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Do you have Goblins and Gremlins in your mind?

How can we learn to understand and improve our bad habits and unwanted thoughts, feelings, and behaviours?

As Halloween approaches and we enjoy scaring ourselves and our friends with things that “go bump in the night”, why not turn your attention to those characters that can haunt us throughout the year? Our gremlins and goblins. 

In the Chimp model, gremlins are unhelpful or destructive beliefs or behaviours that we have learnt throughout our lives. Behind many Chimp outbursts or distress calls are hidden Gremlins which prod our Chimps into action. 

Screenshot 2022 10 31 at 12.49.37

Think about the last time you recognised your Chimp (i.e. a time when you noticed a thought, feeling, or behaviour; which was unwanted). It is likely that you can identify an unhelpful belief or behaviour that may be sitting behind this. 

For example, maybe you got frustrated this morning trying to get your child ready for school and out of the door on time so that you could get to work. Potentially the gremlin lurking is that my child ‘should‘ work to my timescales and understand my priorities. Or that my child being late is a reflection of my poor organisation. Or perhaps you have been putting off sending that e-mail to your boss and finding other “important” things to do. The gremlin of procrastination potentially supported a gremlin of perfectionism i.e. I can’t send the email until it’s completely polished and perfect. 

What makes us think this way?

We will often hold unhelpful beliefs about ourselves, other people and the world in general, so it can be helpful to consider what gremlins you can recognise in each of these areas. Once you start to become more aware of the beliefs that you may be holding, you will likely begin to notice the “gremlin twins” rearing their heads. The gremlin twins represent unhelpful and unrealistic expectations, often leading us to beat ourselves up and experience frustration with ourselves or those around us. Commonly these take the forms of “should” gremlins e.g:

  • I should never make a mistake.
  • I should always be on time.
  • My partner should understand.

Our unhelpful behaviours are often poor habits we have formed without even thinking.

For example:

  • Going to the fridge when we get bored whilst working from home.
  • Moaning about the day when we get home rather than smiling and greeting the people you want to be with.

The good news is that our gremlins can be replaced once we have recognised them and identified a more helpful alternative. For behavioural gremlins, it can be helpful to consider, “what else could you do in this situation?”

For example, when I get home, I could smile and tell my loved ones how much I’ve missed them. This introduces us to a much more friendly character in our mind management team, the autopilot. Autopilots represent helpful or constructive beliefs and behaviours. The idea is that once we have identified our gremlins, we can think of autopilots to replace them with, and then repeat these new beliefs or behaviours until they become automatic. 

Imagine that all of our unhelpful beliefs and behaviours are represented by pathways in the brain. Whilst it isn’t possible to delete a pathway we can replace it with another, which with repeated practice can become more dominant. Once we have identified the autopilots to replace our Gremlins, we need to be proactive in repeating these new beliefs and behaviours so that they become our go-to. We can practice our new autopilots in real life or by running through scenarios in our mind and imagining how we want to think and respond in certain situations. For example, next time you are putting off sending that e-mail you might have a little post-it reminder to ask “how will I feel at the end of the day if this still hasn’t been sent?” Or, you might spend a few minutes each evening thinking about the morning chaos, imagining yourself staying calm and reminding yourself that there are no guarantees a morning with children will go smoothly. Nobody is making you late on purpose.

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The Rules of the Mind

Rules of the Machine

“Information coming into the brain is sent first to the Chimp. If the Chimp senses danger it can shout down your logical, rational-thinking Human. The Chimp will then look into the Computer, where it can either be calmed down by an autopilot or further prodded by a Gremlin or Goblin. Only when the Chimp is calm does the real you i.e. the Human come into play.”

Whilst most unhelpful beliefs and behaviours can be identified and replaced in this manner, it’s important to understand that sometimes they can be more “hard-wired” into our brains. This is because they have been developed early in life, typically before the age of 8 or have occurred due to a traumatic experience. In the Chimp model, these are our Goblins. Goblins are also destructive beliefs or behaviours, however, these are very difficult or impossible to remove. They can be thought of as damage to the system. For example, having a turbulent childhood with some damaging experiences whilst the brain is developing, such as rejection by a parent, can lead to changes in the way the brain functions in later life. This could lead to a fear of rejection in future relationships which could be difficult or even impossible to change.

Rather than focussing on replacing them, our Goblins need to be recognised and contained. It is important to make the distinction between Goblins and Gremlins to stop us from trying to do the impossible and then feeling like we are failing. Often it can be necessary to seek professional support to help with this.

Both goblins and gremlins are stored in the computer, our mind’s “reference library” and therefore will become a source of information for the Chimp or Human when interpreting a situation or making a decision. They can therefore influence our behaviour and sabotage our functioning more regularly than we realise.

Often this is because we haven’t recognised that our Gremlins and Goblins are running or we are not challenging them. If you don’t give your computer some attention and spend time reprogramming it, you will keep noticing the same triggers and repeating the same unwanted behaviours. Our Chimps will keep adding gremlins throughout our lives so it’s important to regularly spend time reflecting on the day’s events. What Gremlins might the Chimp have added? What do you want to replace them with?

Maybe you delivered a presentation at work which hasn’t gone down as well as you would have liked. Your Chimp’s immediate reaction may have been “I’m just not good at public speaking” which if we are not careful might become a gremlin. The next time you are called upon to do something similar, this gremlin is likely to cause self-doubt and anxiety. To avoid this, we could engage our Human system to re-frame the day’s events. E.g. with competing priorities at the moment I did my best and got the key points across. The presentation didn’t need to be perfect. 

How can you improve your thinking, feeling and behaviours?

Whilst there are common gremlins that we see when working with clients, it’s important to note that your gremlins are unique to you, as your beliefs will differ from others. Building in some regular time focussed on identifying your gremlins, thinking of suitable autopilots and proactively practising them can reap huge rewards.

The traditions of Halloween have their roots in warding off ghosts. Hopefully, this year you can also take steps to focus on protecting yourself from the gremlins and goblins that reside in your mind!

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