Deeply Chimpressed

My Chimp and I were introduced on 10th October 2013. Although we had, it turned out, been living with each other for 42 years.

I was at a conference for marketing, HR, finance and IT types. An unlikely mix, and a fascinating study of what happens when ‘those who know how to party hard’, meet ‘they who haven’t been out for years’. So it gets messy. Oh, and there’s some interesting business stuff too.

In the second row of a velvet-upholstered lecture theatre, I was awaiting the arrival of the next keynote speaker – the man who helped Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton win their gold medals. Dr something-or-other.

My Chimp (although I didn’t know it was him then) loves meeting people, so had started up a conversation with the person next to me, extolling the virtues of a sturdy walk for the overtired conference-goer. I was also earwigging two suited gentlemen standing to my right, the first obviously one of the organisers, and the other a quietly-spoken, fellow northerner.

The latter’s soft tone of voice and calm demeanour gave no clue that in the next hour he was going to have me completely under his spell. Feeling wonder, joy, shock, nausea, but emerging with a feeling of hope so strong that I was gripped by it for many months to come. (You’ll notice my Chimp can be a tad over-dramatic).

I was about to listen to Dr Steve Peters, psychiatrist and author of The Chimp Paradox*. His model for understanding and managing your mind is based on the science of how a brain functions, but is simplified into a model that’s easy to understand, fun and accessible for anyone.

Basically we have a system of seven ‘brains’ working together, all with different jobs to do. Dr Peters’ model (which he acknowledges is a dramatic simplification) focusses on three areas of the brain – the frontal, limbic and parietal – which combine into the The Psychological Mind.

Many years ago, ostensibly to simplify things for his lackadaisical medical students (although by the impish twinkle in his eye, it’s likely also for his enjoyment), Dr Peters created the Chimp Management model to aid in the understanding of how these three brains interrelate.

So, the model comprises:

  • Your Human, residing in your frontal lobe, is the real you; calm, rational, logical
  • Your Chimp lives in the limbic region and is your emotional thinking machine, out to make sure you survive
  • The Computer is a storage repository for thoughts and behaviour and is housed in the parietal.

Although these three areas can work together, they often battle against each other, and unfortunately logic and sense don’t always prevail! Unless you manage your Chimp, Dr Peters warns, it is likely to misbehave, hijack you and make you miserable. How do you know when Chimp is in control? If you ever say or do something you later regret, that’s your Chimp. The values you want to live by, the person you want to be, or feel you are when you’re ‘on form’, is the real you – your Human.

Dr Peters spoke about his work with Ronnie O’Sullivan and Craig Bellamy, whose Chimps have been well documented on TV, often seemingly sabotaging their attempts to fulfil their ambitions. I realise that my own Chimp has been around a lot as well, I just haven’t known it was him (and yes, he’s male and I’m female).

Dr Peters invited us to read a slide that he would come back to at the end. It was headed ‘The Olympian’ and went on to ask what would you think of the Olympian who was reluctant to train, thought their failure was everyone’s fault, wasn’t focussed etc. Later in the session, Peters came back to the slide, but this time it was headed ‘The Business Professional’. The same slide content; reluctant to work, doesn’t take accountability, blames others, etc. Oh dear, this was me.

My stomach sank, and I felt sorry for my colleagues who’d had to put up with me. All the time I’d wasted ‘stewing’ over small injustices, lamenting my coworkers’ behaviours, licking my perceived wounds. When, all along, I should have been looking inward for the source of my unhappiness.

Happily, before I beat myself up too much about it, I learn that it wasn’t ‘me’ (or rather my true Human self) but it was my Chimp, just doing what he thought was best for my survival. So perhaps I’m not a useless sack of spuds after all (which of course I’d later learn was a pesky Gremlin; an unhelpful belief in my Computer).

There were many more ‘penny drop’ moments during that precious hour (and lots more since). For me, it was like Dr Peters held up a mirror and invited those of us who were willing, to look into it. I did, and saw myself with a clarity that I’d never had before, and saw my poor Chimp, much neglected over many years and truly miserable.

Luckily, with these realisations came the offer of a way to understand your mind, manage yourself better and be happy. The Chimp Paradox. I bought it. You could too.

*The Chimp Paradox, By Dr Steve Peters

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