This essay is written based on my own experiences of Chimp Management, which have been gained from reading the books, attending Chimp Management conferences, and practising Chimp Management in the workplace with the aid of a Chimp Management mentor and an independent team psychologist. I am not an expert in this topic, but it’s one that I enjoy and feel passionately about.
Have you ever received a super-frustrating email, sent a grumpy response, and then regretted it? Munched your way through half a packet of biscuits that you don’t even really like? Shouted curse words at other drivers on the road? Gone to bed feeling cross about a work situation, and then woken up the next day and found it hard to remember what had annoyed so you so much about it? Blurted out something that you didn’t mean in the heat of the moment?
Course you have. We all have. Why? Because we’re human, and it’s normal. Professor Steve Peters, a consultant forensic psychiatrist, and author of the global best seller ‘The Chimp Paradox’ has developed a mind management methodology explaining why. Using psychological science, he explains that the brain has three main areas: the chimp, the human, and the computer. These correspond to real parts of the brain such as the orbito-frontal cortex, and specific brain circuitry, but you don’t need to know any of that. The whole point of Chimp Management is that it’s an incredibly simple model explaining how the brain works, and it’s so accessible a child can understand it.
What are the chimp, human and computer?
The chimp is your emotions, and your impulses. The chimp gives you energy, drive, passion, inquisitiveness and creativity. It’s also the one sending those emails, shouting at drivers on the road, and saying things that your human later regrets.
The human is you – your core beliefs and values.
And the computer contains all your stored memories. Everything you’ve ever experienced, good and bad, is stored in your computer. Here’s the nifty thing – it’s within our gift to deliberately programme our computer with helpful beliefs (rather than unhelpful beliefs), in order to help us get through life in a more positive and constructive way.
The chimp, human and computer work together. When you experience something, the chimp and the human compete to respond. The chimp is five times faster than the human, however, so the chimp always wins. The chimp then immediately refers to the computer to see if there’s anything useful programmed in there that will help to deal with the situation. If you have a helpful belief stored in your computer, the chimp will take that and use it to respond. If there’s nothing programmed there, or there’s something unhelpful programmed there, then your chimp’s in the driving seat and will crack on and do whatever it feels like. And of course, all this happens in a split second. Then about twenty minutes later, your slow human will kick in – but by then, it’s often too late.
Real-life example of your chimp and computer in action
Let’s use a real life example. You’re driving along, and someone cuts you up. Your chimp becomes activated immediately, and refers to the computer, who tells the chimp: people who drive like that are assholes! The chimp takes charge of the situation, tooting the horn, flipping the bird, and maybe even driving dangerously fast to get alongside the other driver in order to wind the window down and really have at them. Your blood pressure rises, you start to sweat, your adrenaline flows, and it can take over half an hour to calm yourself down.
Now let’s consider what happens if you have a different belief programmed into the computer – namely that there may be a very good reason why the person who cut you up behaved as they did; perhaps they’re rushing home to get to their kid’s school show. Or maybe you’ve just decided to put other people’s driving behaviour on your list of things that you can’t control, and therefore shouldn’t stress over (more on this shortly). Either way, the person cuts you up, your chimp checks your computer, your computer tells your chimp to chill, your chimp settles down, and you keep on driving calmly and safely as if nothing has happened.
Which scenario do you prefer? Which one is safer for you, and for other road users? And now replace ‘driving’ with ‘any other emotion-based situation’ – what will help to protect you, and the people around you, by helping you to manage your responses in a constructive way?
It’s important to note that our chimps are good for us. It’s easy to learn about the Chimp Management model and draw the conclusion that our chimps are a bad influence. This is far from the truth. Our chimps are a necessary part of our brain that help to keep us alive – it’s the impulses of the chimp that give us our fight, flight or freeze survival instincts. They give us energy, drive and passion. Our chimps are mischievous, and make things fun. The trick is to manage our chimps as effectively as we can, by ensuring they have a computer full of healthy programming to draw on. My chimp sometimes says things that he shouldn’t do, but I forgive him for it, because he’s part of me, and we’re both trying our best.
Your silent guides
So, how do you programme your computer? Professor Peters describes this activity as creating your ‘silent guides’. The silent guides are your unconscious beliefs that lead you towards a recurring behaviour. Your brain contains untold millions of silent guides, created from every detail of your every lived experience. And because of this, it may contain bugs in the system. These can take the form of ‘gremlins’ – unhelpful beliefs that you can reprogramme. They can also take the form of ‘goblins’ – elements of brain malfunction that are hardwired in, and cannot be changed. If your brain contains goblins, then this is something that you have to live with. Many of us are born with goblins and can do nothing about them – but we can tackle the gremlins, and we can generally do our best to input healthy programming into our computers. If we can uncover unconscious beliefs, and replace them with helpful ones, this can be life-changing. It won’t happen by itself, and it’s a skill to be acquired, but it’s worth trying.
Take a look at this picture, and note your first reaction. This will be an emotional one, because thoughts are always initially emotionally based.
Did you think: oh no, this person is all alone, how sad. That’s your silent guide. Equally, you may have thought: peace and quiet, how lovely. That’s your silent guide too. Same picture, polar neural responses.
Let’s look at how you can programme the silent guides in your computer in order that your chimp has plenty of helpful auto-pilot material to refer to. Professor Peters has written an entire book on this topic, so I’ll just share a couple of key activities that work well for me, along with some thoughts on well-being in general.
Accept the truths
We all experience stress in our lives. But did you know that it’s within your gift to decide what you find stressful, and what you don’t? Stresses fall into two categories – imposed, and self-imposed. Imposed stress includes significant life-changing events such as the loss of a loved one, or major illnesses. Self-imposed stress is basically everything else. Road rage? Self-imposed. Being late for things? Self-imposed. Losing things? Self-imposed.
A really helpful activity is to make a list of the truths that you have to accept in life. These are the hard-hitting reality checks that you may not like, but have to live with. Grab a pen and paper, and do it right now. Here are some of the things on my list:
We will always struggle to get out of the house on time for the school run.
My three-year old will always decide to change her entire outfit 30 seconds before we need to leave the house.
The dogs will always charge inside with muddy paws and jump straight on the pale grey linen sofa.
My colleagues will always send me annoying emails (even though they don’t mean to be annoying).
Not everyone will like me. Here’s a fascinating fact from Professor Peters – out of an average five people, one will really like you, one really won’t like you, and the other three will be on the fence. So don’t bother wasting time worrying about the 20% who don’t like you – accept the truth, and move on.
I will inevitably make mistakes as a parent.
I will never finish everything on my to-do list.
Our house renovation will never be finished – I will always look around and see a load of jobs that need to be done.
Making your list of truths is the start. The next step is to put your thinking into practice. For me, the simple act of identifying my truths and writing them down was enough to reframe my mind-set. Now, whenever I receive a frustrating email, I immediately tell myself: “the sender didn’t deliberately set out to annoy you”. Does it work every time? No. My chimp will sometimes get in the driving seat despite my best efforts to prevent him from doing so. But I’m trying my best, and that’s enough.
If writing down your truths isn’t quite working, you may need to do a little more. I use a visualisation technique called the Grand Canyon technique. It’s not a Chimp Management technique specifically, but it’s one that I find very powerful. You picture yourself standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon. The depth and breadth of the canyon represents the whole of your rich, beautiful life – your every lived experience and thought, and all of those yet to come. You picture the thing that you want to let go of in front of you (I always picture something written or drawn on a sheet of paper). You then crumple up the paper, and throw it into the canyon. Look at how insignificant it looks as it falls – this teeny tiny little ball of paper within the context of your entire, extraordinary life. And then it’s gone. You’ve acknowledged how you feel, and released it.
Something else you can try is the element of the Chimp Management method known as ‘exercising your chimp’. This would generally involve talking to a trusted person – let your chimp have full rein, and say whatever they like, in a safe place. Then gradually remind yourself of the truth that you want to accept, talk through how you feel about it, and re-emphasise how important it is to you to really believe in that truth. The next time your chimp experiences this particular stress point, and looks in your computer to see how to deal with it, they will find a programme stored by you containing the memory of this conversation with your friend, where you reinforced to yourself how important it is to accept this particular truth. It works!
Success is trying your best
Another very powerful technique that I use for myself is reminding myself that ‘success is trying my best in the circumstances’. Many of us are raised to believe in achieving goals – a certain salary by a certain age, a house on a certain street, to have a particular lifestyle with certain trappings, and so on. This can lead to a sense of failure, in the event that you don’t achieve your own self-imposed goal (New Year resolutions are a prime example of this). Now, you may be the kind of person who feels highly motivated to achieve outcomes, and in the event that you don’t meet your goal as planned, this might not have an adverse effect on your mental health and emotional wellbeing, but could simply inspire you to have another go with more favourable results. However, for many of us, setting specific goals is a sure fire way to feel disappointed in yourself. If you fall into this latter category (I certainly do), then a far more healthy approach is to tell yourself that ‘success is trying my best in the circumstances’. Sometimes my best involves kicking ass and taking names. Sometimes my best means just about getting through the day without shouting at someone. If I’m not feeling well, and I’ve got a lot going on, and I’m worrying about something, and I haven’t eaten properly, then my best is naturally not going to be as effective as when I’m well-rested, well-fuelled, and ready to take on the world.
Wellbeing five a day
Finally, I’d like to share some thoughts on my ‘wellbeing five a day’. It’s a common sense thing to do, but common sense doesn’t mean it’s common practice. Again, take a pen and paper, and make a list. What do you need to get yourself into a good place (and stay there)? What nourishes your wellbeing? I have a simple list:
Spending time outside – data suggests that people who spend less than 30% of their time in (or looking at) a green space have higher levels of cortisol in their system.
Exercise – running, walking or HIIT in my case.
Eating well – I generally don’t eat a lot of sugar, because I’ve programmed my computer with the truth that while sugar tastes good at the time, the inevitable sugar crash leaves me feeling sluggish with a bit of a headache. The same applies to greasy food and too much alcohol – nice at the time, but the resulting nausea just isn’t worth it.
Cuddling my dogs – stroking furry pets is believed to lower the heart rate.
Enough sleep – easier said than done when you have long children. Lack of sleep is one of the biggest challenges to wellbeing – it’s almost impossible to get through the day with a major chimp hijack if you haven’t had enough sleep. And if you’re feeling tired, try not to spend time reflecting, as your chimp is more likely to be in the driving seat, and put unhelpful programming into your computer.
Little treats – sometimes food-based, sometimes sitting outside in the sunshine for 15 minutes and reading a great book. Whatever works for you.
I make sure that I can tick at least five of these things off my list every single day. I need to acknowledge my privilege in being able to do this, of course – I’m fortunate to have a flexible job a short bus ride away, with a gym on the campus, and the spare cash to buy organic kale. Some folk will have more constraints that others, but I would still recommend making a list of what you need, comparing it to what you have, and seeing what steps you can take, even if this is going to bed a bit earlier one night a week, or trying to walk outside a bit more.
I have lots more thoughts on this topic, but will save them for another post. Please share any comments or tips below.