Managing the Battle Between Conscious and Subconscious

My clients often ask me whether there is a particular book I would recommend which can – in simple terms – explain the battle between the conscious and the subconscious mind and how to manage it.

The Chimp Paradox by Steve Peters is a simple analogy describing exactly that.
So, what is the Chimp Paradox About?
The premise of The Chimp Paradox is that there are two separate entities in your head. A Chimp (the subconscious mind) and a Human (the conscious mind). The chimp is there to help you survive whilst the human is there to help you thrive. However, there are two problems:

• The chimp’s only goal is to keep you and your genes going, it is suited for survival in the wild.
• The BIGGER PROBLEM… We no longer live in the wild.

There are 3 key lessons that we can draw from the book:

Lesson 1:
There are two competing forces in your brain, so we must learn to recognize them. Peters describes our prefrontal cortex as the human part of our brain and our limbic system as our inner chimp.

The human acts rationally, based on facts, but the chimp only decides using emotions.
As you can imagine, this leads to problems whenever the two clash or the wrong one ends up in charge. Let’s say you got cut off in traffic and almost suffered a car accident. You come home to your partner and share this disturbing event. Trying to calm you down, they tell you that, luckily, nothing bad happened. If you’re still in monkey mode, you might take that as criticism and start an argument. However, if the human is in charge, you will calm down, and move on without making the situation worse. Therefore, the most important thing is to start observing your state of mind. When you feel the anxiety raising, ask yourself:

Who’s in charge here? Do I want to feel and act this way? Or is the chimp taking over?

Learning to observe this is the first, big step in mastering your inner monkey.

Lesson 2:
We communicate in four distinct modes:

• You’re using your human brain and so is your conversation partner.
• You are in human mode, but the person you’re talking to behaves like a chimp.
• You’re the chimp, while the other person’s human is in charge.
• Both of you behave like monkeys.

The first scenario is ideal, two and three are tough to figure out, but can be handled once you are aware of what you are dealing with, you can spot the signals and manage the chimp.
It’s the fourth scenario that’s to be avoided, because it most often ends in a bad and completely irrational argument.
How to avoid the fourth case scenario?

Explaining your reasoning in an assertive, calm, and respectful manner is the best way to avoid emotional responses and bring back others from the chimp to the rational human.

Lesson 3:
The chimp can become a fundamental obstacle to our long-term happiness if left unmanaged as it always wants to achieve more.

We should therefore stop to celebrate and appreciate our achievements as they come, no matter how small!

It’s great to always have goals, but when we achieve them, we don’t really take much of a break, and immediately dig into the next challenge.
Does it sound familiar? Well, that’s not healthy.
It’s also the chimp’s sneakiest trick. By always wanting more, he gets you to chase an illusionary, perfect state in which you can finally be happy – but only once you have achieved the next goal. Of course, there’s always a next goal and that feeling of relief never comes.

Your inner monkey will always dangle the next reward in front of you. Don’t let it ruin your long-term happiness. When you achieve something you’re proud of, take a break, celebrate, and learn to appreciate what you have.

Whilst it may sound it, the chimp is not inherently good or bad and if managed well can be a huge source of advantage – for example, if you’re struggling to complete a work task, you could get your chimp on board via negotiating with it and telling yourself completing this task competently will likely result in compliments from your work colleagues. As soon as the chimp recognises the possibility of external validation, it will help the human part of your brain to complete the work task.

Here are some examples of managing your chimp so your conscious and subconscious mind can coexist successfully.

Tactic #1 – distract the chimp

Let’s say your chimp has become uneasy at the thought of giving a public speech right before you are due to go on stage. Clearly you don’t have much time in this situation so a short-term solution can be to distract your chimp. For example, you may bargain with your chimp and say “once we’ve delivered this speech and done a good job, we can relax and order a pizza for dinner” – whilst this isn’t a long-term solution, it’s an effective option every so often.
Another distraction tip is to count to 10 before responding to situations in which you think your chimp might make an appearance. This gives the slower human part of the brain time to catch-up and weigh in before the chimp reacts in an unfavorable way.

Tactic #2 – exercise and then box the chimp

When your chimp (emotional part of your brain) begins to react to something negatively, you should first exercise it in an appropriate location.
For example, let’s say you’ve got upset over poor perceived treatment by a colleague – the first step would be to go somewhere private and exercise the chimp by allowing it to express its feelings, regardless of how irrational they may sound. This may be alone or even with somebody else who you trust but never with the subject of who is causing these emotions as the thoughts and feelings of the chimp could be damaging.
After your chimp has unloaded all the perceived issues, it will begin to tire itself out. At this point, the rational human side of the brain can step back in and ‘box’ the chimp with facts and truth to counter the emotional point of view.

You need to learn to live with and manage your chimp rather than fight against it as this is a biological fight you simply cannot win due to the limbic systems (chimp) power within your brain.

This is often misinterpreted as a sign that you cannot be held responsible for the actions of your chimp, but this is a fallacy – the book gives the example that the chimp is akin to a pet dog, you are responsible for its actions as the owner and can’t simply say ‘the dog ripped up your furniture, not me’ to absolve yourself of responsibility!

Finally, here are some of my favorite takeaways from The Chimp Paradox:

  • Your brain has an emotional centre ‘the chimp’ and a logical centre ‘the human’. The chimp is not inherently good or bad, but it is strong and must be nurtured and managed in order to live in a civilised society.
  • The chimp can be managed by distracting it with rewards or exercising it (expressing your feelings and emotions in a safe and neutral location) until it’s worn out and then boxing it with logic and rational facts.
  • The chimp is an evolutionary essential as it helps keep us safe and drives our other key needs via the fight, flight and freeze reactions. We simply cannot get rid of the chimp we can only manage it. We should therefore forgive ourselves when we fail to manage the chimp.
  • Your personality is the ‘human’ portion of your brain and whilst you are not responsible for the nature of the chimp, you are responsible for managing it.

Steve Peters is an English psychiatrist who works in elite sport. He is best known for his work with British Cycling. He has published four books, A Path Through the Jungle in 2021, The Chimp Paradox in 2012, My Hidden Chimp in 2018 and The Silent Guides in 2018.