Overcoming Your Limitations: Unchain Your Mind

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Psycho-Cybernetics" by Maxwell Maltz. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What’s one thing you want to do but are too afraid to take action on because you believe you’ll fail? Why do you believe that this endeavor is doomed to fail?

People see their limitations as proof of their inability to succeed. But when you believe you can’t improve, it prevents you from even trying. Therefore, the first step to overcoming your limitations is to get yourself to believe that you can.

In this article, we’ll explore three methods you can use to overcome your (often self-imposed) limitations.

Releasing Your Limitations

The first step to overcoming your limitations is to make yourself see that you are capable of achieving successful outcomes. In his book Psycho-Cybernetics, author Maxwell Maltz prescribes three methods you can redirect your mind towards success: 1) turn challenges into opportunities, 2) reflect only on the facts, and 3) forgive and forget.

Method 1: Turn Challenges Into Opportunities to Improve Your Self-Image

A challenge is any situation that takes you out of your comfort zone. It’s important to see this type of situation as an opportunity rather than a crisis. Maltz argues that negative personalities often confuse challenges (opportunities to advance) with crises (life-threatening situations) because they’re so sensitive to external stimuli and perceive threats to be bigger than they are. They find excuses to avoid challenges, and they waste time and energy worrying or evading discomforting situations. 

Maltz argues that when you feel stressed or anxious—such as when you see a challenge as a crisis—you’re less able to think clearly, find solutions, or react appropriately. Your anxiety literally shuts down your brain and your ability to deal with situations. 

According to Maltz, positive personalities recognize the difference between an actual crisis and a challenge. In contrast to the negative personality’s tendency to freeze up, they proactively seek ways to overcome challenges, and they spend their time visualizing and planning how to make the best out of every situation.

Positive people are more relaxed: Maltz claims that the more relaxed you are, the more effective you are at dealing with pressure—you’re more able to think clearly and react appropriately and spontaneously to situations that come up. Consequently, if you visualize yourself responding to challenges while in a relaxed state, you’ll be more able to respond to real challenges as and when they come up.

Prepare to Move Past Your Comfort Zone

Maltz argues you can turn any situation into an opportunity to improve your self-image. The more you practice relaxation and successful visualization, the more likely you’ll be able to perceive challenges in your life as opportunities. He suggests doing this by planning ahead for challenges as much as you can by taking the time to investigate your fears and visualize yourself responding to situations calmly and competently. 

For example, you’re thinking about applying for a new job but you feel nervous about getting to the job interview stage. Maltz argues that your negative feelings signal that you haven’t mentally prepared yourself to meet your circumstances, and you’re reactivating memories of past failures rather than memories of past successes. To move past your fears, ask yourself:

  • Why are you afraid to apply for this job?
  • What can you do to better prepare for this job application?
  • How would a successful person approach this job application?
  • Knowing what you now know, what can you do to reverse these feelings so that you feel more successful?

Use your answers to better prepare yourself for this challenge—imagine yourself interacting in various job interview scenarios and pre-empt the various questions that may be asked. Practice responding to these questions calmly and confidently—overwrite your fearful thoughts by practicing feeling successful at this job interview.

This state of calm and confidence will carry over into any challenge you meet, not just the job interview—this process trains your mind to calmly solve all problems, and to confidently respond to every new situation and challenge.

Method 2: Practice Reflecting Only on the Facts

Maltz argues that your negative feelings (anxiety, discomfort, lack of self-confidence) are not an indication of reality, just how you feel about reality—and those feelings are a result of your habitual thought process. That is, if you habitually think negative thoughts, you’ll often misunderstand events and draw false conclusions that keep you stuck in a negative feedback loop.

When you feel negative thoughts, feelings, or memories surface, choose to replace them with rational thoughts that encourage positive beliefs. For example, if you find yourself feeling insulted by someone’s comments, Maltz suggests that you ask the following questions:

  1. Is there a rational reason for believing that this person intends to insult you?
  2. Is it possible that you misinterpreted this person?
  3. If someone else had said the same thing, would you have assumed that they were trying to insult you?
  4. Is there a good enough reason to feel insulted? 

Delay Automatic Responses

Maltz explains that one way you can train yourself to focus on facts and take control of how you react to situations is by delaying your response to stimuli. 

When you consciously delay your response to a stimulus, you interrupt the automatic reaction of your subconscious and give yourself the chance to objectively view the fact, instead of getting caught up in your automatic emotional reaction. This delay gives you the space to calm down, take conscious control over your emotions, and decide how you want to respond. The more you practice delaying your negative reactions, the more control you have over your ability to respond positively and create positive feedback loops. Eventually, you’ll find that things that once triggered you into negative emotional states will no longer have any control over you.

  • For example, you automatically get angry and lash out whenever your kids mess up the house. You can take control of this automatic reaction by making a conscious effort to count to ten before saying anything. This gives you the space to separate the fact (the house is a mess) from how you choose to respond—you don’t have to lash out, you can decide to respond more positively. For example, you could choose to make this a fun experience by putting on some good music and getting the kids to help you clear up.  

Seek Solutions

Another way you can take control of habitually negative thought processes is by making an effort to think rationally, not emotionally, about your mistakes. Maltz stresses that you should never identify with, or think emotionally about, your mistakes. The only time you should think about your mistakes is when you’re using them constructively, as a rational guide to help reorient yourself towards your goals. 

He suggests asking yourself logical questions about the facts of the situation as a way to force yourself to focus on figuring out the real cause of your mistake and your goals instead of focusing on identifying with the mistake. Further, questioning yourself rationally helps you to immediately seek solutions to the mistake so you can bolster your potential for success in the future. This process will turn every mistake and failure into an opportunity to learn and break your pattern of responding negatively to situations.

For example, you failed an exam. You could either mope around and identify with the failure: “I failed my exam (fact), therefore I am a failure (cause).” Or you could just state the fact: “I failed the exam,” and seek the real cause by asking yourself logical questions:

  • Why did you fail the exam?
  • Were you prepared for the exam?
  • How can you better prepare yourself for the next exam?

Method 3: Forgive and Forget

Throughout his work as a plastic surgeon, Maltz noticed that many of his patients suffered more from “emotional scars” than they did from real physical flaws. Some of his patients failed to see the changes in their appearance after surgery because their self-image was so strongly fixated on an imaginary flaw. Maltz concluded that emotional scars are the real cause of distorted and negative self-images, and the only way to move forward is to release them.

(Shortform note: Emotional scars—otherwise known as psychological trauma—result from situations that threaten your sense of emotional or physical safety. Psychologists argue that your subjective emotional experience of a situation defines whether you find it traumatic—the more powerless you feel, the more likely you are to feel traumatized and form an emotional scar. This links back to Maltz’s argument that the self-image determines responses to the environment: Someone with a positive self-image responds to life experiences rationally. In contrast, someone with a negative self-image responds to the same experiences irrationally, is more likely to feel threatened, and form emotional scars.)

Maltz argues that an unwillingness or failure to forgive past mistakes and traumas holds people back from experiencing success in their lives—they form “emotional scars” to protect themselves from future hurts and humiliations. These scars don’t protect them, but rather prevent them from experiencing new things and keep them trapped in a state of resentment and misery.

  • For example, a partner cheats on you so you hold back from getting close to others. You want to experience love, but your subconscious mind makes it difficult because you’re still feeding it feelings of resentment and pain. As a result, your subconscious doesn’t let you get close to others because you’ve trained it to keep you safe and distant from others. 

Forgiveness, on the other hand, heals these emotional scars and allows you to move forward with your life. You need to accept that we all make mistakes and it’s okay—no one’s perfect. Holding onto blame only holds you back from success. Forgiving yourself and others for past mistakes will liberate you and allow you to focus on where you want to go.

  • For example, after allowing yourself to experience hurt for a short time, you choose to forgive your ex-partner for cheating on you. You accept that it happened but you no longer feel any resentment, or project feelings of distrust onto potential partners. You choose to experience love, and you allow yourself to fearlessly embrace new opportunities, and to engage in meaningful relationships. This increases your chances of experiencing a successful relationship.

The more you practice feeling successful and self-reliant, the less sensitive you’ll be to external circumstances (the things that happen and how people react to you). The more you practice responding to experiences rationally, the less likely you’ll be to form new emotional scars.

Overcoming Your Limitations: Unchain Your Mind

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Maxwell Maltz's "Psycho-Cybernetics" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Psycho-Cybernetics summary:

  • How to program your mind in the same way you’d program a machine
  • How your self-image and patterns of thinking impact everything you do
  • Five methods you can use to improve self-image and create success

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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