It’s quite a claim to suggest that one book can change everything, but I believe The Chimp Paradox is just that. It’s basically my favourite self-help book.
Now, before I go on, remember I’m not a doctor or mental health professional. That said, The Chimp Paradox is an outstanding book which has helped me time and again. So, based on my own experience, I thought I would spend some time explaining what it has done for me and how.
The Chimp Paradox is a novel concept, but I think that it is truly is the ultimate mind management tool. And no I’m not getting paid for saying that!
How the chimp mind management model helped me
Frankly, I’m a worrier and a stress-head when I don’t keep it all under control.
Most of the time I’m pretty placid, but there was a time when things would get to me. Disproportionately so.
For example, one of my old bugbears was client satisfaction. Not just the pride of doing a good job. I used to over-worry. I’d check and re-check things I’d already sent out (such as news articles or press releases). And I’d unreasonably worry that if I got something wrong then that was the end of my career.
It would get particularly bad at night, when the work was submitted and the computer was switched off. I’d be sat watching a film with my wife when I would suddenly feel an alarm bell go off.
Had I miss-spelled “X”? Had I left “Y” out? Now most people would say what’s done is done. Not me. A little voice would say that if “X” or “Y” was wrong, then that was it for me. I’d be finished. I should go and sort it out now. Send worried emails if necessary.
I’d break out in a cold sweat and run off upstairs. The evening in watching movies was ruined, even though it would turn out it was all okay. Because by the time I got back downstairs, you see, I’d be in no fit state to chill out.
There are other typical scenarios too – such as being in a cranky mood when I got home from work and then being plain old argumentative. The problem was always an issue I was dealing with in the workplace, however, and not with my wife at home. I’m sure that one is something we can all identify with.
Enter the chimp
In both those scenarios, this “chimp” – a deep primitive part of the brain – is what is at fault. It’s our wilder, more impulsive emotions. The thing that holds humanity back from its idealistic and Utopian dreams. Chimps cause wars, violence and run riot with mental health issues. They are an ancient and untamed part of us.
The first step in your chimp management training – meet your chimp
So it’s probably time to meet your “chimp”, at least the chimp as it is explained by Dr Stephen Peters, author of The Chimp Paradox.
The chimp is a metaphor for a part of your brain which is linked to your most base survival instinct. It’s driven by the things that helped our ancestors as they roamed across deserts, plains and jungles of the world. What that means is the chimp seeks shelter, food, safety and the opportunity to reproduce.
So in other words if it is worried you might be in danger in some way it kicks off. It’s almost like an override which will jump in whenever you are at risk of losing access to the basic means of survival.
Like a real-life chimp, it is overpowering. This is why some people are described as being “out of control” or “like someone else” if their temper gets the better of them. That’s because, for all intents and purposes, the angry/stressed person a different human being from the one we are usually greeted with.
And because it is so overpowering, it is worth appreciating you cannot wrestle your chimp to the ground. We’ve all heard horror stories about real chimps attacking humans and the human not standing a chance. That’s because it has evolved to be those base instincts. The impulses and the muscles developed in line with one another. We didn’t do this. We branched out into rational thought and broader creativity. In the confines of our mind the chimp works in the same way. You can’t win it in a straight fight.
But, like “real” chimps, we can live peacefully alongside one another.
Let’s look once more at Dr Stephen Peters’s chimp in action to begin to understand how.
Chimp management scenario 1 – Ignoring an issue
Jenny and her boyfriend Gregg have a problem. At least Jenny thinks so. Gregg promised to help out around the house this week and he hasn’t done anything so far. And now it’s the weekend.
Jenny, however, doesn’t want to be naggy. It’s Friday night and time to settle down with a movie, a pizza and some ice cream. So she puts a civil face on.
In her head, meanwhile, she feels the stirring of something – the chimp. As they are picking a movie to watch from the DVD shelf, Jenny tries to ignore it. It’s time to have a good night, after all.
Eventually, Gregg picks out a movie which Jenny doesn’t like. In fact, Gregg knows she hates that film.
And suddenly everything bubbles over. Before she can realise he’s joking about the film, she has given him both barrels. She finds herself yelling, then crying. She can’t even process what Gregg is saying back. Jenny then throws what DVDs she has in her hands to the floor and runs upstairs, feeling devastated. Her night is ruined.
The chimp is what happened.
If your chimp thinks something is going to upset the general comfort of a situation it will kick off. In this case it was her position in her relationship and the condition of the house.
But you can’t fight off the chimp. You have to calm it down, as I will explain later.
If you push it away it will push back. And it will win.
Chimp management scenario 2 – putting a brave face on
Marc has been given a new project to carry out. It’s a major project – one which will be make or break for his department. Marc is very conscientious, and well-regarded.
But recently he has seen people fired from his firm for what some are saying was incompetence.
He puts a brave face on about the project in hand and pretends that everything is going to be okay. He tells work colleagues he has everything under control. Because the project is so important he doesn’t want to be seen as weak and asking for help.
He suffers several sleepless nights. Although he pull things off in the end, he avoids taking on projects like this in future.
As such, he gets overlooked for promotion.
Marc’s chimp was irrationally worried about the recent firings. The chimp put two and two together about this without rationally thinking things through. The chimp alerted Marc – with all of the best intentions – that his own job might be at stake. Although the chimp was good at worrying about sabre-tooth tigers back in the day, it invests just as much fear in the modern workplace.
The chimp doesn’t rationalise. It failed to remember that Marc is well-liked, or that he doesn’t know why his colleagues were fired.
Because he grew up putting a lot of pressure on himself, Marc listened to his chimp when it decided this was the safe way to proceed. His father – who Marc looked up to – never asked for help, and he was a success. So anything else is uncomfortable and dangerous.
Speaking of danger, the chimp also felt it was in Marc’s best interests to avoid similar projects in the future. The chimp is what cost Marc his promotion.
The chimp mind management model is all about living with the chimp, not “beating it”.
The Chimp Paradox is all about coping with the chimp and it’s predilection to see danger in every dark corner.
So, to implement the chimp mind management model, you need to listen dispassionately to your anxieties rather than ignoring them. You discuss them (or mentally recite them to yourself) until the voice of these feelings – the chimp – is tired out.
In the chimp mind management model you then use the non-chimp rational side of the brain to state facts which do not support the situation. For Jenny that was about how Gregg was actually very tired that week from being on the road with work. And she also could have taken a moment to consider the joking tone as he suggested the film she didn’t like.
In Marc’s situation is was worth him considering the recent praise he had from bosses and co-workers which earned him the project in the first place. That and his boss had suggested several people at the outset that Marc might have asked to help out.
But you cannot get to that point until you have exhausted the chimp by dispassionately “exercising” it. You have to let it go on until it becomes tired.
This, of course, is just scratching the surface regarding the tools The Chimp Paradox gives us.
The Chimp Paradox Book
I originally got The Chimp Paradox book in Audible, and was able to listen to Dr Stephen Peters talk us through his book firsthand. He’s a very personable narrator, and so I think you might like this format even if audio books are not your thing.
What I will say is that The Chimp Paradox is in fact a very accessible book. Despite all this talk of evolution and parts of the brain, Dr Stephen Peters makes sure we are taken breezily through what could have been a very complicated set of concepts. By the end of the book you are in no way lost.
It encourages you to diarise and structure your way through the process – so although you’re not exactly a creating your own fear, stress and anger management treatment plan, it’s like one for those who don’t need professional help.
I’ll say it again – The Chimp Paradox book is one I must recommend. I feel it is a unique and important way to get to know the human mind, and provides you with a set of skills which will set you up for life.