How to manage your chimp

Related Articles


We are RocketMill: This is Jess Scholefield


We are RocketMill: This is Harry Elwell


How to manage your chimp

Hi everyone, my name’s Sarah Rudder, founder of Ginger Dog Development and resident coach here at RocketMill.

Today, we are talking about chimp management. This is something I talk about quite often in my coaching sessions with people, and it’s also something I use often in the work that I do around mental toughness and resilience.

It’s based on the work of Steve Peters, in his book The Chimp Paradox. Has anybody here read it? Just a quick show of hands. A few of you. Fantastic, okay. So, this will be a bit of a refresher for you guys. But, for those of you who’ve not come across it, let me tell you a little bit about the chimp. Let me introduce you to your chimp.

What is the ‘chimp’?

The Chimp Paradox gives us a really simple way of understanding the main parts of our psychological mind. You’ll see here there is sort of three main parts that Professor Peters talks about in his book.

If we start with the computer, which is up there at top left. The computer part of our brain is our knowledge storage. It’s where we keep all our memories and our experiences.

He then talks about the human being, so this is the frontal part of your brain. That’s the home of your logical and rational thinking.

Then, the last part, the bit we’re going to look at today is, the chimp part of your brain. The chimp is where your emotional and irrational thinking comes from. Often, it creates your emotional and irrational behaviour as well. It’s quite a strong part of your brain because it’s the most ancient part of your brain, and it’s there because it’s interested in survival, so it’s really important that it’s a strong part of your brain. If you did find yourself in a dangerous situation, the chimp would be the part of your brain that takes over and takes control.

The problem with your chimp

However, chimp is not very good at recognising the difference between real physical danger and what we would call emotional danger. So, let’s have a little look at some different examples. Anybody here ever experienced road rage? “Most days,” says Sam! Okay, so somebody pulls out in front of you, you have to slam on the brakes, and then you find yourself driving right on the bumper of the person that just pulled out in front of you, shaking your fist, swearing, and being really angry about it. That is not human being behaviour, that is not logical, rational, sensible behaviour. We would accept that, right? That is your chimp that’s just come out to play, because it felt that you were threatened in that situation.

So anytime that we feel threatened or vulnerable – so things like new relationships, for instance, are a great time for the chimp to be out and playing. Times when you are perhaps in a meeting and somebody disagrees with you would be another time where your chimp might come out to play. Anytime that you notice in yourself, irrational, emotional behaviour, usually that’s the chimp at play. Does that make sense for everybody so far? Yeah? Fantastic.

Why Christmas can provoke the chimp

So why might it be useful at this time of year, why have I chosen this time of year to tell you a little bit about your chimp and how you might manage it, do you think? Any thoughts? Christmas is looming. Putting up with the in-laws, absolutely.

Christmas is coming, and typically, we spend a lot more time with people at Christmas that we perhaps don’t spend time with during the year, and this can be quite fractious, and often the chimp comes out to play. It can be quite a stressful period of time, and that’s when we notice it.

Just one piece to camera before we move on, my mum has started watching RocketMill videos, so mum, if you’re watching, none of this has anything to do with our family Christmas. That is a fairytale of Disney proportions every year. So I don’t get in trouble!

How to manage your chimp

Okay, back to the chimp. So, there are three methods with which we can manage our chimp. Let’s put them up. First of all, exercise the chimp. Secondly, box the chimp. And thirdly, banana. Oh, yes. I’m imagining you all in Christmas now going: “Right, shall I exercise, box, or banana this situation?” That’s what I want to be happening anyway, I want news of this.


Let’s talk about each one. First of all, if your chimp is agitated or upset about something, then the first thing that’s really helpful to do is allow it to get that out and about, to exercise your chimp. Okay? Let it run about, in a safe place. Exercising your chimp with clients in a meeting is not a safe place, that’s not appropriate. But, with a friend, over a cup of coffee, that might be a good time to have a little rant, get it off your chest. Everybody’s done that I’m sure at some point, and it makes you feel a bit better.

Makes you feel better for a couple of reasons. First of all, it tires the chimp out a little bit, so all that stuff that’s going on in your head, if you can get it out that’s really helpful. Secondly, if you’re exercising your chimp with somebody that you trust and who cares about you, chances are they’ll be able to help with some solutions for whatever the situation is that’s causing that upset for you. Thirdly, sometimes just the process of saying some of the stuff that’s in our heads out loud enables us to kind of go: “That’s not very helpful, is it?” And come up with a solution for ourselves.

So as an example, classic Christmas one, “mother-in-law is criticising, she’s going make Christmas a misery.” What would exercising your chimp look like in this situation? It would be perhaps phoning a friend, having a moan about everything you dislike about your mother-in-law, and how miserable it’s going to be, and just getting that off your chest. We feel better for that. So that’s exercising your chimp.


Secondly, boxing your chimp. When the chimp’s been exercised, you’ve usually got a better chance of bringing in some rational human being behaviour and thought processes at that point. What would that look like or sound like in terms of our example? Saying to yourself something different, so often it’s about the messaging that we’re giving ourselves in our own head. So, we might, for instance, employ some more logical thinking, which is: “She’s only going be here for one day. I can put up with anything for one day. I’m a grown-up and I don’t need to be affected by what she says and does.” So that’s bringing your human being into play to talk your chimp down.


Then, last one, the banana of distraction or reward. This is not a long-term solution, but it can help in a short term as a bit of a temporary measure. Rather than wallowing in the misery of your mother-in-law’s impending visit, you might choose to decorate the tree, or take the kids out, or go and do something different instead of just focusing on that thing. That would be distraction. Reward tends to be around praise, recognition, sometimes it’s around a glass of wine. I am not recommending the glass of wine, or too many, on Christmas day with the mother-in-law situation, because, of course, too much wine allows the chimp back out to play again, doesn’t it? So, we just need to watch out for that.

Slightly different example here: “I hate Christmas shopping, I don’t want to do it.” That’s your chimp coming out: “Don’t want to do it. Don’t want to go out. Hate it.” How do we reward the chimp? So you say, “Right, I’ve got eight people to buy for. I’m going go out, and when I’ve bought four presents for people, then I’m going stop for a cup of coffee,” or “I’m going stop for a glass of wine,” or a cold beer, whatever it might be.

Anytime you notice your brain telling you something that’s not very helpful, or your behaviour being something that’s not very helpful, chances are, it’s your chimp at play in some way, shape, or form.

Recognising that, then employing some methods can be really helpful for us. So exercise, box, banana, this is your mantra for Christmas. Any situation that’s slightly stressful, you are going to employ this and get yourself through all of that stuff. That, my friends, is my Christmas wish for you, and my Christmas gift to you. I hope you have a lovely chimp-free Christmas. Thank you.