The Best (Secular) Self-Help Program You’ve Never Heard Of

It has to do with changing your self image

Mitch Horowitz
Dec 11, 2017 · 5 min read
Salvador Dali’s 1966 painting “Darkness and Light” inspired by Psycho-Cybernetics.

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Interested in exploring self-help or motivational philosophies but can’t stand syrupy-sounding New Age bromides? Don’t trust Tony Robbins’ blinding smile? Do you sometimes harbor a creeping suspicion that we really are alone in the Universe (and, in fact, can’t stand when people like me capitalize “Universe”)?

Well, there’s good news. You’re a prime candidate for Psycho-Cybernetics.

Before the prefix “psycho” makes you press the back button, hold on. This trenchantly non-spiritual program of self-development and reconditioning was devised by a renowned reconstructive surgeon, Maxwell Maltz, in 1960, and won the allegiance of a wide-range of professional athletes, as well as cultural figures including surrealist artist Salvador Dali (who struck up a close friendship with Maltz), actress Jane Fonda, and First Lady Nancy Reagan.

In short, Maltz believed that self-image is destiny — and self-image can be changed.

His epiphanic moment arrived this way: As a pioneering cosmetic surgeon, Maltz was among the first generation to perfect reconstructive surgical techniques. Educated at Columbia, Maltz began treating patients in the 1920s; they included victims of burns and accidents, and others who suffered deformities or birth defects (real and exaggerated), which impaired their daily functioning. After years of medical practice, Maltz made a startling observation: Most of his patients did experience a marked improvement in self-image following successful surgeries — yet a small but persistent number did not, and the clinician wondered at this. Why, he asked, was the low self-image of some patients apparently resistant to an improvement in appearance? And what is this thing that we call “self-image?” Where is it from?

Maltz grew convinced that your self-image is, to a large extent, the result of self-perceptions and unconscious messages that you internalize and constantly, often unknowingly, repeat to yourself starting from your earliest age. Such a pattern can be crippling or uplifting — and it can be altered.

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A vintage edition of the self-help landmark.

This insight formed the basis of Maltz’s 1960 bestseller, Psycho-Cybernetics, a book that retains a loyal readership today. In Psycho-Cybernetics, Maltz argued that your mind functions according to the self-regulating system of cybernetics, a term popularized in 1948 by mathematician Norbert Weiner. Cybernetics describes the mechanism behind a heat-seeking missile, which, once programmed, carries out its directive with flawless self-correction. In a similar sense, you too function, Maltz wrote, as a sophisticated, circuit-loop mechanism — yet unlike engineered apparatuses, or even computers, you operate on self-suggestion.

Maltz’s program for reconditioning is not for the weak-willed. It is rigorous. In brief, it requires:

1. At least a half-hour a day of deep relaxation meditation.

2. Another half-hour of self-guided visualization-based meditation, in which you picture yourself and your life exactly as you want it to be, within the categories of reason. (Canniness and emotional functionality are prerequisites to the program.)

3. A steady, supplemental practice of affirmations, visualizing, and journaling.

Lest this sound too easy, consider: Everything in our lives — especially in the age of hand-held devices unknown in Maltz’s time — conspires to rob us of periods of authentic meditation, meaningful self-reflection (versus morbid self-interest), and inner quietude. Have you ever tried to meditate for two thirty-minute periods a day? It’s more difficult than it sounds, especially if you already have a regular meditative practice to which the Psycho-Cybernetics exercises are added or accommodated.

So, does it work? My personal experience is: Yes — but with two major caveats:

1) The program requires a great deal of self-discipline and inner effort. If there is a secret key to every self-help program it is absolute, ravenous hunger for self-change. Absent that, self-help is a hobby. With the right degree of hunger, any legitimate program — from the twelve-steps to talk therapy — can make a difference. But never underestimate the depth of passion that must be present to sustain and drive your efforts. As CS Lewis put it: “All depends on really wanting.”

2) Maltz died in 1975, before the neurologic and biologic antecedents of our psychology were well understood. I think he underestimated the influence, and mysteries, of temperamental and characterological traits. For example, every sensitive parent notices that his or her children enter the world — from the earliest days of infancy — with pronounced personality markings, which follow them all their lives. My two sons, ages 10 and 13, displayed temperamental traits from literally the moment they emerged from the womb. I recognize these characteristics in them today. The nature-versus-nurture debate is like a circle with no demarcation where one influence ends and another begins. I believe that Maltz, partly due to his generation, overestimated conditioning and failed to consider the impact of intrinsic personality, and how biochemistry tends one person toward exuberance and another toward depression.

What’s more, I am certain that Maltz, as a cosmetic surgeon, would have acknowledged that appearance, too, places considerable weight on the lever of self-perception.

Nonetheless, all but the most sectarian determinists would agree that conditioning is a seismic force. Indeed, the fact of intrinsic personality traits makes conditioning all the more vital, insofar as your conditioned self informs how you navigate the aspects of character that seem implacable.

Psycho-Cybernetics effectively set the template for all secular forms of popular self-help and motivational philosophy. If you attend a business-oriented or life-coaching self-help program — one with a non-spiritual tone — chances are you are imbibing material from Maltz.

I have a special love for Maltz’s book and program because it conveys a sense of epic hope about the potential of the individual to redirect his life, without requiring any belief system at the door. Psycho-Cybernetics envisions the individual as capable of conquering greater heights than, say, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which can seem to just rearrange the lawn furniture of the mind.

The book’s only requirement is a zeal to experiment. Different people will, of course, have different results from, and responses to, Maltz’s approach. But consider: What more noble undertaking is there than to strive to improve your nature, and strengthen your sense of self-direction? All of it attempted without a sectarian bent, or a necessary leap of religious faith.

Seen in this light, Maltz’s program was one of the greatest expressions of popular humanist philosophy of the last century.

For more on Psycho-Cybernetics:

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"Treats esoteric ideas & movements with an even-handed intellectual studiousness"-Washington Post | PEN Award-winning historian | Censored in China

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