with deformed facial features. They had established a life long track record of feeling self-conscious around others.
After the surgery, they looked better, but the results differed. Some could still not identify with their new looks and still felt self-conscious. Others, in contrast, experienced a boost in self-confidence and quality of life.
The last group of clients was asking for plastic surgery without any obvious reason. Most of them were at least average looking, some of them with even quite symmetric and aesthetic facial features.
Among all three groups of clients, there were also some that after successful surgery insisted that they could not see any difference.
They insisted that nothing had been changed, even though it could clearly be seen in before and after pictures.
They claimed that they could see the change but the disfigurement was still there…
What was wrong here?
What was it that really influenced how people felt about their appearance and thus how they behaved in general?
The surgeon was Dr. Maxwell Maltz, who summarized his observations in the 1960 bestseller Psycho-Cybernetics.
Psycho-Cybernetics is by now considered one of the classics of self-help literature.
The discoveries he made and techniques he developed provided the basis for many other books in the fields of positive psychology and personal growth.
What exactly was his discovery?
Introducing The Self-Image
Dr. Maltz found that plastic surgery did not only affect the physical appearance of someone but produced incisions deep into the human psyche.
That there is something at the core of our minds that determines how we see ourselves, regardless of the objective reality, and thus how we feel and behave.
This is what is called the “self-image”.
The self-image is our own conception of the “kind of person we are”.
It has been built up and shaped by our own beliefs about ourselves. Most of these have been engrained unconsciously from our past experiences, successes, and failures.
From all these, we mentally construct a “self” or a picture of a “self”.
The key is that our actions, feelings, behaviors — even your abilities — are always consistent with this self-image.
For those patients who always had a positive self-image about themselves and suffered an accident, the surgery restored their physical appearance and put it back in line with the self-image.
For others, who had built up a negative self-image about themselves through lifelong experiences of rejection and feelings of self-consciousness, the surgery could not change their feelings of inadequacy.
The self-image was still the same. These were the patients who claimed that the disfigurement was still there and continued to feel self-conscious about their appearance.
In short, you will “act like” the sort of person you conceive yourself to be. Not only this, but you literally cannot act otherwise, in spite of all your conscious efforts or willpower.
Therefore, the self-image sets the boundaries of individual accomplishment. It determines what you can and cannot do.
Expand the self-image and you expand the “area of the possible.”
Therefore, the development of an adequate, realistic self-image will seemingly give us new capabilities and talents and allow us to unlock our true potential.
Dr. Maltz summarized it like this:
To really “live,” that is, to find life reasonably satisfying, you must have an adequate and realistic self-image that you can live with. You must find your “self” acceptable to “you.” You must have a wholesome self-esteem. You must have a self that you can trust and believe in. You must have a self that you are not ashamed to “be,” and one that you can feel free to express creatively, rather than hide or cover up. You must have a self that corresponds to reality so that you can function effectively in a real world. You must know yourself — both your strengths and your weaknesses — and be honest with yourself concerning both. Your self-image must be a reasonable approximation of “you,” being neither more than you are nor less than you are.
In short, the self-image is the key to human personality and human behavior. Change the self-image and you change the personality and the behavior.
How To Change The Self-Image
One of the reasons it has seemed so difficult for people to change their habits, personality, or way of life has been that all the efforts, strategies and techniques that are used don’t really affect the image that we have of ourselves.
So how do you change the picture we have about ourselves?
It cannot be influenced or changed by willpower or knowledge alone, but by sheer “experiencing”.
As your self-image was molded by experiences in the past, it can be changed again by the same method.
Let me explain.
Cybernetics And The Automatic Mechanism
The premise of “cybernetics” is that our brain and nervous system constitute a “goal-striving mechanism”, which can be set to either failure or success, depending on how you operate it, especially through the goals you set for this mechanism.
Humans are innately goal-striving creatures. We always have goals, even if we are aware of it or not because our brain sees the pictures we hold in our heads as the goals worth striving for.
This fact can be seen in the simple example of picking up a pen. The association or image you have of it in your head is the goal that the “automatic mechanism” acts upon.
You simply pick up the pen, without any conscious thought, will or “forebrain thinking”.
What does that have to do with our self-image?
The self-image itself is the main image that our “goal-striving mechanism” is oriented on. Therefore it sets the limits for the accomplishment of any particular goals, the “area of the possible.”
This mechanism, however, can work as both a success or a failure mechanism, depending on the goal we set for it by the “data” we feed into it.
If we hold thoughts and pictures of worry, unworthiness, inferiority, incapability, failure (a negative self-image) in our head, then our subconscious mind will process that as the goal to strive for.
Thus your body language and attitude will adapt without you even being consciously aware of it.
You will then indeed repel others, isolate yourself and start the self-fulfilling prophecy.
“You act, and feel, not according to what things are really like, but according to the image your mind holds of what they are like. You have certain mental images of yourself, your world, and the people around you, and you behave as though these images were the truth, the reality, rather than the things they represent.”
You will not be able to act otherwise than according to these limiting beliefs and will find the result in the form of an objective experience.
This is how thoughts can create reality.
What to do then? Only positive thinking?
Positive thinking is indeed effective, but only when consistent with the overall self-image. Change the self-image first, then positive thinking will be the seeds that fall on fertile soil.
Goal-Setting Through Imagination
According to Dr. Maltz, research has shown that the human nervous system “cannot tell the difference between an actual experience and an experience imagined vividly and in detail.”
What does that mean for our self-image?
If you can imagine your desired future life situation so extremely vividly and with such details and emotions as if it were already an accomplished fact, your brain will accept it as a real experience.
It will then adjust your subconscious behavior and attitude to make your actions congruent with that new mental image.
In short, creative mental picturing or imagining sets a new goal for the “automatic mechanism” to strive for and will install this imagined situation as the new self-image.
How can we implement this habit of creative mental picturing?
The Theater Of The Mind
To effectively change your self-image, it is essential to regularly make use of creative mental picturing.
Dr. Maltz called it a “mental movie” that you regularly watch in the “Theater of the mind”.
Firstly, you need to develop a script for your “mental movie”.
Therefore, you need to define your goal or end result. It can be any new life situation you want to be in or ability you want to have.
For example, you picture yourself in your dream job or doing something you are scared of, maybe public speaking or having a job interview.
Picture the situation vividly and have a clear image of what is happening.
Then capture the feeling you would experience if the desirable goal were already an accomplished fact.
What feeling would you have? Freedom? Courage? Empowerment?
Really tune into that feeling while having the pictures in mind.
Secondly, write this script down and make sure to memorize it so that you can recall and watch that mental movie whenever you like.
Lastly, make the “Theater of the Mind” a fixed part of your routine. For about 10 minutes every day watch your mental movie, awoke the empowering feeling it gives you and prime yourself for success.
1. Evoke That Winning Feeling
Before starting your “mental movie” it is crucial to engage your subconscious mind by remembering what Malz calls the “winning feeling”.
If you struggle with simply tuning into the emotions that you want to feel like during your mental movie, then start with an emotion form the past.
Recall a past situation that made you feel good about yourself and gave you a similar emotion.
It can be as simple riding the bicycle for the first time, learning to tie your shoes or any other thing that made you feel proud and happy about yourself. It does not matter when this experience took place, it is about the feeling you got from it.
What sounds were there? What about your environment? What else was happening around you at the time? What objects were present? What time of year was it? Were you cold or hot?
The more detailed you can make it, the better. If you can remember in sufficient detail just what happened when you were successful at some time in the past, you will find yourself feeling just as you felt then. Try to particularly remember your feelings at the time.
If you can remember your “winning feeling” from the past, it will be reactivated in the present.
So you are carrying that reactivated “winning feeling” into your mental movie.
You keep feeling the desired emotion but now combine it with your new mental movie.
This will allow you to intensify the experience, make it more real and, thus, make your new self-image stick.
2. Use Relaxation To Let The Subconscious Work
After supplying the goal to your subconscious, don’t try to interfere with its workings and accelerate the process by willpower. This would only interfere with the “automatic mechanism”.
After you’ve formed a mental image of the goal you seek to create, the “how” will come to you — not before. Remain calm and relaxed and the answers will arrive. Any attempt to force the ideas to come will not work.
As Brian Tracy wrote, “In all mental workings, effort defeats itself.”
After practicing your creative mental picturing, the focus should be on relaxation and on letting the subconscious to the work.
This is what creative people of all times found to be the best way to come up with new ideas, inspirations or solutions.
Bertrand Russell wrote in his book "The Conquest of Happiness":
“I have found, for example, that, if I have to write upon some rather difficult topic, the best plan is to think about it with very great intensity — the greatest intensity of which I am capable — for a few hours or days, and at the end of that time give orders, so to speak, that the work is to proceed underground. After some months I return consciously to the topic and find that the work has been done.”
This is why it is best to make the “mental movie” part of your evening routine. You then have a great transition from priming your subconscious mind to relaxation and letting it do the work.
As Thomas Edison said: “Never go to sleep without a request to your subconscious.”
3. Listen To Your Subconscious And Act Upon It
Your subconscious will connect the dots to make your “mental movie” a reality and a plan with the needed steps will unfold about how you are going to accomplish the result you seek.
This happens often through hunches and ideas during a relaxed moment (e.g. in the shower or after waking up).
Write these ideas down and act to according to it. It will be easier for you to do that if you keep your end goal in awareness, it will feel less effortful and more automatic.
You are, however, still responsible for holding yourself accountable that you take daily action towards your goals.
Change will not suddenly come into your life while you sit on the couch and wait. Distractions and negative influences can easily bring you off your path.
Everything in life is a mental picture. Every goal you have begins as a picture in your mind. And anything you don’t like about yourself or your life can be changed by changing your mental pictures.
Call to Action
What is your vision? Where do you want to be in 5 years?
Try to come up with a vivid image of your life situation and how it will make you feel.
Start to revisit it before going to sleep.
Over time you can develop a habit around it and regularly enter the “Theatre of the Mind”.
You’ll be amazed by the changes that your life will take from there.
PS: Do you use some form of visualization? What is holding you back from doing it? Let me know in the comments below, I’d love to connect with you!