Book Thoughts – The Chimp Paradox by Prof Steve Peters

Ever heard of the ‘inner Chimp’? If you have, it’s because of the incredible success enjoyed by Prof Steve Peters’ The Chimp Paradox. The Mind Management Programme for Confidence, Success and Happiness, which first appeared in 2012. Even those who know nothing more than that phrase have been known to change their approach to life because through its graphic simplicity they have recognised there are things going on inside an individual which may have less to do with human logic than emotional reaction.

Chimp Paradox book coverNot all phenomenally successful books classed as ‘self-help and personal development’ are equally worth taking seriously. I tend to check carefully the background of the author in order to see how firmly based her or his ideas are in what is accepted as being scientifically sound. Peters is a consultant psychiatrist who has worked in the UK NHS for many years, been Clinical Director of Mental Health Services, and serves as a Senior Clinical Lecturer of Medicine at the University of Sheffield. This man should know what he’s talking about, and to find a specialist using such approachable images and metaphors is refreshing. They may not appeal to everyone, but the fact that just about anyone can work with them is a huge plus.

The basic premise of the book is that our minds are divided into three parts: The Human, The Computer, and The Chimp. The Human relates to the frontal brain, being the seat of logical thinking based on facts and truth. The Computer is a storehouse of information and experience which the brain absorbs throughout life, to be called upon to help interpret events as they occur in the moment. The Chimp relates to our primordial limbic brain, which is the first to react to stimuli and usually takes a ‘black and white’, catastrophising, ‘fight or flight’ approach to whatever it believes is threatening its security.

We all have an inner Chimp, which is part of us but does not represent our fully-formed human identity. Our Chimp can be viewed as being separate from us, but is so significant to how we go through life that it can be our best friend or our worst enemy. Peters contends that getting to know our Chimp and how best to deal with it are the two most significant things we can do to render our lives happy and successful, whatever that might mean in our own particular case.

Our Chimp and our Human have very different values and aims. Understanding this can help us distinguish between their inputs. Peters’ key recommendation is for us to know how to keep our Chimp feeling secure, in such a way that it will not continually interfere with the aims that are at the core of developing and satisfying our Human.

Topics covered include:

  • Your Inner Mind Explored – including The Psychological Mind; The Divided Planet; The Guiding Moon; Personality and the Mind
  • Day-to-day Functioning – including The Planet of Others; The Troop Moon; The Planet Connect; The Planet of the Real World; The Moon of Instant Stress; The Moon of Chronic Stress
  • Your Health, Success and Happiness – including The Planet of Shadows and the Asteroid Belt; The Planet of Success and its Three Moons; The Planet of Success; The Planet of Happiness; The Moon of Confidence; The Moon of Security

To me, the book has 3 key areas for us to think about:

Hand and brain cartoon1. A simple cosmology and set of images     A key strength is that the combination of visual images and simply presented concepts makes the cosmology Peters presents particularly powerful. Once awareness has been raised, it becomes very easy to sense in the moment when The Chimp is intervening and to name what is happening. It is therefore possible over time and with diligent practice to develop an ability to sideline The Chimp sufficiently to function in the moment in such a way that The Human can take over. Peters helps us to understand how to programme our Computer so that helpful information is presented to The Chimp, which can calm it down and help The Human to take charge. There are other more complex approaches to identifying and dealing with the inner workings of the mind, and a knowledge of these is valuable. But as an approach that is simple enough to call upon in the moment, the one Peters presents would be difficult to better.

2. Insight into where conflicting inner impulses and values come from     We all have inconsistencies in our approach to life. Sometimes we may desire simplicity and have a clear idea of how we can design a stress free existence, but in the next moment find ourselves hankering after the best paid job, the most wonderful house, the most beautiful or handsome partner, or whatever else we may desire – without a thought for the stresses and strains actualising our impulses might involve. It’s a key strength of Peter’s book that we are reassured it’s natural for us to have these seeming contradictions within us. Our Chimp and our Human do indeed have very different drivers. Once we are able to consider our lives from their particular points of view, we can find ways to satisfy our Chimp that are not in conflict with the aims and goals of our Human, thus making our lives more happy and successful in ways that our Human will value and our Chimp will approve.

3. The Chimp and our emotions may be judged less ‘worthy’ than the Human and our logical side    Peters is at pains to point out that our Chimp is not to blame for its behaviour and that to try to silence it would store up trouble for us in the future. Our Chimp is just a Chimp, and we need to understand it in order to live a happier life. However, to me his imagery and tone in sections explaining how we can deal with our Chimp lack warmth and verge on the dismissive. We are encouraged to pen our Chimp in, to confine it in a box to be fed bananas and other treats to keep it quiet if it threatens to break out when it feels under threat. Peters relies heavily on ‘thinking’ in his approach to dealing with The Chimp, presenting ‘thought’ as capable of counteracting its rampant emotions. I’m not convinced. Thinking alone cannot deal with the aspects of our inner life that Peters calls The Chimp. We may become dismissive of The Chimp and its emotions, as well as impatient with ourselves for being unable to keep it under control. What is missing is a sense of compassion – for oneself and for the Chimp that dwells within, whose motive after all is to protect us. Mindful compassion can provide tools which help us embrace and come close to the deep emotions and insecurities that are beneath Chimp activity. Mindfulness promotes ‘being with’ whatever is present rather than rejecting or trying to control it. Coming close to our difficult emotions and desires can help us accept them and move beyond them. Combining mindful compassion with the concepts Peters presents can be powerful, helping Chimp and Human to coexist in a spirit of collaboration and understanding rather than frustrated struggle.

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