By Jason Selk
Self-image is essentially how you view yourself—what strengths and weaknesses you believe you possess and what you believe you are capable of achieving. Maxwell Maltz first identified the concept of self-image in his groundbreaking book, “Psycho-Cybernetics.”I must admit that when I first read Dr. Maltz’s research some 15 years ago, I was skeptical, to say the least. However, convincing research supports Dr. Maltz’s work, and I have personally tested his theories with thousands of clients. I eventually found that the power Dr. Maltz ascribes to self-image is, if anything, understated. He writes:
“You will act like the sort of person you conceive yourself to be. More important, you literally cannot act otherwise, in spite of all your conscious efforts or willpower.
This is why trying to achieve something difficult with teeth gritted is a losing battle. Willpower is not the answer. Self-image management is.”
So what the heck is “self-image management”? Self-image management starts with consistently sending the correct messages to yourself about yourself. Continually focusing on experiencing the success you desire causes your own belief in your ability to grow. When you develop a true belief in yourself, you become capable and powerful. Creating a vision of self-image that matches how you want things to turn out actually will begin to develop and cause your desired results. But you can’t “manage” that which you have not created. So that’s why you have to begin by developing a vision of self-image. When you connect yourself to your vision by taking 30 seconds per day to replay it in your mind, you give yourself the passion and direction for high-level success.
Self-image is internally constructed: You decide how you view yourself. No one chooses for you, and you can’t choose a self-image for anyone else. Self-communication (what you consistently say to yourself) is the strongest determinant of self-image, so it follows that you create your self-image by the way you talk to and think about yourself. The subconscious mind listens to what the conscious mind says and then develops the self-image. Unfortunately, much of our inner dialogue focuses on what we can’t do rather than what we can do. When you spend your whole life telling yourself that you can’t or won’t amount to anything, you start to believe that message. As Henry Ford said famously, “Whether or not you think you can, you’re right.” If you tell yourself, “I can’t do this work,” then it’s unlikely that your self-image will include a vision of yourself as the big boss. But it’s equally true that if you begin telling yourself you can and will achieve your win, you greatly enhance your likelihood of success. If you say to yourself every day, “I have the confidence, intelligence, and work ethic to become CEO of this company,” you’ll be more likely to be able to envision yourself as CEO and ultimately become CEO.
Visualization is the most powerful vehicle of self-communication. The trick is to transform your words into mental images. Imagining yourself as the CEO—actually see in your head the details of what you hope your life looks and feels like—is a much more powerful experience and leaves a more lasting impact than just using words to reinforce the direction you are hoping to move toward. I often tell my clients that visualization is like bringing a gun to a knife fight: Your previously negative thoughts and self-talk won’t stand a chance against the more powerful detailed visions of success you are about to create.
I was presenting this very topic for the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team at spring training in 2006 when one of the players, known for his boisterous personality and aggressive work ethic, chimed in, “So you’re teaching us to mind-f@*% ourselves?”
“A great question,” I replied with a grin, imagining what would happen if someone in a corporate seminar used that vocabulary. “You are not mentally tricking yourself by developing your self-image.” I went on to explain that self-image is a proven agent of behavior control. If you set your self-image high, you will experience an increase of internal motivation if you are not accomplishing goals at the self-image level you set for yourself. The internal motivation compels you to work harder or smarter until you begin achieving at the self-determined level of self-image. Over time, the self-image will regulate behaviors and outcomes to fall within the range of self-expectation. Essentially, the self-image governs how successful any individual becomes because it motivates and shapes work ethic and effort.
In this way, self-image is like a thermostat. If you set the thermostat at 72 degrees Fahrenheit and the room drops to 71 degrees, the thermostat then sends a message to the heater to get to work. Warm air rushes into the room, and the room warms up to 72 degrees. When the room reaches 73 degrees, the thermostat tells the heater to stop working. All day long, the thermostat governs the temperature in the room and won’t allow the room temperature to rise or drop from the desired temperature for long.
Human beings are the same way: We neither outperform nor underperform our self-image for very long. That’s why it is so important to set your self-image gauge high enough to achieve your life goals. Set your self-image gauge too low, and by definition, you’ll underachieve, because your mind won’t call for the motivation to achieve more.
The self-image thermostat is why a substantial percentage of lottery winners file for bankruptcy within five years of winning. Lottery winners who were in financial straits before they won wind up back in the same boat five years later because even though their financial situation has dramatically changed, their self-image hasn’t. If people see themselves as “not good with money,” it doesn’t matter how much money they have; they will find a way to lose or squander it. In other words, they have set their self-image thermostat low. Likewise, if you hold onto a negative vision of self-image, you likely will become that vision.
Therefore, a key to self-image management is to create a positive vision of self-image and set your thermostat high. Decide how you want to live and who you want to be, and then begin to align your thoughts with the self-image you hold. Your self-image thermostat will engage your work ethic to follow suit. Your vision of self-image will guide and direct actions and behaviors until the vision of self-image becomes reality.
Excerpt from “Executive Toughness” by Jason Selk, Ph.D. (McGraw-Hill). Excerpt reprinted with the permission of McGraw-Hill and Dr. Selk.
Jason Selk, Ph.D., is the author of “10-Minute Toughness” (McGraw-Hill, 2008) and “Executive Toughness” (McGraw-Hill, 2011). He is a regular contributor to ABC, CBS, ESPN, and NBC radio and television. Dr. Selk uses his in-depth knowledge and experience from working with the world’s finest athletes, coaches, and business leaders to help individuals and organizations outperform their competition. Learn more at www.enhancedperformanceinc.com.