I first heard about the chimps we all have inside us back in the summer of last year. During my clambering out of the dark craziness which descended after my experience at the hands of Rosie (the tropical storm) and the aftermath of coming home, Dr Briony Nicholls – the fab psychotherepist on my team – talked about this chimp theory by a certain Dr Steve Peters. I bought his book, ‘The Chimp Paradox’ and sighed with relief. It all made sense.
His mind model describes the way our brains are divided up into three main centres which work in different ways and it is the interaction of them and our ability to control that interaction and referencing, that determines our state of mind and therefore our performance, amongst other things. He is pretty hot stuff by all accounts, being the psychologist with the British Cycling Team.
So – the three centres are:
- The animal centre (the chimp) which makes decisions and acts based on desires, instinct and emotion. It is impulsive.
- The human centre. This is logical, rational and makes decisions based on facts and truth.
- The computer. This is the reference centre of memories of past experience.
Chimp vs Human
The essence of the book is how best to balance the interplay of the human and your chimp. It is all about finding out what makes your chimp tick, what winds it up and calms it down etc and how to control it when it isn’t being useful, and let it out to work it’s magic when it is useful. Hence the ‘Chimp Paradox’ – your inner chimp can be your best mate or your worst enemy at times, depending on whether or not it is appropriate to have it in or out of its cage i.e. whether it is appropriate and necessary for you to be driven by emotion and instinct or reason and truth at any given time.
Ever since reading the book I have talked to my chimp. During the madness last summer when negative thoughts bombarded me and shouted day and night, I realised it was my chimp that was going a bit crazy and coming to terms with all that we had been through and the adrenaline. Shouting ‘Shut up Chimpy – this isn’t useful right now and I am trying to sort it out’ actually started to help.
My latest phonecast tried, in my very tired state, to describe just how Chimpy and I have been getting on recently. Chimpy took on a tangible form the other day when I opened my ‘halfway’ present from my pal Mylene Paquette, currently out rowing from Canada to France, alone. Given that I had suddenly found myself over half way with the new turn to Canada, I thought I was well allowed to open it – and drink it! It was a teeny bottle of fancy cider with a little finger puppet of a knitted chimp.
Wired and tired
The last week has been very emotional and adrenaline charged as my brain tries to make sense of our course change to Alaska. There is excitement, anxiety, a torrent of thoughts and chatterings. And not all of it is helpful. Poor little Chimpy has had a lot to say about everything as he tries to figure it all out and come to terms with everything. Chimpy likes to feel safe, secure and have fixed goals and feel in control of things – though of course my rational self knows that out here on the ocean control is not always very possible of anything other than, ironically, my chimp.
It all came to a head yesterday – Chimpy and I were utterly exhausted, having only slept about three hours in 24 since last Friday through our totally wired states. My usual tricks of thinking on ‘Good Things About Today’, and reading and music weren’t helping. External comms from my team needed tweaking too, so that they synced with my state of mind in the boat.
It’s Ok Chimpy
The one thing that was helping was to put Chimpy on my finger and talk to him gently and reassuringly, encouraging him to chill for a bit and snooze. After all, we need all the sleep we can get it we are to row as much as possible as effectively as possible, and be in the best shape to make safe, sound decisions. As it was, on Wednesday in rough seas I made the potentially fatal mistake of clipping my safety line to itself rather than the rail as I worked with some sea anchor lines. Going too far down that state and you get meltdown – not a good thing on a wee boat.
So, I pulled out my trump card – a phone call with Briony. We have worked together since the Indian Ocean and Briony has helped me through the ups and downs of expedition life and homecomings, successes and failures and leading and managing my team from afar. Being as emotionally balanced and aware as possible is the key to success on an expedition – or at least the human part of it – and I think there is much to be said for taking time to figure out how you work, think and react in different situations and how to get the best out of yourself under stress. Bri helps me do just that.
I am pleased to report that after my long chat with Bri and refocusing on a few things, and reiterating to the team various points on communications, that Chimpy was a lot calmer. He slept inside all day yesterday while Happy Socks and I rowed and we both curled up together, totally spent and much much calmer at 11pm and slept a full six hours. Then this morning we went back to sleep for another four. I was also really happy to let out some tears too – which flowed freely while listening to that wonderful humming track from the London Olympics opening ceremony last year.
So for now, Chimpy and I are calm and feel in control of ourselves again. There is still lots of adjusting to do, but we are getting there. If we always come back to this calm state of equilibrium then that’s OK, though the massive swings are exhausting and all the more so for being alone in a tiny wee boat miles out to sea.
We are currently 330 miles from Adak Island on a really good course. The weekend brings with it a fairly chunky storm, so progress will slow for a few days while Chimpy and I sit tight in the cabin.
Then it is back to the cold wet foggy rowing of the last few days as we eek our way northwards.
Thanks for all the lovely comments to the Alaskan plan folks. Chimpy and I are stoked to be so well supported.
Sarah, Happy Socks and Chimpy x