Managing the Festive Chimp
Let me introduce you to your chimp. You’ll know him because he pops up at a moment’s notice and does things that afterwards don’t make any logical sense to you. You find yourself thinking ‘that wasn’t like me!’ or ‘why did I behave like that?’
Professor Steve Peters has worked with a number of high profile sports people to enable them to manage their brains when they need to perform to a high standard. He’s the author of The Chimp Paradox and offers a really accessible model for understanding our brains better. He tells us that essentially our brain can be understood to be made up of three ‘teams’ :
- The human being – this is your factual, logical, rational, sensible self
- The computer – your storage system for knowledge, memories and habits
- The chimp – your emotional, illogical, irrational self
Here’s how it works – your chimp is interested only in your survival, he’s five times stronger than your human and in times of stress the quickest part of your brain to step in but….he’s irrational and emotional. He’s incredibly useful in survival situations where a quick and dirty fight or flight response is exactly what you need but he’s really unhelpful in many other situations. The chimp is good at worrying and creating a catastrophic situation in your head in order to stop you taking emotional risks thus keeping you safe. Here are a couple of examples:
- You’re driving your usual route to work quite happily. Someone cuts you up. You fly into a rage – how dare they behave so inconsiderately and put your life in danger like that! You shout and gesticulate and then drive right on their bumper for a while to teach them a lesson. That’s the chimp.
- You’re in a new relationship and feeling a little insecure – do they like you as much as you like them? Could they be the one? They don’t call when they say they will. Your chimp brain spirals into the following thinking process ‘He/she obviously doesn’t like me. I’m such a failure at dating. Maybe he/she thinks I’m too fat or stupid or not funny enough. I am all of those things. I’ll never find love/get married/go on another date again!’ You reach for the ice cream and a glass of wine…..the phone rings – it’s them. Turns out they got caught up at work and weren’t able to call you when they said they would.
Let’s take those two scenarios – wouldn’t it be helpful, less stressful, less emotionally draining and generally a happier situation for you if you could tap into your logical human brain rather than your chimp taking charge? What if, in the first scenario, you said to yourself ‘What an idiot’, rolled your eyes and just went about your day? What if, in the second scenario, you said ‘I wonder if they’re OK. I’m sure it’s fine they probably just got caught up in something. I’ll give them a call later if I don’t hear anything’
Got the picture? Think you know your chimp now? Can you recognise times when it’s reared its ugly head and caused you some emotional angst that turned out to be unnecessary? I’d be surprised if you can’t think of an example or two.
Festive Greetings from your Chimp
Christmas is coming. According to research it ranks amongst the top most stressful events that we can go through. Some of the things we stress about over Christmas:
- Trying to get everything done before the day
- Juggling work and children’s festive activities
- Having to make a costume for the nativity play
- Christmas shopping
- Finding the perfect gift
- Catering for everyone’s individual needs
- The in-laws/other family or friends coming to stay
- Seeing all the friends and relatives you feel you ‘should’ see over the festive period
- Cooking the perfect lunch (apparently stress levels reach their peak at 12.56 on Christmas Day – you have been warned)
- Not being invited to friends/relatives
- The house being immaculate
- Whether the turkey will fit in the oven
All of these are stressful and stress is prime chimp territory. Your chimp can have a field day with any of these situations – just how bad can you imagine it being spending time with your in-laws for instance? And, of course, add a few glasses of alcohol and you have a fantastically heady mix for festive emotional outbursts.
But there are ways to keep the chimp under wraps, all it takes is practice. Here are some techniques for managing the chimp over the holidays (and indeed during the rest of the year):
- Talk about what’s bothering you – let the chimp run around (in a safe place with someone you trust – typically not in the office with your boss) and get all the crazy and irrational thinking out of your head. This works for two reasons. Firstly sometimes when we hear the crazy thinking actually coming out of our mouths we can recognise it for ourselves and apply technique number two (see below). Secondly if we’re talking to a friend they can reflect it back and help us to think more rationally about the situation. Sometimes it just feels good to have a rant and get it all off our chests.
- Apply rational, logical thought to the situation and gain a sense of perspective – what if the lunch isn’t perfect? How important is it really? What’s the worst thing your mother-in-law might say? Does it really matter? We go through life so often with this belief that we need to be perfect or that minor events will have a huge long term impact, when really that’s rarely true– if you can let go of that a little bit it will make your Christmas so much calmer for you.
- Notice when you are feeling anxious or when your thoughts have spiralled out of control – say to yourself ‘That’s the chimp!’ Imagine your chimp with a fancy dress costume on to help diffuse its power over you. Tell yourself everything will be OK, take a deep breath and get the next thing on the list done.
- Reward yourself for doing the things you don’t want to do. Decide that you will go out and Christmas shop and when you’ve bought the first five presents you will reward yourself with a cup of tea and a mince pie, for example.
- Delegate – reduce the stress and the chimp is less likely to appear. You don’t have to do it all, other people can help.
Remember you are in control of your life, not the chimp, so don’t let your chimp run rampant; seize control and enjoy the festive period on your terms.
Here’s wishing you a calm, peaceful and very happy Chimpmas from us all at TLD.