Never Stop Living

Does self-image ultimately determine how the body will perform?

“Now if you are going to win any battle you have to do one thing. You have to make the mind run the body. Never let the body tell the mind what to do. The body will always give up. It is always tired morning, noon, and night. But the body is never tired if the mind is not tired. When you were younger the mind could make you dance all night, and the body was never tired. You’ve always got to make the mind take over and keep going.” —General George S. Patton

On the recommendation of my physician, I’ve been knee-deep in my study of psycho-cybernetics these last few weeks. If you haven’t heard of it before, psycho-cybernetics is about developing the mind. It’s about developing a realistic and healthy self-image to prepare you to lead a more fulfilling life. It’s the most important book on psychology I’ve read since reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology Of Optimal Experience thirteen years ago.

The term psycho-cybernetics was coined by the plastic surgeon Maxwell Maltz back in the 1950s. It became part of the cultural milieu in 1960 when Maltz published what would become a foundational book in the field of modern psychology, referred to as positive psychology. Positive psychology was the natural response to the more traditional form of psycho analysis, laid down by Sigmund Freud, and practiced over the first half of the twentieth century. Early psychiatrists focused exclusively on the “defects of the mind”, called neurosis, in people who seemed to be living ordinary lives but were internally struggling with the meaning of it all. Neurosis means “invisible injury” and refers to many of the conditions that plague us today, anxiety, depression, compulsive behaviors, hysteria and the like.

Today the term neurosis is no longer used and instead we use the term “anxiety disorders” to categorize these unseen illnesses. Through the first half of the century, psychiatry, like all medicine, was a reactive field for the most part focusing on treating a disease once the disease manifested itself. The idea of taking steps to prevent a disease from happening was radical and just beginning to take shape. This was due in large part to the scientific advances made in field like biology and chemistry that allowed us to see things in a way we never could before. Thus, for the first time in human history we could look at things from a microscopic level and ask, “Is there anything we could do to stop this disease from happening?”

It didn’t take long for the notion of preventative care to spread from treating the body to treating the mind. Soon psychiatrists began to wonder about and explore the possibility of building a healthy mind from the start, with the idea then that there would be no room for weakness where neurosis could creep in. They asked, “What if we were trained to think positively, what if we helped an individual create a positive view of himself or herself from the start, could we prevent neurosis from happening in the first place?” Thus the field of positive psychology, including psycho-cybernetics, was born.

The term psycho-cybernetics is derived from the Greek words: psyche meaning mind and cybernetic meaning to steer or navigate. So in layman’s terms, Psycho-cybernetics is the directing or steering of one’s mind. Psycho-cybernetics is particularly concerned with the areas of the mind, both conscious and unconscious, that influence thought, behavior, and personality, those components of the mind that make up an individual’s image of himself. In his practice as a plastic surgeon Maltz noticed that post-surgery most patients saw an improved image of themselves, but not all of them. This observation led him to the insight that along with the outward physical improvement there must be an accompanying inward improvement, or improvement of the mental state, in order for the individual’s outlook on life to be changed.  Soon Maltz noticed that if he treated the patient’s inward perception of himself that sometimes surgery was unnecessary. That if the patient was able to change the image he held of himself or herself then his or her personality and behavior would invariably also change. And by doing this, he inevitably changed what was possible for him or her to accomplish. Quite an insight.

And it’s an insight that makes the above quote by Patton more profound because if the mind controls the body and the individual’s self-image directs the mind then the self-image ultimately determines how the body will perform. We runners often talk about running boiling down to a battle between the mind and the body. In fact, it is the runner whose mind can will the body beyond its limitations who succeeds. This is true for all runners, from the elite who competes for championships to the one who’s just stepped out the door after thirty years on the couch and all of us in-between. Re-frame the self-image and you re-frame what is possible.

“I cannot have survival as my only goal. That would be too boring. My goal is to come back in my best running form. It is good for me to have that goal; it will help me.” —Ludmilla Enquist, Russian-Swedish Olympian on being diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999

We must replace our negative self-image with a positive one. How do we do this? Maltz offers two ways: One is to recall past success often enough that they replace the memories of failure currently being used to define the self.

Enquist captures the difference between being alive and living. She also captures the psychological principle underpinning psycho-cybernetics which is the notion that man is a goal-striving animal and is happiest in the pursuit of some aim, a goal. All animals are goal driven, driven by the need to survive and multiply. But man also has a creative goal, something inside him that drives him to search for more. It is why we have civilization, and art, and science and medicine. It is why we climb mountains, explore the depths of the sea and travel into space. But being goal-driven is true for all of us and not just those we know through great works and famous deeds. Every man and woman is capable of reaching beyond themselves and realizing they are capable of creating and doing things we wouldn’t believe possible when we started out. We are at our best, and our happiest, when we are in pursuit of this kind of goal.

The key is to come to know these goals so well the become part of the self-image because the self-image, which exists in the unconscious, is what directs us. Maltz said, “The development of an adequate, realistic self-image will seem to imbue the individual with new capabilities, new talents and literally turn failure into success.” We must replace our negative self-image with a positive one. How do we do this? Maltz offers two ways: One is to recall past success often enough that they replace the memories of failure currently being used to define the self. The other way is to use mental imagery to build memories of future success. This practice is common among athletes who will play out an upcoming event over and over again in their mind, imaging every scenario and how they will react, so when the times comes they’ll be prepared. And the amazing thing is it works! It turns out the body, the nervous system, and the mind cannot tell the difference when recording a real or imagined experienced.

I’ve been using imagery to replace my self-image of a runner who fails to a runner who is successful. I’ve been conjuring up memories of successful runs, both in training and events, I’ve been remembering what they were like and how I felt going through them trying to make the recollection as vivid and as real as possible.  Hopefully then, when I think about my course of action, how I should train, what I should eat, how I should live, etc. all these things will come naturally into line and lead me down a path toward a richer, more rewarding running experience.


Psyche and Cupid. In Greek mythology, Psyche represented the human soul. For the early Greeks the soul and the mind were one and resided in the heart. It wasn’t until later on when they began to separate mind and soul.  In the mythological tale, Psyche was a beautiful young girl. So beautiful in fact, people began worshipping Psyche for her beauty neglecting Venus, the goddess of beauty herself. Needless to say this turn of events didn’t sit well with Venus so she sent her son Cupid to use his arrow on Psyche so that she may fall in love with a grotesque monster. Unfortunately for Venus, when Cupid saw how beautiful Psyche was his arrow let slip and he pierced himself causing him to fall hopelessly in love with her. A match which Venus absolutely forbid.

Psyche was so beautiful her beauty intimidated the men of her town so much that none dared asked for her hand in marriage. Her father consulted the oracles who told him Psyche was destined to be wed to a monster and instructed him to leave her at the top of a mountain where Zephyrus, the god of the west wind, would carry her off to the palace of her betrothed.

And so this did take place. Now, Psyche’s monster-husband would only visit her at night when she could not see him. He was not mean or cruel but tender and caring and loved her very much. One day her sisters came to visit Psyche and seeing how well she lived they became jealous. They filled Psyche’s head with all sorts of stories convincing her that her husband did not love her and that his real plan was to fatten her up so he could eat her.

Well, one night full of doubt Psyche took a candle to her sleeping husband. And what did she find? She found that her husband was none other than Cupid. Well, eventually Venus got wind of things and forbade them to be with each other. She made Psyche have to prove her love by completing a series of trials that grew increasingly difficult each time. Even though Psyche completed them all Venus still refused to let them be together. Finally Cupid had had enough and he took his case to Zeus, the god of gods, for relief. Zeus ordered Venus to stop and allow Psyche and Cupid to live together. Which they did. Happily ever after.

Success rests in having the courage and endurance and, above all, the will to become the person you are, however peculiar that may be.” —George Sheehan

The thing I love most about running is that it’s challenging, both physically and mentally. That it asks so much. The act itself is simple, you lift one leg up in the air, extend it and fall forward. Repeat the process alternating each leg, pick up some speed and voila, you’re running. It’s simple and that’s what makes it beautiful. And the longer you do this simple act the harder it becomes and that’s what makes it even more beautiful to me.

Running has taught me a lot about life, things like developing persistence, facing adversity, battling depression, the ability to fall out of and climb back into the ring, even how to enjoy a job well done. Now, I’m going to use running for something more. I’m going to use it to help me re-format my self-image. It’ll be my toughest run yet.

“I advise you to say your dream is possible and then overcome all inconveniences, ignore all the hassles and take a running leap through the hoop, even if it is in flames.” —Les Brown

Psycho-cybernetics tells us that everything we “are”—our actions, behaviors, feelings, and thoughts—is consistent with our self-image. It also teaches us that you’re never too old to change your self-image. Whitman didn’t start being Whitman until his mid-thirties (the same age I was born). Michelangelo, Goethe, Picasso continued to make art past their eightieth year. Hell, Thomas Edison was still working on his inventions after the age of ninety. And Happy Valley’s own George Etzweiler can be seen running down College Avenue every morning at the great age of ninety-two. (You can read more about this remarkable man here.) So there’s hope for me yet. And based on some recent events time may also be on my side.

The first event was an article published on the London Daily Mail Online indicating that aged seventy-two is the new thirty, at least for those of us who live in the west. The article references research done by German scientists who studied the death rates of modern hunter-gatherers and found that health-wise, modern hunter-gatherers in Australia, Africa, South America and the Philippines are as healthy at the age of thirty as a seventy-two year old man living in Japan. The main reasons behind this discrepancy are that life in the developed world is less dangerous, advances in medicine, and better access to nutritious food.

The other event happened at last week’s Toronto Marathon where eighty-one year old Ed Whitlock ran the marathon in three hours and thirty minutes. (You can read all about it on Runner’s World.) The article goes on to cite research done on nine alpine skiers whose average age is eighty-one where it was found “The high aerobic power achieved by the octogenarian athletes is comparable to healthy, non-endurance trained men about 40 years younger.” Think about that. To quote Amby Burfoot, the article author, the bottom line here is: “If you’re not 80, keep going. If you are 80, keep going.” Amen. A-freaking-men.


Read more of Jeff Swain’s column, Man on the Run, on The Good Life.

Image credit: through my eyes only/Flickr

About Jeff Swain

Jeff Swain claims to be an expert on nothing. He's just a humble seeker, looking to find out what it's all about. Aside from searching for the meaning of life, Jeff likes to run marathons. You can follow along with his life and adventures on his blog, Twitter, and Facebook.


  1. I’m a psychology and humanities major. Would you recommend reading Flow and Psycho-Cybernetics? I’ve read David Burns “Feeling Good” and thoroughly enjoyed that. Those sound similar.

    • Jeff Swain says:

      Hi Steffan,
      I’d recommend both books for sure. I will check out Feeling Good for sure. Thanks for the recommendation.

      If you check out Flow and Psycho-Cybernetics let me know what you think of them.



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