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How to manage your inner chimp

In Don’t Tell Me The Score, Simon Mundie talks to psychiatrist Prof Steve Peters who believes learning how to manage your “inner chimp” is the key to peace of mind, happiness and success – in sport and in life.

Steve has helped many elite sports people manage their inner chimp – from six-time Olympic champion cyclist Chris Hoy, to arguably the greatest ever snooker player, Ronnie O’Sullivan – and he explains how you too can harness the power of your inner ape.

What is the inner chimp?

Steve has come up with a model of our how our minds work in which he identifies three systems:

Our inner chimp is emotional, greedy and lazy

1. The Chimp System

The first is the “chimp” system – so called because we share it with our hominid cousins. This part of our brain is in play when we act impulsively, without regard for the consequences. Our inner chimp is emotional, greedy and lazy and with us from birth.

2. The Human System

When we are around two years old, a new system comes into the equation. As children we start asking “why?” We begin to get facts established and, by age four, use those facts in our decision-making. This is our “human” system: it’s the part of our brain that considers, rationalises, and empathises.

3. The Computer

The third system is the “computer”. This is the “back-up system” that stores our beliefs and behaviours as we form them – from when we’re very young right into adulthood. And as the human and the chimp in us make a decision on what to do, they refer back to these stored beliefs.

Essentially, one system is all about reason and logic (the human system), one is about emotional reaction (the chimp system) and one is based on established beliefs. These systems are constantly vying for attention and, biologically, the chimp – the animal instinct we’re born with – has the upper hand.

If we let the animal in us rule the roost we’ll find ourselves taking action or lashing out before we’ve had a chance to think things through – and this can lead to us saying and doing things we might later regret.

So how do we go about managing our inner chimp? Here are a few of Steve’s top tips...

1. Don’t fight the chimp, nurture it

The cyclist Victoria Pendleton, who Steve worked closely with, reputedly asked how to go about killing her chimp! But the truth is that none of us can banish our chimp – we’re with him or her for the long haul. Instead of rejecting it, we need to nurture our inner chimp. This means talking to it and building a relationship with it. The chimp is part of us – it just needs parenting.

2. Let the chimp speak its mind

Part of the nurturing process is to let the chimp have its say. By allowing the chimp to process its emotion it then starts to settle, Steve says.

When the psychiatrist worked in British cycling he had a rule that athletes could come to him and “let their chimp out” – but they had to complain for 15 minutes non-stop. Nobody managed it. “The chimp actually gets exhausted,” says Steve, “and thinks ‘I can’t even be bothered listening to myself!’” The chimp may be speaking but it’s the human that’s listening, and reason soon takes over.

3. But be careful who the chimp talks to

However, it’s important that you choose your audience. If you need to let the chimp express itself immediately, “do it sensibly”, says Steve. “Don’t express yourself to the person who’s engaged in this battle with you. Express yourself to a friend who’s willing to listen.”

4. Go over things a few times

“Emotion takes a long time to process,” says Steve. Sometimes we have to run over challenging things in our minds a few times before the chimp in us is able to accept them.

“It does mean the chimp will keep kicking off until it’s processing this emotion,” says Steve, but if you keep revisiting the same thing eventually the chimp will say, “Do you know what, I’ve said my bit now and I’m beginning to see it differently.”

5. Get your self-esteem from who you are, not what you do

We need to prevent our inner chimp from governing our self-worth, says Steve: “If my self esteem is on the chimp system, which is what I achieve, then if I don’t achieve everything at the right level I’m always going to have low self-esteem,” he says. Also, no amount of success will ever be enough: “The chimp will chase success but once it’s got that it will redefine it.”

We don’t look at our friends and like them for what they achieve, Steve says, we like them for who they are. We should measure our own success in the same way. Are you a positive person who can motivate others? Are you kind? Do you have integrity? If you are measuring success against your values – rather than what car you own or how much you earn – then building self-esteem is in your own hands.

6. Spend ten minutes every day reflecting on whether you’re meeting your values

Once you are clear on what moral, ethical beliefs you hold, you can work out how to live up to these values. If, for example, your value is to respect others, then think about how you can demonstrate this. One example could be listening to others and accepting their opinions.

Actively reflect on whether you are living out each value successfully, says Steve, for “five or ten minutes a day”. This is putting the human system firmly in the foreground and forcing your chimp to take a back seat.

7. Smile to show the chimp who’s boss

There are some simple habits we can develop which actively help us to control our emotions and keep the chimp in check. One of these is smiling. We know that “our facial expressions are intricately linked to our mood state,” says Steve. If we’re happy we grin. However, research shows that by making a sad or a happy face “you actually evoke the mood starting to appear in your head.”

“Most of us when we get out of bed in the morning just naturally go with the mood we’re in, and often it’s not a great mood,” Steve says. Instead, ask what mood do I want to be in? Be proactive, put the right face on, and you’ll soon find that your mood starts to lift.

8. Do what works for you

We are all unique, says Steve, and we need to judge his advice for ourselves and whether it works for us. “If things resonate, great. If they don’t but it sparks ideas, go with your own ideas,” he says. The important thing is that we look after our psychological health and actively reflect. If the chimp model doesn’t resonate with you, find another approach, says Steve, but whatever you do, don’t do nothing.

Prof Steve Peters explains his model of the mind in his bestselling book, The Chimp Paradox. He also wrote The Silent Guides and My Hidden Chimp.