“Chimpanzees get imposter syndrome too… For a chimp, being excluded from a troop is tantamount to death.”

We sat down for a conversation with psychiatrist and author of The Chimp Paradox, Professor Steve Peters. With over 20 years of experience in psychiatry, he has shared his knowledge through the books he’s authored which explore the nature of the mind and help readers become healthier, happier, and more successful. His most recent book, A Path through the Jungle, further explores self-development and explains complex neuroscience in a digestible way. We speak to Professor Steve Peters about how to retrain your mind, why imposter syndrome can be a good thing, dealing with chronic stress, and why working from home isn’t necessarily healthy for us.

Can you tell us about the framework used in The Chimp Paradox?

This is a programme for people to follow unit-by-unit. In the book, I explain the structure and functioning of our mind and the rules by which it works, so we can learn to manage it. If we understand how our minds work, then we can control our emotions and thoughts. If we look at the structure of the mind, we share almost the exact same system as a chimpanzee. 30 years ago I created this model – I said that our primitive mind is there to protect us from danger, but the methods which it works on are ‘jungle based’.

For example, the primitive mind doesn’t consider values, it doesn’t think things through or consider consequences, and it’s based on impulsive reactions. If we look at the way a chimpanzee functions, it’s got intelligence but it’s a reactive intelligence. I call this the ‘inner-chimp system’ which we all have from when we are born. The second system we have is the ‘human system’, where we decide our values and how we want our lives to be. The human system shares space with this primitive system in our minds.

Finally, there is the ‘computer system’, which both you and your chimp mind can programme – this reminds us to not do things that are dangerous, and tells us how we want to act or perceive our memories. This acts as a backup system.

Why should business leaders read this book?

If somebody is not in a great place and can’t manage their emotions, their thinking, or their behaviour, it’s less likely they’ll succeed in whatever they turn their hand to – whether that’s being a doctor, a nurse, a teacher, or a business person.

If you’ve got an individual, and you put them into a good place so that they feel at peace with themselves, they’ve got confidence, and they’re good at managing their emotions, it’s much more likely that person is going to succeed.

I’m not going to a corporate person and saying: “Look, I can give you high-performing teams.” But what I am saying is: “Let’s start by getting you or your team members individually in a great place, and then we’ll look at creating high-performing teams.”

The book covers the topic of resilience. What do you think resilience means? And how does somebody know if they are resilient or not?

The way I define resilience is that it’s based on robustness. I do robustness training with the people that I work with. You practice robustness behind a locked door before you enter the world. You work out what’s going on in your head, how you’re going to manage your unique mind, and what you want from it. Then you create a plan of action that you’re going to put in place should you come across something that’s a trigger point or something that might make you lose confidence.

Everyone can become robust. However, the second you step outside your house and interact with the world, you are likely to get challenges. But if you have practiced a good plan to be robust in those situations, then you will have good resilience. Resilience is an acquired skill, so it can be learnt in this way.

Can the ‘chimp mind’ ever be a positive thing?

An obvious positive aspect of the chimp mind is that it is there to try and protect us from danger and give us warning signs by using emotions as messages. The reality is that the chimp mind is always on your side. So, the chimp mind isn’t a negative influence but is a massive positive influence – but when it gives us a negative emotion, we don’t always know what to do with it.

We tend to negatively interpret this emotion and feel that something is wrong, instead of realising that it is the chimp brain giving us a message – it’s a call to action.

One thing we hear time and time again is of entrepreneurs having imposter syndrome. Why does the brain do this? Do you have any insight into how leaders can deal with this better?

Imposter syndrome is very common among people. With imposter syndrome, what the chimp brain is trying to tell us is: “I believe there is danger around because I don’t feel I’m up to the job” – you think you’re not up to standard and people around you are going to find this out.

Chimpanzees get imposter syndrome too. Chimpanzees worry that the rest of the troop, particularly the alpha chimp, won’t think they are good enough. Our primitive brain does a similar thing. For a chimpanzee, being excluded from a troop is tantamount to death. When you tease out what imposter syndrome really is, it’s our chimp brain worrying that people will find out that we aren’t good enough, and then we’ll be excluded.

If I asked an elite athlete “will you achieve your full potential every time you perform?”, they’re going to say “well, no – that’s not realistic.” This is because there are different reasons you might not achieve your full potential, and some of those reasons may be out of your control. We’re not robots, we’re human beings. But imposter syndrome can be a wake-up call from the chimp mind that you need to up your skillset – it can be used as a signal to take a step back and reassess.

It’s a common scenario that an entrepreneur will develop and grow a business, and then sell it. You would imagine this to be a happy time, but they often find themselves in a state of grief. Why do you think this happens?

Happiness is like a bucket. If there is a hole in the bucket, it’s going to drain out. There are many different ways we can get a ‘hole in the bucket’, such as having a lack of purpose or lack of challenge. It’s common for people to get everything they’ve ever wanted in life and still be unhappy.

When we get older and we’ve been successful, there can be this moment where you say: “Well, what’s it all about now? Because I was on this treadmill of success and now it doesn’t feel good.” Being happy is sometimes accepting that you’re going through a different stage in life and you have to start looking for a new kind of achievement, maybe the achievements got to be from within yourself rather than the external world.

What are some of the common traits in the people you’ve worked with that make them stand out in terms of having achieved success?

This is a difficult one. When I work with someone, I try to help them to understand themselves. One thing I’ve noticed is that people are driven by very different things. Sometimes the chimp mind is behind their success. The chimp mind is your best friend in that sense, you just need to know how to manage it well.

Sometimes it’s the human mind that’s driving success. If it’s the human mind, it can be because of altruistic reasons. You really want to help people and you want to make it a better world for everybody.

If it’s the chimp, it can still be altruistic, but success can often occur because you want to prove yourself. The devil is in the detail. Are you wanting to prove something to yourself? Or are you trying to prove something to your parents, your coach, or your team? I won’t know until I’ve asked this question.

There isn’t a concrete answer, but it’s all about understanding yourself. And when you’ve done that, and you’ve gotten yourself in a good place, you can get the best out of other people.

How can people deal with chronic stress using this framework to understand the mind?

Any chronic stress is not good. But again, the devil is in the detail. If I am someone who is in a high-pressure position with a lot to do and I feel like I am stressed, then the likelihood is that this is dangerous for me. However, if I take stress into my stride and genuinely embrace the adrenaline, evidence shows that I wouldn’t have any issue with my body living on this kind of energy – you would probably just get tired when the adrenaline drops.

It’s not easy to recognise chronic stress because the chimp mind has given you the obvious stress signal to start with, where there’s a terrible feeling, and then because you’ve ignored it, it turns into chronic stress.

A common example of this is the feeling of irritability. Somebody who is under stress is likely to come to me and when I ask them “what kind of person are you?”, they often say “I’m an irritable person. I’m pretty short-fused and I’m intolerant at times”. They have come to accept that this is who they are and will always be.

But actually, it isn’t who they are because they are who they want to be. So, if they say: “I don’t want to be like this, I want to be calm.” Then I can work with them on their mind to achieve that. I’m always amazed at how amazing they become when they actually start presenting as a calm, collected individual.

Yet, chronic stress is very unique to every person. It can present itself as irritability or anger outbursts. It can present with despondency, numbness or sleep disorders. Chronic stress is not as easy to recognise as acute stress.

Some experts say that working from home isn’t entirely beneficial for humans. What do you think about this?

It’s going to be unique to the individual but the general rule is no, it’s not good, because we are interactive creatures. We like our family and friends around us, we like to interact with people and obviously, when you’re working from home, you’re limited to your home. There are certain limitations of what you can and can’t do.

If you are in a good place psychologically, then the probability that you’ll be happier, have better peace of mind and be successful working from home is likely. If you’re not in a good place, then you could still be successful and happy, but the probability is lower. So, I’m imploring people to really consider whether you believe your psychological health is important to you.

Especially if it’s business people, I want to ask: “How important is your psychological health if you’re the boss or you’re in a team? How important is it that you get yourself in a good mental position to get the best out of yourself and have an influence on others?”

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