This was one of the first books I read that made me actually understand myself rather than try to change. Although change is not a bad thing at all. The Chimp Paradox made me feel like I was ok! There was nothing wrong, my brain just behaves in a different way to other people.
I always struggled to understand Mark when I asked, “What are you thinking about?” and he’d say “ummmmm, nothing”. How could he be thinking nothing???? I literally have never had any time in my life where I have not been thinking about something. This book goes a long way to helping you understanding this.
The premise of the book is to very much simplify the way the brain works in a non-scientific way that helps us to understand what is going on in our heads.
The three main aspects of the brain are what Professor Steve Peter’s calls, The Chimp, The Human and The Computer. The Chimp, for me was the most intriguing and explained the endless conversations I have in my head, particular if I am down, or emotional or doing something new.
I have a tendency to panic think. I can think about a perfectly normal situation and change it in my head to something much bigger, or a problem or see things in it that I hadn’t noticed before. I knew I did this, but didn’t know why. I could work myself into a right state in this way. I used to think it was “gut instinct” but I have come to realise, through this book that my “Chimp” causes this, and for a good reason which I’ll come to in a bit. My “human” tries to reason with my “chimp” but the “chimp” won’t listen. Or so it would seem.
The book talks about everyone’s chimp being slightly different. What I quickly came to realise was that whilst my chimp rarely ever stops making a bit of a noise in my head, other peoples’, like Mark’s, is basically asleep most of the time. I started to wonder if Mark has a better chimp than me.
I discovered that the chimp you have, is the best chimp for you, you just need to be able to recognise, and manage it. The latter being much easier if you do the former.
My chimp is a paranoid female chimp in my mind. She chatters nervously, endlessly but this is a purely protective action. My life has been full of painful and destructive situations and people, so she’s very sensitive. She’s always on the lookout for danger and wants to warn me, protect me, like a mother looking after her baby chimp.
Mark’s chimp is quite comfortable sleeping, he thinks about things differently, and this comes out in the things Mark often says “it is what it is”, “what will be will be”. He’s very calm about life but if you wake him (the chimp that is, not Mark) he gets grumpy. But once he’s had his say, he’s back off to snoozing again. My chimp cannot do that, she gets too worked up and can’t let it go and that is reflected in how easily I get hurt, despite my tough exterior.
So, is a paranoid chimp a bad thing and a sleepy one a good thing? No!
The paranoid chimp spends a lot of time on the lookout for danger, as Peters’ explains, a baby chimp with a paranoid mother is likely to survive because she’s so alert and acutely aware of her environment.
Therefore, having a paranoid chimp is better, right? No!
The sleepy chimp takes a completely different attitude. Mark’s chimp thinks “what will be will be, we’ll deal with it when it gets here, no point wasting time worrying about it”. There’s a lot of freedom in not worrying.
A common quote (source unknown) about worry is “worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength” and that’s very true. Worrying about things that may happen doesn’t change whether or not they will happen.
So, I came to the conclusion that neither was best, and I started acknowledging the chimp in my head. When she made me panic, I thanked her for her concern and understood what she was doing. She’s got calmer since I’ve done this.
You know that dream, where you’re trying to be heard, screaming at the top of your lungs, but no one can hear you or is listening? This is what I think my chimp was doing. As soon as I listened calmly, rather than getting caught up in it, she calmed down a bit. She stills get upset every now and then, just the other day at work actually, but it’s better. This snippet of understanding has really helped.
Another very memorable part of the book was about friendships (or tribes). For a long while, I’d struggled with some friendships where I was putting all the effort in all the time. Often getting hurt by people’s actions or inactions. This book explains a lot about how tribes form, why people leave them and why they should. Also, why it’s hard to bring a new friend into the tribe sometimes.
This has been a repeat theme in some of the other books I have read, for example, Timothy Ferriss, calls it “Cutting the Fat”.
It’s a really hard thing to do, cut people you were once close to, loose. Even harder with family members with whom you’re “supposed” to be able to put up with anything from. It’s essential though, these people do hold you back, and that’s a cold hard truth. When friendships or relationships make you feel bad about yourself, and the people involved show no sign of changing how they treat you, distancing yourself will turn down the paranoid part of your chimp and enable them to relax a bit once they have got over it.
I enjoyed this book so very much, at times I was laughing out loud. “That’s so me” I kept saying.
It helped me to understand, and more importantly, accept who I am. I now recognise how I let my thoughts overtake me sometimes, disproportionate to the situation and most importantly, I felt like a normal person for the first time in as long as I can remember. Quirky, different, erratic but normal.
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