Manage Your Mindset with The A-Team
April 13th, 2021
If you’re dealing with a big challenge, you’re often drawn to its physical or practical issues. This blog encourages you to also consider your mindset. If you want a book (or audio book) to explore mindset in more detail, I strongly recommend any one of the following three:
- The Chimp Paradox, by Steve Peters
- Positive Intelligence, by Shirzad Chamine
- Mindset, by Carol Dweck.
In different ways, all three articulate the view that our brains have two main parts:
1. The Growth Mindset aka Our Best Self, or Sage
As the names suggest, this part of the brain is ‘us on a good day’. It’s wise, empathetic, forgiving and discerning. It understands that things may not be as they first appear; that things are rarely black or white, good or bad. It accepts ambiguity and that very little is certain. It thinks before acting.
2. The Fixed Mindset aka Our Chimp, or Saboteurs
This part of our brain makes immediate judgements, sees things as good or bad and others as either friends or enemies. It’s fuelled by emotion and acts before thinking. It ensures your basic needs are prioritised and its tendency to worry and remain vigilant keeps you safe. Indeed, its evolutionary importance explains why it is often stronger than the ‘best self’ part of your brain. It’s also stubborn. If it decides it’s not going to do something, it’s unlikely that your ‘best self’ will be able to persuade it otherwise. This is why willpower alone rarely leads to sustained change.
So what can you do? Firstly, you need to accept that you can’t change your chimp’s nature; but you can manage its behaviour. To manage your chimp effectively, I recommend bringing in the A-Team. No, not the 1980s characters of BA, Murdoch, Hannibal and Face, but the A-Team of:
The first ‘A’ of managing your chimp involves being really aware of what it’s feeling. It’s easy to know when your chimp is dominating your thoughts and feelings; it’s anytime you’re having thoughts and feelings that you don’t want to be having. However, your chimp needs to feel listened to and understood. To do this, it helps to identify the specific emotion that’s causing your unhelpful thoughts. So if you’re not looking forward to the next part of your challenge, try and get beyond the common first response of ‘I just don’t feel like it’. Is it stress in relation to other things that need to be done today, or fear as to whether you’ll be able to manage it?
For example, during a recent personal challenge, going beyond the ‘I just don’t feel like it today’ made me appreciate that I was actually feeling feeble and inadequate, as I was struggling to do something I’d been able to do before.
By identifying the precise emotion, your chimp will know you’re aware of how it’s feeling and this will comfort it. It’s not uncommon to struggle with finding the precise feeling you’re feeling, so choosing from a list can be useful. One such list can be found here.
Once you’ve identified your emotion, the next ‘A’ is to accept it. If you’re not feeling a particularly positive emotion, this can be hard to do, but feeling bad about feeling bad is even worse. Accepting the emotion prevents this from happening, as acceptance takes the ‘heat’ out of the emotion. Negative emotions like lurking in the shadows. Acceptance brings them out into the light where they can’t last long. In my case, accepting that I was feeling feeble and ‘naming it’, helped avoid any sense of shame in feeling this way.
With the emotion not feeling as powerful, you can move onto the next ‘A’, attendance. Here the goal is to attend to your chimp, by finding simple statements that it will accept.
I give my chimp a name - it’s called Sparky. By trial and error, I’ve learnt Sparky accepts that;
“Everyone, including me, is allowed to have one bad day.”
Reminding Sparky of this during my challenging situation, helped calm him down and stopped him berating himself and me.
What will your chimp accept? Work out the short and simple statements that it will hear and accept.
The final ‘A’ is activate. Here the goal is to activate your chimp’s more positive attributes. So in my case, Sparky responded well to;
“I know you’re not enjoying this, but as soon as we get home you can have a nice hot bath, with a beer and some peanuts.” [Sparky loves peanuts!]
As soon as Sparky heard this, he was bought into getting the challenging situation done as quickly as possible.
With Sparky occupied and engaged, it also allowed me to activate some of my best self. I was able to empathise with how I was feeling and remind myself about why this challenging situation mattered and was worthwhile. In doing so, I was able to give my challenging situation a better narrative.
The narrative we construct around what happens to us is ultimately up to us. I hope being mindful of your two brains and using the A-Team of Awareness, Acceptance, Attendance and Activation, helps you construct the best possible narrative for you.