Changing Your Internal Narrative

It is widely recognised that as humans we all have a sort of split personality.

In our brain at its core, the limbic system, we have our lesser evolved chimp. This deals with emotions or feelings and controls things like our flight reflex which is independent from our more evolved frontal lobe area that deals with truth, facts, & logic.

During our evolution this separation was necessary for survival: big hairy roaring thing with teeth. Don’t think about it, run!

However, in the modern-day things are a lot more nuanced and it is not always helpful for us to be in situations that feel threatening and react as our chimp wants us to.

And herein lies the rub: Mr or Ms Chimp can remain in control if not managed properly.

If you, like me, suffer unduly from anxiety or constant unhelpful thoughts – thoughts that the logical (human) part of your brain knows to be irrational – then the chimp is probably in charge. That is to say, it’s your chimp who is providing that constant internal heckling.

As Dr Steve Peters, author of the Chimp Paradox, puts it (my emphasis):

When stress hits, in whatever form, the Chimp will always react first. It isn’t possible to stop this and in some instances it could actually save your life. So the first reaction you will get will always be a Chimp one. This is normal and healthy – although it is not always helpful.

Managing your chimp isn’t as hard as you might think.

The chimp can be trained. We need to recognise that the chimp is stronger than us, but not that clever, so we need to put systems in place that recognise when we’re reacting to the chimp’s directives and take charge.

This is also relevant for ‘normal’ people and by normal I mean where the chimp/human battle might seem to be more balanced or the outcomes less severe.

We all have a default mode of operation. A way that we think and how we do things.

As we get older we start to think that this is us and we’re not going to change. Something about old dogs, right?

Thoughts like:

  • I’m no good
  • I am not a morning person
  • Other people are better than me
  • I don’t do exercise
  • I can’t write
  • I’m not going to do [that thing], what will people think?
  • I can’t stop eating cake

Internal narratives like these are a much less severe – and indeed socially acceptable – form of this irrational thinking, but our chimps are still in control here.

Physical barriers to action notwithstanding, be these barriers financial, a disability or not having the correct skills,  I would argue – No. I know from direct experience – that we can change what our chimp narrator tells us.

It’s all about training and practice. Forming new habits that keep the chimp in line.

If this resonates with you and you’re ready for a change then why not attempt to change something?

To start, simply recognise the thoughts that you don’t welcome. Note them down.

Do an 80/20 analysis. What 20% of these negative or unhelpful thoughts are causing you the majority of discomfort?

Then, take action.

  • Choose the top one, only one; the one thing that you most would like to change
  • Start slow. Don’t go all-in. Build momentum
  • Recognise that you’re winning. Keeping a simple log of progress will do wonders for your confidence and give clear evidence that you’re improving
  • Celebrate. Reward yourself for your efforts. This is positive reinforcement

You will then understand that you can affect positive change.

If you’ve done it once you can do it again, so why not consider going back to your list and choose the next one?

That inner narrator – Mr or Ms Chimp – can be the source of unwelcome thoughts or feelings. These might not be severe, if so good for you, but even so you still might not be completely happy with your situation.

The good news is you can change. By choosing the thing that causes you the most discomfort you’ll be most motivated to put the effort to change it. Once you have done this once you’ll recognise that some of the limits you have imposed upon yourself may not actually exist. This can spur you on to make further changes.

Try it, you might surprise yourself.

This post is one of 30 I wrote daily during April 2016 as part of the 30 Day Writing Challenge, updated (slightly tidied up) in October for Geek Mental Help Week