Get your monkey back in its cage

Explore how to have better control over your emotional response to situations and learn new resilience strategies to help you stay in control and put your monkey back in its cage.

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Marshall Centre writes:

Psychiatrist, Professor Steve Peters is known for his expertise in the way the human mind functions. He released his international bestseller, The Chimp Paradox in 2012. In the book, Peters describes the brain as a machine made up of three parts, constantly fighting for control.

  1. The Human - responsible for facts, figures, and logic 

  2. The Chimp - responsible for emotions and impulsive behaviour

  3. The Computer - responsible for storing data, knowledge and memories

Unfortunately, our Chimps are devious little creatures who tamper with the Computer; inserting unhelpful thoughts and beliefs that can negatively impact our responses to certain situations. 

We cannot kill our Chimps; they play an important role in our survival and have been with us for life. Instead, we must learn to manage them, nurture them and train them to allow the Human to drive most of the decision making. This is a skill we can all practice and improve on to build mental strength and resilience. 

What does it look like when your Chimp comes out of its cage?

Our Chimps are there to protect us from danger, but they are not very good at recognising the difference between real physical danger and perceived danger due to emotional distress. Think about the last time you had an angry outburst? What was the situation leading up to this moment? Think about the last time you experienced road rage for example. Did you respond by driving as close to the perpetrator’s car as possible, shouting, swearing, waving your fists in the air? None of this behaviour can be classed as sensible, rational, or logical. This is typical Chimp behaviour taking over in a moment of perceived danger. Our Chimps tend to come out and play in situations where we feel stressed or threatened like a meeting at work where you are publicly reprimanded, or in a new relationship where you are still learning if you can trust that person.  

What can I do to get the Chimp back in its cage?

If you feel your Chimp starting to break out of its cage at an inconvenient time, then there are a few things you can do to manage the Chimp’s behaviour. 

1. Allow the Chimp to come out and run around in a safe space 

A client meeting is not the time to allow a Chimp to jump out of its cage and cause a scene but, if you have a trusted colleague whom you feel comfortable ranting to, then find a quiet space and let your Chimp out for a while. Professor Steve Peters had a wonderful challenge to his students; he told them that if their Chimp needed to come out, then they had to promise to rant and complain for at least 15 minutes without stopping. They all struggled with this because Chimps are lazy and tend to give up quickly. At that point, you can bring your Human side to the party and recognise where your Chimp’s thinking and impulsivity is not helpful in that situation. 

2. Get your Chimp back in the cage

Suppressing or trying to control your emotions is not healthy but we have the power to manage our emotional responses in situations where we do not want our Chimps swinging around the room. For example, you might be asked to do a task that you do not enjoy at work. The Chimp’s first instinct will be to march into the boss’s office and complain about the task or refuse to do it. The Human reaction will be more logical and might sound something like this: I recognise that this task is out of my comfort zone, my boss wouldn’t have trusted me with it unless they thought I could handle it, it is a short-term task and I can handle anything in the short-term, I might even learn something new along the way. 

3. Nurture your Chimp

Chimps can be parented, and they can learn. So, invest time and effort into teaching your Chimp how to be useful to you. Talk to it, learn to understand what triggers your Chimp and what calms it down, build a relationship with your Chimp. 

4. Smile at your Chimp

A study by Tomkins & McCarter (1964) found that there was a link between facial expressions and mood. When we smile (even if we are in a bad mood) we start to feel happier. So, smile at your Chimp often to keep it in its cage.

5. Focus on the things you can control 

Stephen Covey speaks about the circle of concern versus the circle of influence in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The circle of concern includes all the things we care about but have very little control over- like climate change, our family’s health, the economy etc. Our circle of influence includes things that we care about and can have a positive impact on, for example, we have little control over our family’s health, but we can ensure that they eat a healthy diet and live an active lifestyle to support good health. When we focus on our circle of concern, the energy used is negative, which aggravates our inner Chimps. By focusing on the positive impact we can have on a situation, we create a sense of control, allowing the logical Human part of the brain to take the lead.   

6. Build overall resilience and emotional intelligence

People who have built high levels of resilience tend to be more adept at managing their emotions in stressful situations. They have worked on becoming more self-aware, and they have greater empathy for others, which helps them nurture positive relationships with others. They tend to be goal orientated, which means that they are less likely to get distracted by things beyond their control. This focused determination will keep the Chimp in its cage. 

If your people need help managing their inner Chimp, click here to discover how the team at Marshall Centre can help. 

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