How to Keep a Positive Mindset: Expert Advice

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Chimp Paradox" by Steve Peters. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you want to find out how to keep a positive mindset? How can Steve Peters’ advice help you to avoid negative thinking? What does he mean by your inner Computer? 

In The Chimp Paradox, Steve Peters introduces his popular chimp model, where the mind is separated into an emotional “chimp brain” and a rational “human brain.” Part of this theory is your inner Computer, which can guide your decisions and behavior and show you how to keep a positive mindset. 

If you want to know how to keep a positive mindset, Steve Peters’ advice can help. Keep reading to find out more. 

How to Keep a Positive Mindset: Your Inner Computer

If you want to know how to keep a positive mindset, you should first know about Steve Peters’ idea of the inner Computer. 

According to Peters, your Computer is a set of beliefs, habits, and knowledge that allows you to make most of your decisions without thinking about them. It automates your actions so that you don’t have to think carefully about, for example, how to make a cup of coffee every time you do it. Because its reactions are automated, your Computer makes decisions approximately four times faster than your Chimp (emotional brain) does and about 20 times faster than your Human (rational brain). 

Because your Computer is a record of habits of behavior, it acts as a guide when your Chimp and Human aren’t sure how to react to a situation. They’ll check with your Computer to see how they’ve reacted to previous situations in order to figure out how to act in new situations. 

When you’re born, your Computer is an empty program. As you grow, your Chimp and Human input their learned behaviors and beliefs into your Computer. Because these beliefs and habits are learned, and not innate in the way that the Chimp’s instincts are innate, you can remove or relearn any beliefs or habits you decide to, if you put the effort in. Unfortunately, most of us don’t, and consequently, we let our Computer do our thinking without questioning it. Your computer has four elements that drive it: 

Autopilots

Autopilots are the positive habits and beliefs that drive our actions in constructive ways. These inputs can be added to the Computer at any stage of your life. They include things like riding a bike, establishing time management habits, and remaining calm when you experience setbacks. Knowing about how autopilots work in Steve Peters’ theory is key to knowing how to keep a positive mindset. 

If you’ve filled your Computer with positive Autopilots, they can trigger your reactions before your Chimp (emotional brain) gets to—remember, your Computer thinks four times as fast as your Chimp. For example, imagine someone cuts you off on the road and your Chimp gets angry. If you have an Autopilot that automatically says, “Not worth the fight,” then your Chimp won’t even get a chance to react. 

Goblins

Goblins are unhelpful habits and beliefs that are extremely hard to correct or remove. They are usually added to your Computer early in your life, which is why they are hard to remove—they’ve become hard-wired into your brain, and consequently, you may need to learn to manage them rather than remove them.

An example of a Goblin is the belief that you must achieve certain markers of success in order to be loved. People raised by well-meaning parents who praise their test scores or art projects sometimes develop this belief, so that they don’t feel worthy of love if they do something mediocre. 

Goblins become powerful when they combine negative thoughts with instincts and drives of your Chimp. In the above example, a child raised to feel loved only when she’s produced something praiseworthy is also reacting to the Chimp’s need to be socially accepted by others. In this way, if you want to know how to keep a positive mindset, knowing about these inner Goblins can help. 

Gremlins

A Gremlin is also an unhelpful habit or belief, but it’s one that’s easier to relearn or remove from your Computer because it’s a newer addition than Goblins. Gremlins are created by your Chimp—for example, if your boss often criticizes you, your Chimp may react negatively and input into your Computer the thought (the Gremlin) that “all bosses criticize frequently.” This Gremlin is easier to unlearn than a Goblin, which is a more deep-seated belief, because you can discover from experience that not all bosses are highly critical.   

Examples of common Gremlins are unrealistic expectations, which set you up for failure by putting pressure on you to live up to standards you can’t possibly live up to. Once you’ve failed to meet your unrealistic expectations, you’ll be filled with negative feelings of disappointment or anger. For instance, if you believe it’s never okay to be late for appointments, you’ll feel angry and disappointed with yourself and with others if something happens to make you or others late (and at some point, something will). Unlearning this negative belief can reduce unnecessary stress. Similarly, if you expect other people to never be late, you’ll end up disappointed. 

Stone of Life

The Stone of Life is the collection of beliefs and values that define how you see the world and what you see your purpose as. It’s the reference source that your Autopilots and Gremlins look to for guidance on how to act. This includes your beliefs, values, and purpose. 

Understanding Your Mindset

The four elements of your Computer outlined above combine to form your mindset. Your mindset is the way in which you see yourself, other people, and the world in which you live. 

If you have a lot of Autopilots and you have generally positive beliefs about your intelligence and competence, you’re likely to have an upbeat mindset, seeing yourself in a good position against other people and feeling secure in your place in the world. You’ll bounce out of bed each morning ready to interact with the world. On the other hand, if you have a lot of Goblins or Gremlins, and you have negative beliefs about your intelligence and competence, you’re likely to have a depressed, anxious, or aggressive mindset. You might see the world as a hostile place you must struggle to survive in, and you might be reluctant to connect with other people in a meaningful way, afraid they’ll discover your incompetence. 

Managing Your Computer

If you want to know how to keep a positive mindset, you must manage your computer. To manage your Computer, you’ll need to establish some positive thoughts and habits. To do this:

  1. Replace Gremlins with Autopilots
  2. Prevent more Gremlins from entering Computer

1. Replacing Gremlins With Autopilots

As we’ve said earlier, whenever the Chimp or the Human receives messages and has to decide how to act, they look to the Computer for guidance. If they get feedback from a relaxed, happy Autopilot, they are likely to act appropriately. However, if they get feedback from an agitated Gremlin, they are likely to act destructively. Therefore, it’s important you fill your Computer with lots of Autopilots and get rid of as many Gremlins as you can. 

It can be hard to spot your Gremlins because they can be deeply embedded in your psyche, but you can root them out by acknowledging when you have a negative feeling and asking yourself what you were thinking that brought on that feeling. Then ask yourself if that thought is helpful or true. For example, if someone asks you for help on a work project, and you start feeling upset, ask yourself why you’re having that feeling. Your Gremlin might say that this person asks you for help a lot, and it feels unfair. Then ask yourself if this thought is true—does she actually ask for help a lot? Is it unfair, or does she also offer help when you need it?

You might need to dig deeper, as often there are other Gremlins hiding behind the first one. So, in this example, maybe there’s another Gremlin in your Computer that makes you feel obligated to say “yes” to requests for help, even when you would rather say “no.” Again, probe your belief: What do you think someone will feel about you if you say “no”? What will happen if you say “no”? 

Then, counter your answers to these questions with truths. For example, if you believe someone will think you’re lazy if you say “no,” remind yourself that saying “no” is an appropriate, adult response for someone who has reasonable boundaries. Also remind yourself that if you say “no,” the other person—if that person is a respectful, mature person—will understand that you can’t say yes to everything. This new understanding can become your Autopilot, so that when someone asks you for a favor that you don’t want to give, your Autopilot can take over and respond with a polite “no” rather than your Gremlin filling you with resentment. 

It can take a lot of time to successfully remove a Gremlin by countering its negative thinking with questions and then positive, truthful logic. Keep working at it until you have successfully replaced your Gremlin with an Autopilot that shows you a better way to react. If you want to know how to have a positive attitude, this can help. 

Replace “Should” With “Could”

A common Gremlin that can easily cause you negative feelings is any statement that contains inflexible words like “should” or “must.” By replacing such words with “could” or “might,” you can change your reactions to triggers. For example, instead of thinking “My work space should be better organized,” think, “My work space could be better organized.” This will replace feelings of failure with feelings of aspiration, and will be easier for you to live with. 

Divide and Conquer Multiple Gremlins

If you find yourself in a stressful situation where you’re overwhelmed by multiple Gremlins, deal with each one individually. To do this, write down each negative thought and emotion as it comes to you. This will help you to see the range of issues and insecurities you might be dealing with. So, for example, if you’re throwing a holiday party for your judgmental in-laws, write down each worry that you might have, then question each one in turn and respond to it with logic.

2. Prevent More Gremlins From Entering Computer

As we’ve discussed, your Chimp and Human add inputs to your Computer when you have experiences. Therefore, interpret new experiences you have carefully to make sure you’re not introducing new Gremlins to your Computer. This can help you to understand how to keep a positive mindset and how to have a positive attitude. 

For example, if someone at work speaks shortly to you, your Chimp might interpret her words with any of these Gremlins:

  • She doesn’t like me.
  • She’s a horrible person.
  • Nobody likes me.

Before allowing your Chimp to add those Gremlins to your Computer, allow your Human a turn. Your Human might have these Autopilot thoughts:

  • I wonder why she was cold to me.
  • Maybe she is having a hard day.
  • Maybe I upset her earlier; I need to find out and apologize if so. 

If you allow yourself to choose between the Chimp and Human’s responses, you might follow up with your coworker and find out that she has a migraine. Of course, you might find out that she actually doesn’t like you—but that’s okay. Another Autopilot you can add to your Computer would then be, “Not everyone likes me, and that’s just something I have to accept.”

The above advice from Steve Peters can teach you how to have a positive attitude and mindset. 

How to Keep a Positive Mindset: Expert Advice

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  • Why we struggle to control our urges, succumb to temptation, and sabotage our own success
  • How to manage your inner chimp to become happier, more balanced, and successful
  • Why your psychological world is like a solar system with 7 planets

Elizabeth Shaw

Elizabeth graduated from Newcastle University with a degree in English Literature. Growing up, she enjoyed reading fairy tales, Beatrix Potter stories, and The Wind in the Willows. As of today, her all-time favorite book is Wuthering Heights, with Jane Eyre as a close second. Elizabeth has branched out to non-fiction since graduating and particularly enjoys books relating to mindfulness, self-improvement, history, and philosophy.

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